Top Hand

Jack Harbin, BBA ’39, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, legendary oilman, financier, and philanthropist, has given the Texas Exes a home we can be proud of.

Top Hand

Don’t go in there!” warns Jack Harbin, as he motions to the library behind him. “There’s a grizzly on the floor, and he’ll bite.”

Harbin’s palatial home in Dallas’s Highland Park neighborhood is full of exotic trophies from his adventures in Tanzania and British Columbia with his late friend and former Texas Gov. Bill Clements, ’37.  A caribou above an archway tracks you with its eyes. An enormous cape buffalo—an animal Harbin says is the meanest in all of Africa—looms above the impeccably decorated sunroom.

At 96, Harbin seems frustrated with old age, but living so long has provided him with a lot of good stories to tell.  Sharply dressed and clear-minded, he occasionally bounds out of his wheelchair with the help of his housekeeper to show me another part of the house. He would be the very embodiment of a colorful Texan of the old school—except instead of being crusty and forbidding, he’s self-effacing and eager to make you laugh. As we sit in his peach-colored living room overlooking his sleepy, tree-lined street, he easily recalls the exact details of his improbable life.

“In 1974 I entertained the queen of England in Scotland,” he says matter-of-factly. “We were setting a $65-million platform for BP off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea, and the Queen wasted a whole bottle of champagne on it,” he laughs.

“She wanted to know all about how we set the platform, completed the oil well, and so forth,” Harbin says. That’s a quality, he points out, that all good leaders have. “They all want to know more.”

Harbin remembers every moment of that day. “She invited me and my wife aboard the Britannia for cocktails. My wife and Prince Philip got into a little argument about Texas weather. He asked her, ‘How do you stand it in August?’ My wife Dorothy was from Orange and she said, ‘I love it.’”

He’s from a different generation in terms of management style. You know, pretty top-down. He doesn’t pussyfoot around.”

Harbin reminisces about the time he and the CEO of Exxon had dinner with the prime minister of Singapore and about visiting the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in the 1980s. “It was one of the eeriest places I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “They tell you not to make any motion, don’t take any pictures. You’re being observed, and you might get shot.”

Spend time with Harbin and two themes emerge: adventure and hard work. Growing up in the 1920s in Waxahachie, Texas, he sold Eskimo Pies to the other children at school. “If I put one in my pocket and forgot about it,” he says, “the day’s profits melted.” In the summer he stacked books in the attic of the school building; during high school, he painted houses.

After graduating from UT, Harbin went to work for Exxon and eventually transferred to their offices in Venezuela. When World War II began, he served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserve on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. After the war, he and Dorothy moved back to Venezuela. Their only child, Linda Ann, was born in Maracaibo. “I came back [from the war] and Exxon said, ‘Buy clothes for Caracas, because you’re going to be the number-two man in the financial department,’” he says. “I was not 30 years old.”

In 1948, the family moved back to the states, where Harbin joined Halliburton Company as a controller and worked his way up, eventually becoming chairman of the board and CEO in 1972. “I’m very proud of my 11 years as CEO because the earnings went up nine times,” he says.

Five years after retiring from Halliburton, Harbin joined Lone Star Technologies as chairman and CEO. Until his retirement and ever since, Harbin has served as director, board member, and president of dozens of organizations. He has also retained close ties to UT, serving as president of the Texas Exes in 1989 and as a longtime council member. He served on the Alumni Center’s expansion and fundraising committee and oversaw the completion of the center’s renovation in 1990.

“I’ve never known an eight-hour day,” he declares as he shuffles through the clippings and photos he’s picked out from his extensive archives.

When Jim Boon, BBA ’69, MBA ’72, Life Member, became executive director of the Texas Exes in 1994, he and Harbin quickly hit it off.  Boon discovered a kind heart beneath the gruff exterior. Both men came from a business background and agreed on the way things ought to be run. “He’s from a different generation in terms of management style,“ Boon says. “You know, pretty top-down. He doesn’t pussyfoot around.”

And Harbin didn’t pussyfoot around when it came to helping his alma mater. In 1999 Harbin gave the largest individual contribution in the Alumni Center’s history—$1 million for preservation and development of its grounds. For years, the banks of Waller Creek had been eroding and standing water at the front of the building had become a real issue. Harbin stepped in and underwrote a multimillion-dollar, six-month renovation. “We completed it on time, on budget, and between football seasons,” he says proudly.

Because of Jack’s vision, the halls of the center serve a higher calling than perhaps any other building on campus.

That gift led to the inviting Alumni Center we know today. Historic oak trees were protected, benches and lush landscaping were brought in, commemorative tiles were laid, and the main entrance was completely overhauled. Best of all, a new drainage system and limestone walls were built to ensure the integrity of the building for future generations. In April 2001, the Alumni Center was renamed the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center in his honor.

Ten years later, Harbin donated another million that funded the renovation of the third floor of the building and built the Robuck Boardroom, which is named in honor of his daughter, Linda, and her husband, Joel, BBA ’64, MBA ’65, Life Members.

And there was still more renaming to do. For his commitment to the Association and UT-Austin, not only was Harbin given the Texas Exes’ highest volunteer honor, the Top Hand Award, this year, but from now on it will be known as the Jack Harbin Top Hand Award for Outstanding Service.

At the EXies awards ceremony in April, John Beckworth, BA ’80, JD ’83, Life Member, chairman of the Texas Exes, told the audience, “Because of Jack’s vision, the halls of the center serve a higher calling than perhaps any other building on campus. And for his leadership and generosity in preserving and enhancing this special place, we are forever grateful.”

There’s an old Texas Exes story that captures the essence of Jack Harbin. In 1998, Harbin suffered a heart attack. As he was being wheeled into the ICU, he reached for a phone on the hospital wall. He wanted to make sure that if anything happened to him, the money he had promised the Texas Exes would still  go through. Only after he had confirmation did he relax enough to have triple bypass surgery.

For Harbin, it was just another busy day.

Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.


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