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Tom Slick

by Clay Coppedge
First, there was the name. Tom Slick. It sounds daring and adventurous, like Clutch Cargo, Johnny Quest or Indiana Jones. That trio of heroes are each fictional but Tom Slick lived in the real world, even if he spent a lot of time and money looking for creatures that many people believed to be unreal.

Tom Slick made a name for himself in Texas and in the wider world as millionaire oilman, rancher, businessman and philanthropist. His father, Thomas Baker Slick, Sr., was a famous and wildly successful wildcatter known as “Lucky Tom.” He died young, at the age of 46.

After his mother remarried, Tom Slick, Jr.’s stepfather was kidnapped by gangster Machine Gun Kelly, an ordeal that ended with the release of his stepfather and Kelly pleading “Don’s shoot G-men! Don’t shoot G-men!” when the FBI tracked him down.

Maybe as a result of that experience and his wealth, Tom Slick, Jr. would become a private man who shunned the spotlight. He settled in San Antonio with his millions, an insatiable, sometimes unconventional curiosity and a strong desire to do great things without drawing a lot of attention to himself.

That wasn’t always possible. Spending millions of dollars to look for creatures that science has never acknowledged does tend to draw attention. Slick's biographer, Loren Coleman, refers to Slick as “Texas’ forgotten millionaire.”

In addition to his oil and ranching business and contributions to research science, Slick also made a name for himself as a cryptozoologist: one who searches for animals that science has never officially acknowledged. Think Loch Ness Monster, and then think Yeti, Sasquatch or Bigfoot and you get the idea.

Slick drew some national attention when he funded and participated in expeditions to the Himalayas in the 1950s in search of the yeti, the original abominable snowman. Slick and his teams never found anything that science could hang its hat on and say, “By golly, I think we have discovered a new creature! A yeti!” but they unearthed some tantalizing clues that, as the years have gone by, have unfortunately been lost.

When Slick and his team was pounding the Himalayas for proof of the yeti’s existence, there was a considerable if not widespread belief that yetis existed but in such harsh and remote environments that finding one, even its remains, was almost impossible.

Yeti fever peaked in the late 1950s then plunged when famed mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary effectively put an end to the public’s fascination with any notion of an abominable snowman.

Hillary, the first man credited with climbing Mt. Everest, signed on with a TV crew featuring Marlin Perkins of “Wild Kingdom” fame and went to the Himalayas in sort of a made-for-TV search for the yeti. In lieu of actually spotting one, Hillary tracked down fakes and misrepresentations and used them to debunk the whole notion of a yeti, or abominable snowman.

Annoyed but undeterred, Slick turned his attentions to another reported man-ape creature, this one said to be living deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest: Sasquatch, often referred to as Bigfoot.
That we know anything at all about Tom Slick’s search for the yeti and Bigfoot is due almost entirely to Coleman’s efforts. A cryptozoologist himself, Coleman spent the better part of 30 years researching Tom Slick’s life, particularly as it related to his contributions to cryptozoology. The result was his 1989 book “Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti.”

Coleman wrote in the introduction to his book: “This man would throw his fortune behind a serious search for the mysterious creatures. Who was this man? He was a handsome, lean, prematurely white-haired man, soft spoken, with a slight Southern drawl. Tom Slick was his name, more fictional-sounding than real. And in many ways, Tom Slick’s life was the stuff legends are made of…Tom Slick was given many names during his short, event-filled life. But today, hardly anyone remembers him. And that’s a shame.”
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Had he lived past the age of 46 – he died in 1962 when the plane he was riding in exploded over Montana – Slick might have hooked up with or even founded the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, which carries on Slick’s interests, primarily in East Texas.
The Texas Bigfoot is believed to be a Southern Cousin of the Pacific Northwest’s Sasquatch. Of the 100 or so sightings reported on the center’s website, the center deems about 75 of those sightings as legitimate in the way that sightings of unidentified flying objects are legitimate; both remain unidentified.

Persistent reports of a Sasquatch-like creature living along the Sulphur River, just across the state line in Arkansas, inspired the movie “Legend of Boggy Creek.”
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The modern day Texas Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) go by many names, some of which sound like high-end fishing lures: Night Screamer, Hawley Him, Haskell Rascal, Wooly Bugger and Caddo Critter. The people at the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy believe the sightings indicate a primate, albeit an elusive one of which no remains have ever been positively identified. Recent sightings have occurred in the Sam Houston National Forest, near the San Jacinto River.

We might say that all this started with Tom Slick, but to call him Texas’ first cryptozoologist we would have to dismiss the Comanche, Tonkawa and other Texas tribes who believed strongly in a man-ape creature in the same way that they believed in, say bears.

When viewed objectively and as a whole, we may be doing Tom Slick an injustice to focus solely on his searches for abominable snowmen, Bigfoot and several other perhaps mythical creatures. This was a man who founded what is today the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, the Institute of Inventive Research, the Southwest Research Institute and the Mind Science Foundation. Much of the work he founded continues today.

Slick helped develop Brangus cattle and at one time had one of the three largest herds of Angus cattle in the country. Following in the footsteps of his wildcatter father, he discovered the Benedum Field in West Texas, one of the largest oil strikes in the United States after World War II.

Most of us don’t have any reasonable expectation of having Tom Slick’s resources or of leaving such a legacy. What most of us have in common with Tom Slick is that we too want to know, once and for all, if there is or ever was such a creature as the yeti or Bigfoot.

Like Tom Slick, we just want to know.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 1 , 2008 Column
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