Friday, September 25, 2015
Exceptional American of the Day: Paul Anthony Novelly
In January 1998, Paul Anthony Novelly gave his 10,000-square foot home and 20-acre estate to his alma mater, Christian Brothers College High School, a Lasallian Catholic college preparatory school for young men in St. Louis, Missouri.
What a far cry that six bedroom mansion was from the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his parents and two-siblings in Dogtown, St. Louis. Through hard work, a pursuit of knowledge, and determination, Novelly had built -- and lost -- and built again an empire.
Born in St. Louis in 1943, the eldest of three children, his father was a printer who had little formal education.
"I thought my dad was the greatest guy in the world," Novelly said. "He worked hard, but never made much money."
His mother had picked cotton as a child in Arkansas. Small wonder Novelly went to work at 7, stacking bottles and sweeping floors at a confectionery, a job he held throughout elementary school. At 12, he began mowing lawns as well. The family finally moved to a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. At 14, he became a caddy. Time off from school meant work.
His sister had a bad heart and Down Syndrome. She died in surgery at 11.
"Even though there was much love, we also had some turmoil. After my sister's birth, we all pulled together to meet her special needs. She was a blessing to us because she was so innocent, sweet, and loving. We would forever miss her," he said.
He knew he had to get to college in order to make something of himself in life.
"I didn't dream big dreams as a child," he said. "I just wanted to have enough money to live comfortably, and I knew education was the key to that sort of life."
And so, following a cousin's footsteps, he attended Christian Brothers, working for his tuition. St. Louis University followed, where he earned a degree in finance.
He went to work at Shell Oil, holding 14 different positions in four years, eventually moving to Chicago. Obviously, someone in management liked him. But he turned down a promotion which would have sent him to New York City. St. Louis was calling and with his wife, child, and one on the way, Novelly turned down the big job with the big company to work for the much smaller Apex Oil Company in St. Louis.
Novelly wound up owning the company, which became the largest privately owned oil company in the United States. While he has always been stingy with facts about the company, he leveraged a buyout in 1978.
"Everything I had was on the line, but I felt I was in a strong position because I had built or bought all our current assets," he said.
In 1986, he lost it all. Oil deregulation dropped the price from $36 a barrel to $10. Creditors panicked. On Christmas Eve 1986, Novelly filed for protection from creditors in federal bankruptcy court.
But he worked his way back from the brink, buying back his assets at a discount. Bankruptcy did not tarnish his reputation, according to friend Adolphus Busch IV, an heir of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire.
"It just enhances his mystique," Busch told the Baltimore Sun in 2000. "He had the ability to start at the very bottom and realize all his dreams and more."
The Baltimore newspaper was interested in Novelly because he was trying to acquire Crown Central Petroleum Corp. in Baltimore, whose board gave him an ultimatum to up his ante or get lost. He walked away. Crown Oil no longer exists.
Over the years, Novelly expanded his holdings to include banks and alternative fuel companies. He also gave away millions to the Catholic church, Christian Brothers, St. Louis University, and other charities, usually with the agreement that it not be publicized.
"Education is the ticket to a great start, but only determination and endurance will succeed," he said. . "There is no substitute for hard work. There are no shortcuts."
I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.