This article appeared in the Lifestyle section of the Abilene Reporter-News on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1991.
By Jerry Reed
Bill Teague’s odyssey from boyhood hometown to the town he calls home can be measured in distances far greater than the 175 road miles between Nocona and Abilene.
Between the time Billy Jack Teague left Nocona to attend college and maybe play a little basketball, and Dr. William J. Teague came back to Abilene Christian University, he had traveled light-years between the small-town boy he was to the corporate executive and university president – and now chancellor – he became. Along the way, Teague served four years of duty in the
U.S. Navy, preached a bit, worked as an administrator for three Church of Christ related colleges and universities and as a vice president of two Fortune 500 corporations, as well as taking a couple of runs at a seat in Congress.
(P.S.: He very nearly won in his first race.)
Teague founded and operated his own business management company in the Los Angeles area for several years before accepting his first of his two corporate executive jobs with Purex Industries Inc. of Lakewood, California.
During those years, Teague’s life brushed up against three major national events: the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, the “Koreagate” congressional scandals and the celebrated Karen Silkwood incident in Oklahoma, both in the ’70s.
Although not a major player in any of those events, the coincidence of timing led Teague to deal with each in a minor way.
The Watts riots happened back when the Pepperdine University campus where Teague worked was next door to the blighted minority residential neighborhood in south central Los Angeles.
When Watts exploded, Teague happened to be the ranking university official around, so it fell under his duty to order the campus closed until order and safety were restored.
An acclaimed fund-raiser, Teague is credited with helping Pepperdine find the millions it needed to move to its picture-book campus by the sea at Malibu.
In 1968, Teague decided to run for a Southern California congressional seat then held by two-term Democratic Rep. Richard T. Hanna. The incumbent, who previously had won with at least 55 percent of the vote, got the scare of his political life from Teague. He squeaked by the expatriate Texan with a 50.9-49.1 margin, less than 4,000 votes out of 206,940 cast.
“Strangely enough, I got more votes on election day than he did,” Teague likes to say. Hanna won only because he’d piled up a solid absentee vote advantage before regular voting started, Teague explained.
Hanna, who beat Teague again by a more comfortable margin in 1970, wound up resigning his seat in 1974 in the “Koreagate” scandal, and ultimately went to federal prison in 1978 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.
The first and only congressman convicted in the scandal, Hanna admitted to accepting money from a South Korean businessman to influence fellow congressmen to vote in favor of South Korean interests.
Teague said he’d gotten an early whiff of financial improprieties by Hanna while running against him, but failed to persuade the Los Angeles Times to run with the story. The editors chose to protect Hanna because the congressman could help land the ocean liner Queen Mary for Long Beach, a pet project of their newspaper, Teague said an editor told him in a candid moment.
The editor also told him it was then too late in the campaign to give the incumbent a fair chance to reply to the accusations, a point that cut no ice with Teague.
“I said, ‘Well, you ran the George Murphy material when George didn’t have a chance to respond’,” Teague said.
Murphy, a dancer-actor, had been elected a Republican U.S. senator by Californians in 1964, but lost his re-election bid in 1970, at least partly due to allegations of an improper financial arrangement with Technicolor.
His politicking done, Teague turned his full energies to his consulting firm, William J. Teague Associates, before hiring on in 1970 as an administrative assistant at Purex, which later promoted him to administrative vice president.
From Purex, he moved in 1978 to the administrative vice presidency of the Kerr- McGee Corp., relocating to greater Oklahoma City. There he soon ran smack-dab into the Karen Silkwood nuclear contamination controversy.
“The Silkwood incident happened quite a while before I came, but the trial took place while I was there,” he said.
An Oklahoma jury in 1979 decided that Kerr-McGee should pay $10 million to the Silkwood survivors, and Teague was thrust into the role as company spokesperson.
“And as such, I had the benefit of being misquoted by foreign reports and television people,” he said.
Silkwood, a 28-year-old worker at Kerr-McGee’s suburban Oklahoma City plutonium plant, was found to be contaminated by plutonium, and blamed lax safety procedures at the plant for her plight.
