John S. Wold of Wyoming was a man of such prolific industry and accomplishment that his life story reads less like a narrative and more like a series of escalating and expanding accomplishments in one field after another. Along with being a successful petroleum geologist and mineral resource producer, this award-winning AAPG Member was also an accomplished inventor, scientist, academic, entrepreneur, rancher, philanthropist and public servant.
He had the distinction of being the first professional geologist in the U.S. Congress – and a petroleum geologist at that, and so far, no geologist has followed him into the House of Representatives (though geologist astronaut and AAPG Member Harrison Schmidt represented New Mexico for one term in the Senate).
John Wold was born in East Orange, N.J., then moved as a boy to Schenectady, N.Y., where his father served as chairman of the Physics Department at Union College. He was an Eagle Scout, and young John was a summer lab assistant to Irving Langmuir, who was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in surface chemistry (and for whom the Langmuir Isotherm was named).
Wold told the EXPLORER in 2011 that his affection for geology began in a college dump where used mineral samples were discarded. He earned a bachelor’s in geology from Union and a master’s in geology from Cornell University. He later received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wyoming and an honorary doctor of science degree from Union.
Wold’s working career began in 1939 when he accepted a geologist position with Socony-Vacuum’s Magnolia Petroleum Company in Oklahoma and Texas. In 1941, on leave from Magnolia, he volunteered with the Naval Bureau of Ordinance as a consulting physicist to research and develop magnetic mines.
Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wold was assigned to Bureau of Ordinance minesweeper and degaussing (demagnetization) activities, which resulted in his posting on Midway Island, degaussing U.S. Pacific Fleet submarines in 1943. He subsequently was transferred to destroyer escort service in gunnery and later executive officer duty as a lieutenant commander in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. It was during this time that he developed an underwater goggle, for which he was granted his first U.S. patent in 1950.
Following his World War II service, Wold returned to the oilfield as a geologist with Barnsdall Oil Company’s Gulf Coast operations. He subsequently was promoted to the position of Rocky Mountain Division geologist and moved to Wyoming. In 1950, he created his own company, Wold Oil Properties, now overseen by his sons Peter and Jack, who continue to produce and explore for oil and gas throughout Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain region.
Other Mineral Resources
Wold recognized the potential of Rocky Mountain coal in America’s energy picture in the early 1970s and began a joint-venture coal exploration and acquisition program with the Peabody and Consolidation coal companies. As a result of these exploits, he brought the viability of Rocky Mountain coal resources to the attention of companies like Exxon, Mobil, Sun, Mapco and other major energy entities.
Along similar lines, in 1973 he founded the Wold Nuclear Company and was co-discoverer of the Christensen Ranch uranium ore body in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. He was also a principal in the Highland Uranium Mine, a roll-front deposit in Converse County, Wyo., which became part of the largest uranium production operation in the United States.
He then founded and presided over Wold Trona Company, which focused on development of the soda-ash deposits of the southern Green River Basin in southwestern Wyoming. Partnered with Hazen Research of Golden, Colo., Wold invested in research and development of trona solution mining applications. He developed several patent applications for trona processing and sold these rights and reserves to FMC.
He was the founder and chairman of American Talc Company near Van Horn, Texas, which operated one of the largest and most efficient talc production operations in North America. Characteristically on the cutting edge of energy developments, Wold served as chairman and CEO of GasTech, Inc. developing an underground coal gasification project in the Powder River Basin.
Philanthropy and Public Service
As if six decades of scientific and commercial pursuit of advanced solutions for increasingly complicated questions was insufficient, Wold then dedicated himself to philanthropic and political activities.
He served as Wyoming’s engineering representative on the Interstate Oil Compact Commission, vice president for Wyoming and South Dakota of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association, and as president of the Wyoming Geological Association.
Wold was elected to the Wyoming State Legislature in 1957, served as chair of the House’s Labor Committee, then went on to serve as Wyoming’s Republican Party chairman from 1960-64. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964 but lost to incumbent Democrat Gale McGee in the year of the Lyndon Johnson landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.
Four years later, Wold was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As the “member from Wyoming,” Congressman Wold served on the House Interior Committee and was the original sponsor and author of the National Mining and Mineral Policy Act of 1970. That legislation aimed to enable federal policy that encouraged private enterprise while also mitigating negative environmental impacts. In an effort to deal with the absence of a comprehensive national minerals policy, the act directed the secretary of the interior to follow steps to encourage the private mining sector. It emphasized the need for a robust for-profit mineral industry to strengthen national security.
