Doing his homework: Sidney Powers medalist John Shelton in the field, early in his career, gathering more data and perspective. “He always challenged the conventional exploration wisdom.” Photo courtesy of John Shelton
It is unlikely that anyone who knows John Shelton, the 2011 recipient of AAPG’s highest honor, the prestigious Sidney Powers Award, could think of him as an “accidental geologist.”
He recalls, however, that in his first year at Baylor he declared a major in math because he always had been pretty good at it. A tough course in differential equations convinced him he should look for other work.
“I worked hard, but I made a B,” he said. “It seemed pretty clear to me that I was going to have to do something else.”
It was his sister, Virginia, who suggested he try a geology course, because it was available and, in her opinion, easy. He went for it.
“I didn’t have any long-range career plan at the time,” he said in a recent interview. “Actually, I never have had one. The only long-range plan I had in college was to get out of school and marry Doris.”
As it turned out, that was a great plan – one that undoubtedly has been essential to the successes that have followed. The marriage has been a truly complementary partnership for 61 years.
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, that casual decision to take his sister’s advice was pivotal not only to his own life, but to countless others as well. It set Shelton on a career path that, in the words of AAPG treasurer, former Shelton student and citationist Jim McGhay, led to “a lifetime of innovative research, exploration leadership and collaborative achievement in all aspects of petroleum geosciences.
“His vision of a digital future for AAPG and his personal contributions to the education and careers of many students and professionals,” he continued, “have helped ensure that AAPG will remain vital and dynamic throughout the 21st century and beyond.”
Shelton is recognized as a brilliant scientist, inspiring teacher, prolific author, dedicated researcher and the driving force behind the creation of Datapages, AAPG’s digital library, and Search and Discovery, its petroleum industry information website.
Shelton, however, refuses to take credit for the long list of accomplishments ascribed to him by others. He insists that the Sidney Powers Medal should be regarded as a group award this year.
“I’ve had the extreme good fortune to be associated with outstanding people throughout my career,” he said. “I see myself as more of an expediter than anything else. That’s been my role – the persistent expediter. I can finish a job. That’s my best thing.”
Colleagues say there is more to him than that. Visionary, insightful, an incisive thinker – these are words used to describe Shelton repeatedly by those who have worked with him.
His professional history began in 1953 with Shell Oil Co. in Denver. Leaving Shell in 1963 he moved to Oklahoma State University where he was a professor of geology for 17 years. In 1980 he joined Paul McDaniel at ERICO and later Masera in Tulsa. When Masera closed in 2000, he officially retired, but actually spent the next 10 years as a full-time volunteer at AAPG headquarters, supervising the launch of Search and Discovery.
He officially retired again in 2010, but to no one’s surprise, continues to work as a consultant.
A Competitive Spirit
Self-discipline, clear thinking and a desire to excel were integral to Shelton’s upbringing in Bellmead, Texas, near Waco. Born in 1928, his early years were steeped in the make-do and can-do spirit of the Great Depression and World War II eras.
“My father was the school superintendent and mother taught elementary school,” he said. “During the war he was usually the only man on staff. He did everything, from administration to coaching to building maintenance. He set a very high standard for behavior. There was no smoking, no dancing. He was more strict than the Baptist pastor.
“The thing is, he had to be self-disciplined,” Shelton continued. “He was 28 years old when he graduated from Baylor, because he could only take classes one semester a year. He’d go a semester, then work and save for six months or a year so he could take another semester.
“My mother was one of six girls and two boys born to a farmer, but somehow they all went to college. My parents knew what it was to persist to get an education.”
“John became what he is because of his parents and siblings,” Doris Shelton agreed. “Everyone one of them has been successful. “He is one of four children with two brothers and one sister – the middle son,” she said. “They were the offspring of two professional educators who instilled the value of education in them. Each tried to out-do the other three, but they’ve always cheered each other on as well.”
“It was more of a sibling competition than a rivalry,” Shelton said. “We played a lot of sports and games, and like any kid, I wanted to win.
“I loved sports and I wanted to get good grades – those were my main interests,” he added. “I was good at math, so when it was time for college that’s what I chose to study.”
Incisive and Practical
Graduating from Baylor in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in math and a minor in geology, he quickly met his first and only long-range goal by marrying Doris Smith, the hometown girl he had fallen for on their first date three years earlier. Never one to waste time, he packed up his bride and left Texas on their wedding day, heading for the University of Illinois to begin work on a master’s degree in geology.
In 1952 he received the Shell Fellowship and accepted a position with Shell in 1953. “I couldn’t have made it without Doris,” he said. “She kept me going. When I started work on my doctorate she was my lab assistant, and when I went to do my field work she was right there with me.”
“That summer of 1952 was the worst ever,” she said. “We’d get up very early in the morning and have vanilla wafers and orange juice for breakfast, pack whatever we had for lunch and then work all day until dark – six days a week. It was so hot, regularly 108 degrees in the afternoons.”
The payoff came the following year when Shell offered him a position, initially working subsurface geology from their Denver office. They moved often in those early years as Shelton rotated through various departments of the legendary “Shell University.”
