IN A SUNNY corner of the River Oaks home he shares with his internationally famous socialite wife, Oscar Wyatt laughs easily and makes guests feel welcome. A photographer here to take his portrait this morning remarks how jovial and funny he is, as when he intercepts a question intended for wife Lynn with the timing of a seasoned stand-up.
"Why did you marry Oscar?" an interviewer asks.
After three full beats, with the query hanging in the air in advance of Lynn's reply, he belts out in comical mock exasperation, "Oh hell!" — and the room erupts in laughter.
That's just about all he'll have to say today. After a stroke a few years ago, Oscar, now 97, is more mellow and less boisterous and talkative than he would have been in his heyday as one of Texas' most notable — and at times controversial — oilmen. Back when "gruff" and "abrasive" were among the most typical words used to describe him.
He's "a throwback to the independent oilmen of another era, the ones who dug out a fortune virtually with their hands and fought hard to expand it," said Gov. John Connally of his friend Oscar in the late politician's memoir, noting the rise of Oscar's Coastal Corporation and his rough-and-tumble international deal making. "He isn't the kind of fellow who has to look at a horseshoe all day before he pitches it.
"Often blunt and sometimes profane, he is a man capable of surprising warmth and sentiment and charity," said Connally. The former governor joined Oscar on a trip to Iraq in 1990 during which the oil tycoon is credited with convincing Saddam Hussein to release a group of American hostages.
It turns out that Oscar is many things. Not just a magnate who had raised himself from poverty. Not just a former Aggie lineman and used car salesman, among other things, who took out an $800 loan against his truck to start a company that would later be worth billions.
(The loan story prompted Henry Ford II to weigh in, in a 1986 letter. "For over 80 years, Ford Motor Company has produced quality products for the motoring public, and I have heard many accounts of the uses to which our products have been put," Ford wrote. "Some have been unusual, some even bizarre. But none equals what I have heard about your 1949 Ford." Ford went on to note his dismay at the rather modest amount of the loan secured by "such a fine automobile." He added, "Obviously, the loan was over-collateralized.")
Besides the storied business success, Oscar is also an accomplished aviator who was an active pilot for some 70 years. It wasn't until his stroke in 2008 that he left the cockpit.
Lynn and Oscar Wyatt at home in River Oaks, summer 2021(photo by Jhane Hoang)
Oscar Wyatt as a young military pilot in World War II
Oscar and Lynn at a society wedding at the Met in New York in 1988
Oscar Wyatt and friend on the roof of his Coastal oil and gas company in Houston in 1990
His history in the air — which included unmitigated heroism in the second world war — is being honored at the Lone Star Flight Museum's "Broad Stripes and Bright Stars" gala on Dec. 4. Although it's hard to believe, given that Lynn is roundly considered the queen of Houston society and has thus been honored dozens, maybe hundreds of times at various fetes and fundraisers over many decades, the museum ball will mark the first time Oscar has ever been individually honored at such an event.
Lynn surely feels the time has come. "But he just never thinks about himself like that," she says. "He never talks about himself, never brags about himself."
This is part of how she answers that question about why she married him in the first place him back in 1963. "I'd never met a man like that," she says. She was impressed by his take-charge nature, his worldliness, his imposing stature and the fact that he was 11 years older. "You could name any country, and he'd already been there. He knew how to solve every problem, had an answer for everything. I felt so safe with him.
"He never complains," she adds. "Even when he got that stroke, he took it just like nothing happened. I'm so proud of him."
Of the decision to honor Oscar, Lone Star Flight Museum President Doug Owens, himself a retired lieutenant general, says that Oscar's "distinguished service as a decorated bomber pilot in World War II is something to be recognized and honored by us all."
Indeed, Beaumont-born Oscar's war heroics in the skies of the Pacific Theater, coming after teen years spent crop dusting farms in Navasota, are movie-worthy. Connally described them in his book. "He was flying a cargo of munitions out of Okinawa in 1945 when his plane caught fire and had to crash-land," wrote the governor. "His flight suit was burning. He couldn't see. Both his legs were crushed, his jaw was broken, and he had seven fractures in his head. He crawled back and forth to the plane until he had dragged out his five crew members, all of them alive." Oscar was 21 at the time.
A lot of this came as news to his four sons. "He never talked about that, except to say he was responsible for his crew," says Trey Wyatt. "It's in his character. He does not take credit for his accomplishments. He likes to keep a low profile."
Trey continues: "He pointedly refused to talk about his war experiences with his children. The government of the Philippines gave him an honor for his heroism, and later the Peoples' Republic of China did the same thing. That's the only way we started to learn about it."
Truly, for decades, Oscar was utterly uninterested in public affirmation and perfectly happy to let Lynn, confidant to royalty and celebs like Elton John and Mick Jagger, win the accolades and glow glamorously. After all, Forbes once reported that he'd "cultivated a hard-as-nails reputation" and Texas Monthly called him the real-life J.R. Ewing.
"What people thought meant absolutely nothing to him," says Trey. "He used to say, 'I'm not in business to win a popularity contest.'
"I'm glad it's happening," Trey says of the museum honor. "Because he does deserve it. Our family insisted on it. My mother insisted on it. He's been an unsung hero. He's had an impact on a lot of people's lives, but he hasn't sought the spotlight."
Oscar's love affair with flight included owning many planes and serving as the family's personal pilot for as long as Trey can remember. "Twin Beech, DC3, Lockheed Howard, a 1961 Queen Air Beechcraft from the early days of the Kennedy administration," Trey recalls. He also references a Boeing 707, a BAC One-Eleven, "a Gulfstream II and IIB."
If Oscar was tough and open to great risk in business, he was anything but at the yoke of a plane. He was meticulous about checklists, and, as Trey puts it, he had a deep respect for weather. "He used to say, 'I can show you a bold pilot, and I can show you an old pilot. But you'll not find a bold, old pilot.
"I inherited that passion. That's the reason I'm still flying," Trey adds. "He taught me to fly straight and level."
These days, Oscar uses a wheelchair to get around and, of course, spends a lot less time in the air. "He's not really able to talk," says Trey, "and that frustrates him."
Lynn describes a conversation with Oscar this way: "Sometimes he'll curse. He knows what he wants to say [but can't find the words]. And he'll say, 'mmm, mmm, mmm … Goddammit!' And I'll say, 'Oh, I got that. That was clear as a bell.' I'll say, 'wait, wait, wait.' And then it'll come out."
Sometimes things take time. Like getting Oscar his due at a big gala. "And," Lynn insists, "nobody deserves it more."
Lynn and Oscar Wyatt at home in River Oaks, summer 2021(photo by Jhane Hoang)
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