In 1968, he was chosen by the Associated Press and United Press International as Wyoming Man of the Year. In 1970, Wold resigned his House seat to run again against Senator McGee, but lost in the first midterm elections of the Richard Nixon presidency.
At that point he retired from electoral politics.
Wold’s son Jack recalls that Congressman Wold was frustrated in Washington. As the freshman representative from the final state in alphabetical order, his seniority was No. 435 (last) in a system in which seniority meant power. He knew more about working on public lands than most other members, especially those from the East, but his entrepreneurial imagination, scientific curiosity and big-picture thinking weren’t being utilized.
And, he felt humiliated by his senatorial defeat.
Wold loved the outdoor western lifestyle and working with mineral resources. He was a director of K-N Energy, Empire State Oil Company, Midland Energy Company, and the National Association of Manufacturers. He was chairman and CEO of Nuclear Exploration and Development Company and a director of the Sierra Madre Foundation for Geological Research sponsored by the geology departments of Cornell, Harvard and Yale. He was a director of Plains Petroleum Company and of Coca Mines, Inc., and was the chairman of the Wyoming Natural Gas Pipeline Authority.
In 1978 Wold was selected once again by the Associated Press, this time as Wyoming Mineral Man of the Year. Two decades later, the American Heritage Foundation of the University of Wyoming named him Wyoming’s Oil/Gas and Mineral Man of the 20th Century, an honor for which candidates were chosen from among mineral personnel at every industry level.
Wold was a longtime trustee of Union College and president of the Casper College Board of Trustees. He and his wife, Jane, endowed a geology chair and two chairs of religion at Union as well as the first fully endowed Centennial Chair of Energy at the University of Wyoming.
Their devotion to science in college academics made possible the Wold Science Hall at Casper College. The Wold family also created the Chair of Environmental Balance and Sustainability in World Mineral Development at Cornell University. A primary goal of this chair is to foster better understanding of the trends of human overpopulation, and the need for a better balance between responsible development and regulation of our usage of natural resources.
The Wold family has a history of affliction with the age-related disease of macular degeneration, a primary cause of adult legal blindness, one that curtails the ability to perform many cherished activities. The Wolds established a Macular Degeneration Laboratory at Oregon Health and Sciences University’s Casey Eye Institute in Portland.
The Wolds own and operate the historic “Hole-in-the-Wall” cattle ranch in southern Johnson County, Wyo., made famous by the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The ranch produces black angus beef on a commercial scale. Wold was a founder and first president of the Wyoming Heritage Foundation, a 1,200-member, non-profit organization dedicated to the education of Wyoming citizens on the benefits of the free enterprise system.
John Wold was especially interested in education, conservation and recreation. He played an important personal role in the development of Casper’s Hogadon Basin ski area as founding president. He served as a Sunday school teacher, vestryman and warden at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper. Wold loved hockey and supported the Casper Oilers and the Union College Dutchmen, which named him honorary captain of their 2014 national championship team. He also endowed academic scholarships for Eagle Scouts at Casper College.
The central theme throughout his lifetime was science. More specifically, the application of scientific principles to achieve solutions that positively impacted lives -- not just those in the Cowboy State, but everywhere.
“His intellectual curiosity takes him well beyond the realm of intellectual musings to the real world of the intersection of science, technology and economics,” said former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
He was a visionary who served broadly by applying scientific principles and by providing political and financial support for science to many educational and research institutions.
Wold was given AAPG’s Pioneer of the Year Award in 2011 and the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, the National Eagle Scout Association’s highest honor, in 2015.
At that time, he was the oldest living Eagle Scout in America as well as the oldest living former member of Congress. In 2016 he was given the Petroleum History Institute’s Colonel Edwin L. Drake Legendary Oilman Award. After a lifetime of passion for science, service in government, and support for his many and varied communities, John S. Wold passed away in 2017 at the age of 100.
Glenda Thomas, executive director of the Wold Foundation; Aaron Otteman, previously Wold Oil’s exploration manager; and John Wold’s sons, Jack and Peter Wold, provided invaluable contributions to this article, including biographical information, personal insights and images.