They built their family along the way. Their daughter, Maura, was born in Denver and their son, Kyle, while they were in Billings, Mont.
In 1956 they were back in Houston, where he worked under Bob Nanz studying sandstones.
Colorado School of Mines professor Larry Meckel (another 2011 AAPG awardee) was a graduate student summer hire at the Shell lab while Shelton was there.
“I was just the kid making coffee and delivering it to these guys, but I paid attention to their conversations about the work,” he said recently. “The thing that impressed me about John was he was very data driven, very rigorous, very thorough in his interpretation of data.
“He always challenged the conventional exploration wisdom, even the high-powered managers. He’d ask, ‘What makes you think that? Is that idea supported by the data?’ I thought, this guy is really gutsy. The thing was, he had an extraordinary ability to quickly extrapolate data and take it to its logical conclusion.
“Years later when I was consulting for Masera I had the opportunity to observe him in an administrative role, pointing the way for others,” Meckel said. “He still had that way of being able to look at a data set, clearly understand its relevance and understand what additional work was needed to prove it, especially if it supported new concepts in exploration.
“His thinking is incisive,” he added, “and absolutely practical.”
Shelton remembers his years at Shell with gratitude for the opportunity to work with so many world-class scientists, including at least eight who have preceded him as Powers Medal honorees.
“I believe I learned more during that 1956-57 assignment than during any other comparable period in my career,” he said. The decade at Shell was exciting and busy. It was the place where he became an expert on growth faults and their related sedimentology.
In 1963, however, Shelton decided to take on a new challenge – teaching petroleum geology at Oklahoma State. Gradually he and fellow faculty members Gary Stewart, Zuhair Al-Shaieb, Tommy Thompson and Nowell Donovan, along with their students, formed an informal research group.
“Many of these former students went on to have distinguished careers,” he said, “and I couldn’t be more pleased if they were my own.”
It was while at OSU that he met alumnus Paul McDaniel who was visiting campus with Marathon’s recruiting team.
“That casual meeting eventually led to a major career shift,” he said.
In 1974 he began working part time on research projects during summers for ERICO, McDaniel’s newly formed company. The stratigraphic projects in the North Sea and Mediterranean regions presented a fresh challenge and an ever-widening network of colleagues.
ERICO eventually was bought out by Petroleum Information and became ERICO P.I., but Shelton, McDaniel and others from the original company regrouped to form Masera, a Tulsa-based company that specialized in in-depth regional geological studies.
The sheer volume of data utilized in these studies underscored the need for digitization across the industry and Shelton, always an active participant in AAPG affairs (serving as AAPG elected editor in 1975-79 and vice president in 1988-89), saw the need to bring the Association’s vast repository of information into the digital age.
The citation for the Sidney Powers Award reads, “John Shelton had the vision to see the importance of digital publications to AAPG’s future. He launched and nurtured AAPG’s digital program to the benefit of AAPG members worldwide. Disseminating useful scientific information is AAPG’s primary purpose. Digital publications have accelerated that process and John Shelton was responsible for its beginning.”
Shelton credits Dave Jenkins of Conoco with the original idea to digitize AAPG publications back in the early 1990s. He cites a very long list of people and companies who supported the concept in various ways over the years, but according to AAPG Executive Director Rick Fritz it was Shelton’s insight, creative problem-solving and persistence that transformed the idea from concept to reality.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment, because, first of all, John would not seem to be the most likely candidate to take on that type of project, I mean, he’s not a computer geek,” Fritz said. “But he had the vision to understand its potential value, and then the willingness to take on the challenge of a really monumental task, to seek out and coordinate the technical, financial and professional support necessary to make it happen.
“Because of his work, his enthusiasm and commitment, AAPG was the first professional society to provide this type of service to its members.”
A Standard of Excellence
While Shelton never has been one to shy away from a challenge, neither has he been reluctant to challenge others, Fritz said. As one of the many geology students who studied under Shelton during his 20 years as a professor at Oklahoma State University, he has firsthand experience.
“I think he really inspired his students in that way. He taught us how to take on a challenge, because if you took one of his classes you were definitely challenged. His classes were hard, but if you received a good grade you knew you had accomplished something worthwhile. He didn’t give away grades or accept excuses for doing less than the best possible job.”
With the exception of his wife, the colleague who best understands what makes John Shelton a remarkable scientist and exceptional man is former OSU professor Gary Stewart. He said there is far more to the man than his professional expertise and achievements.
“John Shelton’s ability has been demonstrated for a long time, and it has been acknowledged far and wide. I would rather speak of his character,” Steward said.
“This year is the fortieth that John and I have worked together,” he continued. “The endeavors have been of many kinds. Some required much effort and long days. We disagreed only a few times – but each time openly, and invariably about geology. I recall not one single word spoken in anger.
“John never asked me – or other colleagues – for more time or effort than he was willing to expend,” he said. “He kept his word, and otherwise held to his own high standards of personal and professional behavior.
“He has assisted many people inconspicuously, generously, and graciously – evidence of old-fashioned values that are now of lamentable scarcity. Forty years ago, I regarded John Shelton as a gentleman and a superb geologist. I still do.”