Robert M. McFarlin – Genius and Giver (1866-1942)
A Texan by birth like so many who built early Oklahoma, Robert Martin McFarlin moved to Norman with his young family in 1892 in search of better economic prospects in the Territory. Enduring the financial calamity of the Panic of 1893, the loss of an infant son to typhoid, and a scorching drought, he moved his cattle operation east to Holdenville, then bought land within the reaches of the great Glenn Pool oil strike of 1905. Partnering with son-in-law James Chapman—another Ovilla, Texas native—he commenced drilling operations with a rare blend of boldness and circumspection, and earned a financial fortune.
McFarlin and Chapman then exploited their bold, shrewd genius into historic earnings in the titanic Cushing oil boom that began in 1912 and for a while churned out twenty percent of total American oil production. They sold their McMan Oil Company for $39 million (around $800 million in 2017 dollars) in 1916, and their later McMan Oil & Gas Company to Magnolia Petroleum for tens of millions more in 1922. McFarlin played a leading role in establishing Oklahoma as a permanent center of the petroleum industry.
Robert McFarlin’s enduring fame rests in his many colossal philanthropic feats. Just a few of the seemingly endless roster of his causes were to build the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, for which he gave an amount roughly equivalent to $6 million in 2017 currency, McFarlin Auditorium at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, $12 million, and the McFarlin Methodist Episcopal Church South in Norman, $12 million.
Historians Carl Tyson, James Thomas, and Odie Faulk wrote this poignant account of the latter gift of McFarlin and his wife Ida:
“They had lived in Norman for half a decade in the 1890s. Their memories of this city could not have been extremely happy, for McFarlin’s business there had not done well, and their young son Robert had died there. However, they did remember the kindness shown them by local residents, particularly at the time of Robert’s death. Therefore, in December of 1924, Robert and Ida McFarlin donated…to construct a new building for the congregation. The money was given in the name of the young son who had lived his short life in Norman. This gift was the first of many philanthropic donations by the McFarlins, but those who knew them well realized that it perhaps meant more to them than any of the others that followed.”