Pat Taylor isn't a Texan anymore, but some traits remain - the boots, the hat, the tendency to do everything in a big way.
The oilman began footing college bills for individual students some time back. A year ago, he told a couple of hundred underachieving seventh- and eighth-graders he'd see to it they could go to college if they kept up their grades. Now he wants everybody in Louisiana who makes the grades to be able to go."We have tax-supported colleges in this state that everyone pays for, but they are just for those families who can afford tuition, room and board," said Taylor. "Nothing is as bizarre in this day and time as to turn a kid who is qualified for college away just because he doesn't have a few thousand dollars to pay for it."
A self-made millionaire who left home at 16 and worked his way through Louisiana State University, Taylor believes the opportunity to go to college is the key to solving a lot of the nation's problems.
"It would cut the number of people in prison, the number on welfare, the number selling and using drugs. People would see a chance at a future, and they wouldn't waste it. You can't expect kids to do well in school if they feel they have nowhere to go," he said.
"I used to believe ours is an equal opportunity society and that we are the only truly classless society in the world. Now I know that isn't true. We have two classes in this country - those with a chance and those without."
Taylor, a Horatio Alger Award recipient, frequently gave motivational speeches about his rise from poverty. He was asked to talk to the Livingston Middle School on March 16, 1988, and thought he'd give the same talk.
"My staff told me that wouldn't work. These were kids who had failed two or three years and were going to drop out of school," he said.
"They said they were in a salvage operation, and I was supposed to try to convince them to stay in school and graduate."
What Taylor saw at the school were young men and women who were totally tuned out. But he got their attention:
"I laid it on pretty thick. I went in my full regalia, Rolex and all. I talked about my racing boats and ranches and I told them how I got it - through hard work and a college education. I told them I had one advantage they didn't. I was white and in East Texas when I was young that was important. I also told them it doesn't make that much difference now."
Taylor also told them that if they would make a "B" or better in high school, he would pay for their college education. "It was the first time I realized that they didn't have that opportunity before I gave it to them. I had always thought anyone who had the grades could go to college. I was wrong."
One of the students in that group was Eric Fisher. "I didn't think he could do it at first. That's a lot of money. My folks were in shock too. There are five of us kids and when Mr. Taylor said he'd pay for my college, they were some happy," said Fisher, who hopes to become a political cartoonist.
"My attitude has really changed," said Clenard Pruitt, another of the students. "Used to be I didn't study that much. Now I have a plan to go to college and then go into real estate. That's where the money is."
The "Taylor Plan" that grew out of Taylor's revelation would let Louisiana students attend college based solely on ability to learn. It would require four-year colleges to adopt minimum admission standards. Each qualified student whose family income is less than $30,000 a year would be guaranteed a college education with tuition, fees, room and board costs all waived.
Taylor put the cost of the program at $20 million the first year and believes the savings it would generate would pay for it. Simply eliminating remedial courses at four-year schools because of the admission standards would save millions, he said.
The Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees nine regional colleges, and the Louisiana State University Board have accepted the plan. It officially goes into effect in 1993, but both boards have said any student meeting the academic requirements this fall will have fees and tuition waived at 13 colleges. Those costs will be absorbed by the colleges.
A bill is pending in the Legislature to cover those costs and room and board when the program officially begins. Officials, like Taylor, believe that the program will be self-sustaining.
As proof of what his plan can do, Taylor points to the 172 who took him up on his college offer at Livingston Middle School last year. A year later, none have dropped out or gotten into drugs, there's been one pregnancy and one arrest, and the rest are all maintaining a "B" average or better.
"The biggest thing the program has done is keep these kids in school. Most of them would have dropped out by now if Mr. Taylor hadn't stepped in," said Marie Carter, who supervises the program. "These are kids who had failed at least twice, maybe three times. They came from broken homes, had behavior problems, attitude problems, many of them just weren't wanted by anyone."
"It means a lot to me," Taylor said. "I know what it's like to be poor and be afraid you won't be able to get the education. I know the fear of thinking you might miss the chance to be all you can be.
"Can you think of anything worse than to be bright and be condemned to a life of menial work?"