Teague said the jury failed to follow evidence that showed Silkwood left the plant uncontaminated, only to return to work contaminated.
Silkwood died in 1974 in a one-car crash nine days after her contamination was discovered, an accident that some saw as highly suspicious. She was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter, supposedly to pass on information about the Kerr-McGee plant’s safety practices.
Teague, who said he purposely avoided seeing the film Silkwood, said he understands that the screen portrayal captured Silkwood’s countercultural lifestyle well, but did less well in accurately portraying the plant safety issue. The Times reporter Silkwood was supposed to meet spent a lot of time digging into the Silkwood affair, but produced nothing, Teague said.
“He never – as far as I can tell – wrote a line,” Teague said. “He had a running start on it. I’ve always wondered why (he didn’t write about it). I have no answer for it,” he said.
Another writer who came to Oklahoma City to gather material for a screenplay frankly told him he was out to make a movie, whether that required a script 90 percent faithful to the facts, or 10 percent, Teague said.
After some ups and downs in the federal appeals courts, including a mostly favorable ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Silkwood family eventually settled with Kerr-McGee for more than $1 million.
Leaving the Fortune 500 world in 1981 for the presidency of ACU, his alma mater, didn’t end Teague’s acquaintance with controversy, but it did make the arena of conflict smaller and more local.
At ACU, he has dealt with students and alumni worried about the classroom handling of biological evolution, sports fans who hated to see winning athletic programs end with the departure of coaches who neglected matters more important than winning games, and with business faculty and students who had a different vision of the business school’s direction than did he.
Both Teague’s predecessor and his successor give him high marks for handling the evolution controversy in the mid-1980s, which had been fueled by accusations from an Alabama Bible college professor and a 27-year-old biology major that two ACU professors were advocating evolution in their teaching about the Darwinian theory.
“I credit Bill Teague’s bold leadership in bringing us out of that with the minimum amount of damage,” said Dr. Royce Money, who succeeded Teague as president last spring.
Dr. John Stevens, the man Teague succeeded both as president and chancellor, agreed.
Among a conservative church brotherhood, Stevens said, “you’re likely to have some people who start saying you’re actually advocating those ideas.”
But acquainting biology students with evolutionary theory is like familiarizing political science students with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, he said.
“I think we lost some students as a result, but in the long run you’ve got to maintain your integrity,” he said.
Stevens reckoned the evolution furor may have decided some Church of Christ families against sending their children to ACU, “but on the other hand, I think maybe there are other people who did” because of the stand Teague took, he said. Stevens also praises Teague for his sticking to his guns in demanding that athletic coaches re-emphasize classroom success for their players, after finding that very few men’s basketball players were graduating.
“Consequently, we lost about 39 straight basketball games” after the coach left, Stevens said. But he was pleased to note that the current ACU men’s team is competitive again, boasting a 6-2 won-loss mark going into this weekend.
ACU’s track team had won a string of six consecutive national titles before its coach also departed in a showdown over policies and priorities in the athletic department.
Teague was born July 12, 1927, on an oil lease near Olney in Young County, the youngest of six sons born to Dudley Thomas and Sudie Teague. When Bill was three, the Teagues moved to Archer City, and before her started school, again to an oil lease north of Nocona.
He attended school through his sophomore year at Valley View near Nocona, before the family moved to town when the father had to quit his job due to ill health.
Dudley Teague, a Texas Company (now Texaco) employee, died in 1942, shortly after the family settled in Nocona.
Bill graduated from Nocona High School in 1944 and enrolled at the University of Texas, intending to play basketball. But a year later, he enlisted in the Navy and wound up stationed in San Diego. He repeatedly put in for assignment to a ship bound for China, he said, but always was refused because he was the captain’s yeoman (clerk-typist), and the captain hated to break in new office help.
San Diego was a port of destiny for Teague, because there he met, in church, a Southern California girl of Southern birth and charm named Margaret Louise “Peggy” Newlen.
