Colloquy: Ars longa, vita brevis

Colloquy: Editor’s Column

Nina RachThis adage was adapted from the first two lines of Aphorismi, written by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates about 400 BCE. They translate: “life is short, arts (crafts, techniques) long,” which can be taken to mean that it takes a long time to acquire skills and expertise, but one has only a short time in which to learn and use them.

Time limits our accomplishments in life. This summer was punctuated by the untimely death of our colleague at Offshore Engineer, James Self. A team player, James was talented, conscientious, kind, and generous. He is already missed.

These same qualities describe Texas oilman and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, who died July 26, the day after James. Mitchell’s life is the quintessential American success story, as he was the son of Greek immigrants and became one of the wealthiest people in the state. He was diligent and hardworking, graduated first in his class from Texas A&M University with a degree in petroleum engineering in 1940—and later became the university’s most-generous donor.

After Mitchell left Texas A&M, he worked for Amoco Production Co. in East Texas and Louisiana, then went to serve in the US Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. After the war, in 1945, Mitchell and his wife Cynthia moved to Houston, where he initially worked as an independent oil consultant, and they began a family that would grow to ten children.

Cyntha & George Mitchell FoundationIn 1947, George and his brother Johnny became investors and owners of Oil Drilling Inc. with H. Merlyn Christie, and in 1952, bought into a substantial acreage position north of Fort Worth.

Then called the “Wildcatter’s Graveyard,” it became better known as the heart of the Barnett Shale play.

In 1962, the Mitchell brothers bought out smaller shareholders and reorganized the company as Mitchell & Mitchell Oil & Gas Corp. By 1964, Mitchell & Mitchell owned 1000 producing wells.

In 1972, Mitchell Energy and Development Corp.’s initial public offering was listed on the American Stock Exchange, and George Mitchell retained about 60% of the stock.

In 1991, the US Department of Energy subsidized Mitchell Energy’s first horizontal drilling in the Barnett shale. Mitchell Energy later pioneered the use of hydraulic fracturing and found particular success with slick water fracturing by 1998. The rest, as they say, is history, and the shale boom has taken on astounding proportions.

George Mitchell completed the sale of Mitchell Energy to Devon Energy in January 2002 for about US$3.5 billion.


In 1978, the Mitchells founded the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, “a mission-driven, grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems.” The projects and initiatives launched by this foundation are too numerous to list.

In 1982, George Mitchell funded and launched the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands, an institution dedicated to environmental issues and sustainable growth. HARC now has a staff of more than 40 research scientists and generates more than $20 million in annual revenue. The Mitchells donated more than $100 million to Texas A&M, culminating in the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy in 2009.

Along the way, Mitchell donated the land for and supported the establishment of the Texas A&M campus at Galveston. TAMUG began in 1962 as the Texas Maritime Academy, and expanded in 1968, when Mitchell gifted 100 acres on Pelican Island. TAMUG offers undergraduate programs in marine (biology, fisheries, engineering technology, sciences, transportation) and maritime (administration, studies, systems engineering) disciplines, oceans and coastal resources, marine environmental law and policy. The graduate programs include marine resources management and marine biology.

In 2011, George Mitchell signed The Giving Pledge, committing the majority of his wealth to charity. The Giving Pledge is an effort to encourage the world’s wealthiest to give most of their wealth to charity, promoted by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates. As of July, 113 billionaires have signed this pledge.

Mitchell’s values, behaviors, and work ethic were shaped by his upbringing in Galveston. His life, work, and legacy exemplify a quote from the classic Greek philosopher Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” OE

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