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Not Your Mother’s Book Club: The Oil Barons Society of Texas

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In a South Texas parlor room, 10 men eagerly hold shots of bourbon in their hands. The television isn’t on, there are no fantasy football reports in sight, and no fraternity pledges cower in the corner. Together they raise their glasses and down the whiskey in one go.

“Alright,” one says, “who has something to say about Rich Dad, Poor Dad?”

This is the Oil Barons Society, an exclusive, men-only book club in San Antonio. The discussion that follows is lively and cuts across political leanings. The leader of the discussion, Scott Gillette, is a management analyst who favors an entrepreneurial reading of the book, but three of the members are government employees who argue that the author profits from the desire for financial security without providing any effective tools to achieve it. Typical for most book clubs, the discussion eventually gets derailed as people speak longer than their allotted turn and quibble over small differences. But most of the members, or Barons as they’re called, leave enlightened and surprised by the discussion, and they’re ready to do it again.

The Oil Baron Society was founded three years ago by Matthew Shaddock and Tanner Neidhart, a school teacher and a lawyer, respectively. “I found it weird that in today’s society,” Shaddock explains, “an all-girls activity was okay, even seen as positive — think of the Girls Night Out. I figured men should be just as free to do the same thing, celebrate manhood and be manly. I figured that a guys’ book club would be a good excuse to get together, drink some beers, and talk intelligently.”

Neidhart came up with the name and they soon adopted a tongue-in-cheek correspondence with the language of Gilded Age Texas, smacking of top hats and monocles.

“As usual, discussion was lively,” the November meeting minutes record. “Topics covered included the American military, our involvement in overseas conflicts, military culture, and the writer’s political slant. Baron Peterson’s absence due to military deployment in the Afghanistan theatre was duly noted and oft-mentioned.”

A random sampling of their titles by mostly male authors includes The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Driving the club is not just a celebration of masculinity but a search for it. According to John Peterson, the doctor currently posted in Afghanistan: The Oil Barons “is a big idea that struggles with something that any young man in his twenties and thirties deals with. What makes a man? What kind of man do I want to be?”

San Antonio does offer intellectual stimulation and isn’t a cultural desert. The city boasts a world class art museum and celebrated cuisine, where it’s common to awake with a breakfast taco and nibble on Asian fusion for lunch. But men tend to congregate around sports and not books, and life after college anywhere can be devoid of intellectual discussion.

“Seven of the 13 friends I contacted about the idea met and formed the Oil Barons Society at my house in January 2009,” Shaddock says. “The other six wrote back things like ‘book clubs are lame’ and ‘have fun reading the Oprah books.’”

There is no stereotypical Baron. Their professions vary significantly: a real property title searcher, a home renovator, two prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, two Air Force doctors, a management consultant, two high school teachers, and an employment lawyer. They are overwhelmingly professionals but not all of them follow sports, and as brainy as their jobs may sound, several members didn’t read regularly before they joined the club. “Before I joined I didn’t do a whole lot of reading,” jokes Ashley Penix. “In fact, hardly any at all. I like to say, ‘I don’t always read books, but when I do, it’s for the Oil Barons Society. Stay knowledgeable, my friends.’”

The Barons have few rules other than opening the evening with a shot of whiskey, which helps enliven the discussion. This absence of strictures explains why their most strained period happened when they sought to define who, exactly, they were by drawing up a Constitution. Last year, they rented a house in the hill country outside San Antonio and began to hash out the text, but the debate became so heated that three Barons stormed out and drove back to the city. “We found out later that this was much like the actual signing of the Constitution,” one Baron explained. “Sure it was dumb to get upset over, but I think all of us carry a true ownership in the prosperity of the Barons.”

Several of the members already have young children or are expecting children in the near future, making this “the biggest challenge,” according to Alan Petner, as people find it more difficult to accommodate the meetings. The Oil Barons may be a manly take on the Girls Night Out, but the search for companionship will naturally be replaced by the duties of fatherhood.

Another challenge is that the membership is composed of various backgrounds, but the group has struggled to lure other ethnicities. Shaddock teaches history in a local high school with a mostly Latino student body and coaches its soccer team. “It’s not completely lost on our members,” he says. “We’ve definitely talked about it frequently in the past, whining that we’re all WASPs or white Catholics. But we are diverse in many ways. We have top one-percenters, Barons whose parents were blue collar, and Barons from outside of Texas.” The one Latino Baron left the club because of personal commitments.

Recently, the Oil Barons Society has evolved into something more than a book club, now having incorporated activities that complement the readings. “We read Friday Night Lights and went to a high school football game,” explains Scott Gillette, “and we read The Gun by C.J. Chivers and went to the gun range.” These are not necessarily exotic activities in Texas, but not every Baron likes to shoot guns or watch football games.

The Barons have started inviting the featured authors to attend meetings or to join by phone, so far without success. They are also considering dues payments so that they can rent a special Baron Cave, and have any number of other creative ideas, as may be expected from 20- and 30-somethings with ambition.

For now, the culmination of the regular Baron meetings is the annual Baron Ball, held in the former castle of a cattle king that was recently refurbished. The Barons proudly display the year’s book list under their official crest, serve up brisket and chili, and play multiple rounds of beer pong — partners and friends included — and it’s hard not to feel that something different is happening in Texas.

“When I joined it was just a ‘book club’ and sounded like fun and general camaraderie,” says Ashley Penix. “It then turned into something more special, and took on a life of its own. It’s nice being part of something that is unique.”

Photo credit: Mathew Shaddock. Oil Barons Society crest designed by Evan Long.

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