The couple was married June 4, 1948, and when Teague got his separation papers from the Navy in September 1949, he drove his family, which now included 3-month-old Tom, back to Texas.
This time, Abilene Christian College rather than the University of Texas was his school of choice.
Married with family and facing a deadline to cash in his G.I. education benefits from his naval service, Teague was serious about his education.
“I was in TAC speed mode to finish my degree,” he said.
With the help of credits he’d earned in U.S. Armed Forces Institute (USAFI) correspondence courses, and a 21-credit-hour semester, Teague finished his degree in Bible in January 1952.
He preached two years at a Holliday church in those ACC days, and as a Bible major intent on preaching, he sought a Navy chaplain’s commission. But a clerical mix-up left him uncertain as to whether he’d passed his physical.
As he tried to sort it out, he was finally told to go home and do nothing until he heard from the Navy.
“And I hadn’t,” he said dryly.
“I finished here, and kind of fell in love with Christian education, and what was going on here,” Teague explained his sticking around after graduation.
He had worked at ACC as the first student manager of the campus radio station, a post that gave him an introduction to campus VIPs such as legendary president Dr. Don H. Morris. He leaned on that acquaintance.
“I went to Don H. Morris and said ‘I would like to be of assistance to the college, if there is any opening,’ ” Teague said. “And he thought I’d asked to be his assistant.”
Ask and you shall receive, even if you don’t know you’re asking for it, as it turned out. Starting out as alumni secretary, Teague became executive assistant to the president for development after handling most of the workload of the position while it stayed vacant for several months.
He and Morris had interviewed numerous candidates for the position, without success, before Morris told him one day he had just the right man in mind: Teague himself.
“Really, my mental image of the right person for the job would find me too young, too inexperienced,” Teague said. “I really never thought of myself because I was concentrating on my shortcomings rather than what I had to offer,” he said. It’s a failing few notice these days in the self-confident Teague.
From ACC, Teague moved on to Harding College in 1957, to give him a chance to work on an advanced degree at the prestigious Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City.
“You can go up there and work on your master’s while you call on foundations for Harding,” he said Harding president George S. Benson told him.
After two years with Harding, the Teagues moved back to the West Coast, to Pepperdine University, to work under M. Norvel Young.
He took a leave of absence from Pepperdine in 1968 to run for Congress and then resigned in 1969 to run his management services company.
“We would find out what a business needed, and we’d just go in and do it,” he said.
“For a while, we managed a chain of steakhouses while they were getting started and finding their own continuing management,” he said.
The start-up help William J. Teague Associates gave filled a niche, he said, “because very often the kind of person you need to get it up and running is not the kind of person you need once you’ve got it up and running.”
Although it was an exciting business, it also had its drawbacks, he said. Going all out for the current client often would leave him with no time to prospect for new clients to serve once the current job ended, he said.
He’d done some work for Purex, but when he went to the Purex CEO to ask him for a favorable reference to help his job application at BankAmerica, the executive refused.
Taken aback, Teague asked, “Why not?”
“He said, ‘Well, that would be kind of stupid for me to recommend you to them when I want to hire you.’ ” Teague took the job with Kerr-McGee in 1978 because he had been offered an interview and one of his cardinal rules was never to turn down an interview, whether interested in the job or not.
“Go to every interview; you learn something from the interview,” he explained. The ACU position evolved from a call by an ACU representative who told him he ought to meet with the search committee, he said.
It was a chance to work at a vocation with a “cause-driven orientation,” he said, as well as a greater opportunity for him and Peggy to work together as a team than when he was a corporate executive.
All three of the Teague children – Tom, Susan and Helen – had attended ACU, and Teague had kept in touch with what the university was doing by serving as a National Board member, he said.
“I knew the initiatives that John Stevens was pushing forward, toward greater and greater academic excellence,” he said.
“And if Peg and I could make a contribution to keeping those initiatives going forward, we’d be doing something we were both really sold on,” he said. His 10 year-presidency ended on May 31, when he stepped down to the chancellorship that Morris and Stevens had held before him.
