S.P. Yates

Saint Clair Peyton Yates’s introduction to independent oil and gas exploration occurred in 1924 when he was just 10 years old and living in Artesia, New Mexico where his father — with the help of a Model T Ford and his intuitive wife — drilled and discovered the first commercial oil well on New Mexico state-owned lands, thus starting the state’s $7.6 billion permanent royalty fund that finances public schools.

Young Yates, known as “S.P.,” was so intrigued by this that he and his brother followed in their father’s entrepreneurial footsteps and, with hopes of striking it big, dug a 30-ft. well in the backyard of their family home. This first childhood attempt at oil exploration was a bust—not to mention Mr. and Mrs. Yates weren’t too pleased— but an innovative and generous spirit was born in S.P.

sp yates photo

He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin (1937), and attended The School of Engineering Practice at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded and directed Yates Drilling Company in 1959 and, along with his brothers, formed Yates Petroleum Corporation, which he led from a company in 1960 with just a few employees to one that now employs hundreds and operates offices in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

But one of the most significant impacts of S.P.’s long and prosperous life is happening right here at the Cockrell School of Engineering. In April 2009, his wife Estelle gave a $1 million gift to UT PGE in memory of S.P., who passed away in August 2008 at the age of 93.

The gift established two endowments—the S.P. Yates Memorial Endowment for Graduate Fellowships and the S.P. Yates Memorial Endowment for Student Projects. Twenty-five students have been supported by the endowments, 13 at the graduate level and 12 in undergraduate summer research internships, which give students the chance to do hands-on research and provide insight into graduate studies.

The goal of the gift is to recruit and retain U.S. students pursuing advanced degrees in petroleum engineering. One of the keys to recruitment is encouraging undergraduates to explore research. Of the undergraduates who have received a Yates’ scholarship for the summer program, 56 percent have since been admitted to or committed to applying to a petroleum engineering graduate program and another 31 percent said they are strongly considering applying.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work on a research project and it spurred me to pursue a master’s degree. That project helped me understand that graduate school isn’t just more classes. I would have the opportunity to work with brilliant faculty to find new solutions to our world’s toughest energy challenges.” said Peyton Yates Jr., S.P. and Estelle’s son who received both a bachelor’s (1965) and master’s degree (1966) in petroleum engineering from UT.

In the last two decades, as the role of graduate students has shifted from that of an apprentice to, often, the co-creator of technology with a supervising professor, the Cockrell School’s ability to remain preeminent among top engineering programs has hinged on the quality of the graduate students it recruits.

“These fellowship students will create the technology that improves people’s everyday lives and maintains the competiveness of our economy. If not for supporters like the Yates family, it would be difficult for students to have such opportunities,” Cockrell School Dean Dr. Gregory Fenves said.

Because of this, Fenves has made it a fundraising priority to raise $135 million for graduate fellowships by 2014. The Yates’ family hopes their gift will inspire other alumni to support graduate education.

One of seven graduate students to benefit from the S.P. Yates Fellowship this semester is Stuart Coleman. Coleman said the fellowship will help pay his major college expenses, including tuition and books, while he pursues his master’s degree in petroleum engineering.  His research is focused on the use of anthropogenic CO2 for enhanced oil recovery and long-term storage along the Texas Gulf Coast.

“Growing up with a single mother, I have relied on merit-based scholarships to help finance my high school, college and graduate education. Without such generosity from others, I may not have had the same opportunities for achievement,” he said. “It is my hope to one day give back at the level the [Yates family] have given to UT.”

Estelle said her husband was a modest and shy man, who likely never imagined his legacy would be carried forward by generations of S.P. Yates Fellows and Scholars.

“He made a considerable mark on his family, his local community of Artesia, and now the UT community,” she said. “What started with a young boy drilling a well in his backyard is now helping to change the world.