In cowboy boots, string tie and ten-gallon Stetson he appeared oddly out of place at New York's LaGuardia Airport. And from the way he hovered over the six big cardboard boxes that accompanied him, protecting them from customary airport abuse, it was obvious he was guarding some very special cargo. It was special; Tom Bolack, oilman, rancher and former governor of New Mexico, had traveled halfway across the country to plant the first Navajo willow trees in the state of New York.
Tom Bolack has been planting Navajo willows in New Mexico—and lately, in other parts of the U.S.—for almost 20 years. Like those he was to plant in Carmel, N.Y., all the Navajo willows now growing in the U.S. stem from a single giant tree. It was brought from China by a returning missionary almost 100 years ago and planted on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Bolack's home city of Farmington, N. Mex.
In 1957, when Bolack bought the initial 350 acres of what is now his 3,000-acre B-Square Ranch adjoining Farmington, his first act was to establish a full-scale nursery and stock it with shoots from the original tree. In the 13 years since, the B-Square has produced almost a million Navajo willows, and Bolack has given away more than half that number to schools, churches, municipalities, colleges and hospitals. In a single year, in New Mexico alone, B-Square has donated some 50,000 trees worth more than $200,000 as part of its private campaign to "keep New Mexico green."
The trees now grow as far south as Vero Beach, Fla. and as far north as North Dakota. In most places the willows have been used to reforest barren lands, but last year the trees were planted to landscape the outside of Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine.
The planting in New York was for still another reason. The trees were a memorial to a young teacher, Diane Gorman, who died last spring after an automobile accident while en route to the Kent Elementary School in Carmel, N.Y. When Bolack was asked if he would provide a memorial tree for each of the children in her third-grade class, he not only agreed but insisted on bringing them himself. At the school he supervised the planting and then led the dedication to the young teacher he had not known.
Such personal involvement is as characteristic of Bolack as his Western clothes, and because it is not common in our society it is often as suspect. Bolack fits no easily recognized pattern, a fact that contributes considerably to the mixed emotions about him. He is a geologist without a degree; a politician who is not running for office; a hunter who spends most of his time protecting game; a farmer who profits from few of the crops he grows.
Born 52 years ago on a Kansas farm, Bolack spent his boyhood milking cows and operating the family farm machinery. When he was 16, already 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, a wildcatter drilled a well on the farm. The well was dry but Bolack's imagination brought in a gusher and he left the farm to seek his fortune in more productive fields. The fortune he eventually found is estimated today at several million dollars, but it took a bit of drilling. For years Bolack lived off the land, shooting rabbits and other small game for food. What he did not eat himself, he traded with a night watchman on a construction crew in exchange for moonlight practice sessions learning how to operate some of the heavy equipment. Today he still runs a bulldozer on his ranch with the enthusiasm of a boy and the skill of a professional.
There was no oil-related job in those early years that Bolack did not hold at one time or another. Fie worked as a laborer, shovel operator, tool dresser, roustabout, driller and miner.
At night, when he was not learning how to handle another piece of mechanical equipment or how not to handle some of his fellow workers (he acquired six broken noses, 14 concussions and a set of permanently gnarled knuckles in the process), he took correspondence-school courses in geology by the light of a lantern on the dashboard of the battered Hudson car that served as his home as well as his transportation. It eventually served too as collateral on the $600 loan that launched Bolack's fortune.
For two years Bolack applied his mail-order expertise to a survey of the San Juan Basin, a wasteland in northwestern New Mexico that other geologists had written off. "The more I studied the area," Bolack recalls, "the more convinced I became that it had to be rich in oil and gas." His faith in his own survey was so strong and his arguments so persuasive that he managed to talk a banker into putting up the initial $600 he needed to buy leases in the area. Within months, Bolack proved himself right.