"Dad has always been close to the land," Clint Jr. said recently, "and he brought us up the same way." Old Clint was such a firm believer in the benefits of outdoor life, in fact, that when Clint Jr. was 9 and John was 11 he took them out of school for a year, loaded a pickup truck with gear and sent them on a prolonged camping trip throughout the Southwest.
In subtle and practical ways he also taught the boys the value and use of money. He sold them calves and small blocks of stock and took their signed notes to pay the original price plus interest. When the calves were grown and the stock had increased in value, the boys sold them, paid off their notes and also collected a profit for themselves. It was a basic business lesson the Murchison boys have never forgotten: a smart man can buy something and make a profit on it without using his own money.
All of this probably explains why old classmates at University Park Grammar School in Dallas remember Clint Jr. as a slightly undersized but sturdy little boy, frugally carrying his money in a Bull Durham sack but ready at the drop of a dare to prove that he could outspit, outrun and outrassle anybody at all. It may explain why to this day Clint Jr. is never too busy to keep his 5-foot 9-inch, 160-pound frame in tiptop physical condition. He lifts weights when he has the time and always does 50 push-ups, 50 deep knee bends and 50 sit-ups every other day. "It's like this with Clint," an old friend said. "He don't look big—but tangle with him and you've caught yourself the tallest man in Texas."
When the boys were ready for prep school, Old Clint shipped John off to Hotchkiss and Clint Jr. off to Lawrenceville. "Dad wanted us to go to different schools on the theory that each should make his own place in the world," Clint Jr. explains. At Lawrenceville, as in most eastern prep schools, a boy can make a name in either sports or studies. Clint Jr. was a terror at both. He consistently stood at the top of his class, was a scrappy halfback on the football team and one of the littlest but canniest members of the wrestling team.
Clint Jr. already knew where he was headed after Lawrenceville. When he was 12 he had read an article in FORTUNE that told about the tough curriculum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and resolved then and there that it was the school for him. When World War II came, John was at Yale, and Clint Jr. had indeed realized his ambition and was at MIT, playing halfback on its little-known football team and being the 126-pound star of its even less-known wrestling team. On the day after Pearl Harbor, John joined the Army Air Force and became a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean and China.
A year later Clint Jr. signed up for the Marines, also hoping to become a fighter pilot since he already had logged considerable flying time in an Aeronca. But the Navy took one look at his aptitude scores and shipped him off to Duke University to study electrical engineering in the V-12 program. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and top man in his class. At war's end, John went back to Yale to get his degree, and Clint returned to MIT for his master's in math. After getting it he was tempted to stay on and work for a doctorate, but since one requirement for a math doctorate is to make an original contribution in the field and he didn't have an original contribution in mind, he returned to Dallas in 1950 to team up with John for some original activities in other areas instead.
While his boys were away, Clint Sr. had been acquiring and cutting out of his own immense holdings a whacking selection of investments to give to them as a grubstake. He also gave them advice, drilling them in his own shrewd techniques. But it is almost axiomatic that fledgling millionaires lose a lot of their tail feathers when they begin to fly alone, and the Brothers Murchison were no exception.
There was, for example, the sticky business of the Martha Washington Candy Co., which the Murchisons acquired with $200,000 in cash and $500,000 borrowed from banks. They finally dumped the company and took almost a total loss. John took a drubbing when he bought up a sizable chunk of timber-land in the Northwest on the basis of what developed to be bad information. Clint Jr.'s enthusiasm for boats led him astray when he lost $200,000 in a seagoing firm called the Caribbean Shipping Co. The brothers took their worst shellacking when they bought uranium mining properties in Colorado and Oregon, built processing mills and obtained permits from the Atomic Energy Commission, only to discover, as John puts it, "There wasn't enough goody to justify the bait." They lost some $6 million, split down the middle with a group of partners.
More from preference than any special talents, the brothers decided at the outset that John would handle their banking, insurance, publishing and general finance interests, while Clint Jr. would ride herd on real estate, land development, home building and general construction. One of the first things Clint Jr. did was put down $20,000 in cash and a promissory note for $80,000 and buy the City Construction Co., a Dallas street-paving outfit. As a partner and operating head of this firm he took in Robert F. Thompson, a rangy New Mexico-born ex-Marine fighter pilot who has enough charm to coax partridges out of the mesquite. Almost anybody in Dallas can tell the story of how Clint Jr. and Bob Thompson won their first street-paving contract and then moved their equipment to the suburbs and paved the wrong street. The true story is much stranger. What actually happened is that with their first successful bid the greenhorn contractors landed a contract to pave two suburban streets. Not knowing about work orders and other technicalities, they had their bulldozers ripping up driveways and churning one of these streets into a quagmire when irate city inspectors arrived on the scene and pointed out that the bid specifically stated that the other street would be paved first. While angry householders gathered menacingly, Thompson had his workmen patch the ravaged street together as best they could and then moved to the proper street. After it was paved, city inspectors took a core drilling and decided the concrete did not meet specifications and the street would have to be torn up and repaved. When an inspector told Thompson this news, the ex-fighter pilot suddenly felt so sick he vomited. Clint Jr. took the news more calmly. "How do you go about ripping up a new street?" he asked.
What eventually happened to the little City Construction Co. gives an almost perfect picture of what happened to many of the other Murchison ventures as the brothers got their feet on the ground. Using the assets of City Construction as collateral, Clint Jr. gradually bought up other construction firms, dipping into cash reserves when necessary but, in imitation of Old Clint's technique, usually borrowing the money. From paving streets the company expanded until it could handle highway construction, then dam building and finally land development and heavy construction of all kinds. Along the way the expanding firm was renamed Tecon Corporation, and in 1954 it gained an international reputation when, with typical boldness, Clint Jr. bid on a contract to remove part of a hill that threatened to slide into the Panama Canal. Most big contracting firms had refused even to consider the job except on a cost-plus basis. The operation was so tricky that some engineers doubted that it could be done, and one expert felt it was his duty to go to Old Clint and tell him that if the hill fell into the canal there wasn't enough money in the whole Murchison empire to dig it out again. Nevertheless Old Clint gave his blessings to the project. It was completed successfully. The onetime City Construction Co. has assets of $10 million today.