Kansas oilman, athlete, philanthropist and convicted fraudster Jim Hershberger dies

11/27/2011 9:22 PM

11/27/2011 9:22 PM

Jim Hershberger lived a big life.

He was a millionaire oilman by the time he was 30 – and gave away at least that much to charity over his lifetime. In 1963 he built what was reputed to be the biggest new house in the country since World War II and invited 1,400 people to his housewarming party. He bought the first private jet in Kansas in 1969. He was generous with his time, money, energy and enthusiasm, creating and leading many local charities. He is perhaps best known for his relentless enthusiasm for athletics and the many events he competed in over the decades.

But he also crashed in a big way. He served five years in federal prison beginning in 1990 for what prosecutors said was defrauding oil investors. He never admitted guilt. His wife, Sally, still says the conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

Mr. Hershberger, 80, died Wednesday in Bonita Springs, Fla. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease nine years ago, according to his wife.

Mr. Hershberger was born in Wichita in 1931, the son of prominent Wichita lawyer Arthur Hershberger and Nadyne Hershberger. He made his fortune in the 1950s and ’60s in oil. He always credited his willingness to outwork his competitors for his success. In an 1966 magazine profile, he said that he once walked three miles and back through heavy snow in street clothes to secure an oil lease, while his competitors chose to stay home. His feet tingled for months afterwards, he said.

He possessed a natural charisma, said Sally.

“He would walk into a banquet room and there’d be this buzz, ‘Jim’s here, Jim’s here.’ ”

Mr. Hershberger was known for his compassion. For 11 years, he sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for thousands of needy Wichitans who would otherwise have no holiday dinner. He co-founded Goodwill Industries here and served on the boards of more than 20 charitable organizations.

The pages of the Eagle are littered with stories of Mr. Hershberger forming this group or donating to that cause. In February 1965, Mr. Hershberger said he had read about an elderly Wichitan who had not been able to pay his taxes and was in danger of losing custody of his grandson. He volunteered to pay the overdue bill and work out the problem with the IRS.

He was just a friendly, outgoing guy, said his long-time friend and running partner, Ric Knorr.

“If he was walking down the street, and he made eye contact with somebody, he would always smile,” Knorr said. “He was just very personable. He didn’t like to be called Mr. Hershberger, “It was always, “I’m Jim.’ ”

Where Mr. Hershberger truly stood out was in athletics. He was dedicated to the point where some considered him obsessive.

He had a solid track career at the University of Kansas in the early ’50s, but never really retired from competitive athletics, even if it was just against himself.

He once played 180 holes of golf at Wichita Country Club in just over 12 hours – tearing up cartilage in the process – just to see if he could.

He regularly competed in events for adults, winning three national titles for older runners. A 1981 profile in Sports Illustrated listed him as having suffered 51 broken bones, 191 stitches and 17 major operations.

His sports obsession and philanthropy overlapped when he donated the money to build or rebuild the tracks at KU and Wichita State University, which were named for him.

He went beyond participating in events to creating them. That culminated in marking his 50th birthday with the Hershberger Games – a grueling 14-hour, 18-sport competition in which he competed against some of Wichita’s top athletes. He broke two fingers and his nose.

He ran with that idea, starting the America’s MVP, Most Versatile Performer, games in 1984, using his money to attract professional athletes and former athletes. He won his own event in 1988.

He even got his face on the Wheaties box, in 1984.

His high-flying philanthropy and athletic endeavors had always been financed by his oil business. But in the late 1980s, the business suffered. He borrowed heavily to keep it afloat, but in 1988 he was forced to sell his company, Petroleum Energy.

A year later, Mr. Hershberger was indicted on 37 counts of fraud. Prosecutors said Mr. Hershberger, desperate for money, misled investors into overpaying for shares in his oil wells and bearing a larger share of the costs.

The key witness was Dyrk Dahl, the former vice president of Petroleum Energy who was being groomed to take charge when Mr. Hershberger retired.

Dahl, who got a light sentence for cooperating, admitted to moving oil illegally from one lease to another; altering invoices and billings to divert operations costs from Hershberger to investors; falsifying financial statements; and selling interests in leases Hershberger did not own – all, he said, with Mr. Hershberger’s approval.

Witnesses also said that some of Hershberger’s widely accepted accomplishments weren’t quite what they seemed. Dahl testified that Olympic runner Dave Wottle was disqualified in the 1988 MVP Games so Hershberger would win and not have to pay out the prize money.

Despite witness after witness who lauded Mr. Hershberger’s character, he was convicted and served five years in minimum-security prison in Leavenworth.

Mr. Hershberger and his family appealed the conviction while he was in prison, and defended his reputation afterward. Sally Hershberger wrote a book in 1996 called "Fame, Fortune, Framed & Freed" directing most of her anger Dahl. Even now, she maintains her husband’s innocence.

Going to prison was very hard on her husband, said Sally Hershberger.

“I think some of the spark went out of him,” she said. “He felt so humiliated by all that. It colored his whole pleasure in life. It was shame. It kind broke him.”

After getting out, he and his family lived in Lawrence and later moved to Florida. He and the rest of the family struggled with his afflictions for most of the decade.

But the difficult ending doesn’t cancel out a lifetime of success and memories, said Sally Hershberger as she remembered her husband.

“He was just full of life, and energy and love for everybody.”

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