BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — For Buckhannon-Upshur High School student Bryson Fluke, being at the Tom Dunn Leadership Academy this week has a special meaning.
Dunn, who passed away four years ago, was an oil and gas industry leader in the state. He was a charismatic man whose friends loved him enough to create in his honor a three-day summer academy to educate students about opportunities in the natural gas industry.
He also was Fluke’s grandfather.
“Pap was a good man. He always cared about his family first. He always worked hard. He’d take his shirt off of his back for you, even if he didn’t know you,” Fluke said.
While Fluke heard about his grandfather’s business deals, what he remembers most are the family vacations to Florida and golfing with his Pap.
“He lived right across the street from me. I would always go over to his house. We would go on vacation together. We went to Florida for a week twice a year, and we golfed together,” he said.
Being a part of the Dunn Leadership Academy is an honor, Fluke said. It’s encouraging to know that his grandfather’s friends cared enough about him to pass on the same kind of leadership skills Dunn was known for and to provide students with information on the opportunities available in the natural gas industry.
“It’s just an honor because he’s my grandfather. He just set a good example and led people the right way,” he said. “Pap impacted a lot of people. Wherever we would go, no matter where it was, someone would know him.”
That’s the same Dunn remembered by Dennis Xander. Xander is director of the Tom Dunn Leadership Academy and president of Denex Petroleum. He’s been in the natural gas industry for 41 years. Xander started out as an employee of Dunn’s and later became a colleague and business partner. More than that, Xander and Dunn were good friends.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Dunn’s family owned part of Union Drilling. The company made a contract with Colombia Gas to come to Central West Virginia, which is how Dunn ended up in Upshur County.
Dunn graduated from high school in Pennsylvania and came to West Virginia Wesleyan College, graduating in 1964. He played football and was active in his fraternity. When he graduated, he fell in love with and married a local girl, so he stayed.
“Tom was a very charismatic guy. He never met an enemy. If you were at a party with him, he was the guy that filled your glass. He was one of these people who always made you feel like you were the most important person in the room,” Xander said. “That was something that served him well in business. He knew how to spoil his customers. Even if his prices were higher, you liked working with Tom Dunn.”
Dunn was active in the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia and was instrumental in the federal antitrust case that made it possible for small producers to get higher gas prices.
Much of Dunn’s work benefited others as well as himself, Xander said. Dunn Hall at Wesleyan and the Tom Dunn Memorial Highway are evidence of this.
“He first started parks and recreation boards and helped raise the money to build the first swimming pool and things like that. He was a director of a local bank. He was an active supporter of St. Joseph’s Hospital. He was a guy who was a selfless leader that did things that not only benefited him but his community and his industry,” Xander said.
Dunn knew how difficult it was to recruit workers, as well as the many other challenges businessmen in the oil and gas industry face. He passed away right around the time the natural gas industry began to pick up steam in the Mountain State. His friends felt it would be a fitting memorial to start a program in Dunn’s honor that helps West Virginia students prepare for careers in the industry.
“We want to first explain the industry to them. Second, we want to tell them about all the different careers that are available. And, third, we want to show them what they need to do next if they’re interested in pursuing one of those careers. We think it’s a fitting way to honor Tom,” he said.
The Friends of Tom Dunn contribute funds for the Academy so the program can be provided to students free of cost. This year, 35 students representing 20 high schools and 19 counties are participating in the program, which is in its third year. They are participating in a range of activities, from discussion panels with industry experts to field trips to natural gas locations in the area.
The Academy places a lot of importance on setting up West Virginia students for successful careers in their home state, Xander said.
“The one message we also want to carry is that traditionally high school students that graduate, whether they go to college in West Virginia or not, probably aren’t going to be able to stay here and find jobs. But the expansion of the oil and gas industry here is making it possible, whether you’re an accountant, clerk or whatever you are, to have a job in West Virginia,” Xander said.
Blake Halstead is a student at Scott High School in Madison. This is his second year at the Academy. Halstead has many family members and friends who work in the gas industry – people who have encouraged him to explore the field. In fact, Halstead said there seems to be a growing awareness among high school students that the natural gas industry is providing good-paying jobs for those willing to pursue them.
“They all say it’s very innovative to be involved in the future of how energy can be a part of our society. I think it’s a great opportunity,” he said.