In the job swap, he managed to turn off the unending pressure that comes with the territory of a university president.
“I think anybody who doesn’t have total budget responsibility is going to be more relaxed than when he has it,” Teague told a visitor to his chancellor’s office several weeks after turning over the presidential reins to Money.
“You’re able to devote more time to an important topic without being irresistibly drawn away to another topic, which fractures your concentration,” he said.
The chancellorship leaves him slack time that he can use to pursue some other interests, such as teaching and pursuing economic development for Abilene. Next semester, he’ll teach an upper-level business course titled “Executive Decision-Making,” a subject to which he can bring a wealth of practical experience.
In October, Teague also took over the chairmanship of the Abilene Industrial Foundation, which friends and associates think is a job tailor-made for him. Gary Vest, president of the Industrial, said Teague is valuable for his ideas on attracting industry to Abilene, and for drawing on contacts he already has made in the corporate world.
“He’s kind of hands-on, rolled-up sleeves,” said Mike Morrison, director of community and economic development for the city of Abilene.
Teague’s business contacts will continue to serve ACU well, too, Money expects.
“In the years ahead, he will be focusing his attention on increasing our endowment,” said Money. Teague’s presidency saw the endowment tripled, from $18 million to $56 million, Money observed.
It helps that Teague doesn’t shy away from asking for money, Stevens said.
“He doesn’t come on too strong, but he does get around to asking for the order, and he is successful,” Stevens said.
It’s hard to know Teague without observing his quick and sometimes barbed wit. In fact, friends say it’s downright hard to get the last word in on him.
Oilman John Chalmers, a neighbor of Teague’s, recalled an occasion when they had moved through a buffet line together to reach the gravy, and decided to impress Teague with his humble origins.
“Bill, I was kind of raised on gravy back home,” Chalmers casually mentioned.
“Our gravy wasn’t that thick,” Teague shot back.
No one is likely to out-poor-boy Teague, who is apt to say outlandish things about growing up in Nocona, such as: “We could only afford rickets in one leg at a time.”
Stevens warns anyone who would “roast” Teague to please be aware he’ll be up next.
In fact, he got in a pre-emptive strike at his last panel of roasters, labeling one “the poster boy for the charismatically impaired,” another as the potential lead in the Roseanne Barr story, and the third as a television commentator who could not otherwise get people to listen to him.
An accomplished speaker, Teague could hold his own as a stand-up comedian, Stevens insists.
Teague believes he inherited some of his humor from his mother, who lived to be 95 and outlived all but her youngest son, despite a life that had its share of hardship and tragedy.
Born just plain Bill, Teague later added Jack out of admiration of the “all- American boy” Jack Armstrong, then legally changed his name to William for professional reasons after moving to California.
Once after his mother saw the name “William J. Teague” in a church publication, she remarked to a friend who went on about how proud she must have felt: “I don’t know about that. He’s moved to California, become a Republican and changed his name. I’m not sure I know who that is!”
A compact man who keeps fit partly by playing tennis, Teague is as much a presence on the court as he is in the boardroom or at the podium.
“He likes to play, and likes to have fun, he likes to win,” said Farrell Reeder, a frequent tennis companion.
Sometimes when he makes a particularly fine play, Teague will holler out loud and push his racquet down his side to pantomime returning his saber to its scabbard after vanquishing an adversary, Reeder said.
For all the talent and energy Teague can throw into improving his beloved university’s financial standing, raising its academic standing remains an abiding interest with him.
“In the rapidly-approaching 21st century, the role schools such as ACU play can only grow in importance,” he said.
The focus of education must increasingly be on learning how to learn, in order for students to cope with the constantly changing marketplace they’ll face, he said.
The students must learn not to be comfortable with the status quo, but to learn to live with ambiguity, said Teague. They also must learn how to deal ethically in the marketplace, or they’ll fall out somewhere on the corporate ladder, he said.
In the world so rapidly changing, one must have some values to hang on to, he said.
“That’s where we should be doing our best work, in teaching the fundamental, changeless values of the Bible.”