Lawrence W. Funkhouser (left) received the school's 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award for his contributions to science and his leadership in the field of petroleum geology.
Larry Funkhouser Honored with Distinguished Alumni Award
Longtime industry leader celebrated both fundamental science and creativity in the art of oil exploration.
When he first arrived at Stanford, Lawrence W. "Larry" Funkhouser, MS ’48, found housing in the area to be overpriced and in short supply. But he had come to study with Stanford Earth’s inaugural dean, A.I. "Lev" Levorsen, whom he understood to be “the best geologist in the world,” and he was not to be deterred. With luck, persistence, and some compromises related to living space that will feel familiar to today’s graduate students, he made it work.
On June 17, 2018, a full 70 years after graduating with his master’s degree, Funkhouser again donned a cap and gown for Stanford Earth’s diploma ceremony, where he was presented with the school’s Distinguished Alumni Award for his contributions to science and his leadership in the field of petroleum geology. The award recognizes highly significant, long-lasting contributions to the civil, government, business, or academic communities by members of the school’s alumni body.
A longtime vice president for worldwide exploration at Chevron Corporation and a former president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Funkhouser is well known and respected for better integrating science into the art of oil exploration, says Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, who presented the award.
“At Chevron, Larry oversaw the elevation of fundamental research, some of which was really groundbreaking relative to the industry,” says Graham. “Among other things, the company was a scientific leader in efforts to understand the chemistry of organic matter and how it related to the chemistry of petroleum. Some of their scientists literally wrote the book on that field."
“He was also considered a great leader. I think his election to the presidency of AAPG—the highest post one can achieve in public service in the petroleum industry—is a measure of the respect he garnered for not only his accomplishments but also his leadership style.”
An early calling
A native of Napoleon, Ohio, Funkhouser developed an interest in geology in his early teens, thanks to his older brother, Harold, who brought fossils, rock and mineral specimens, and maps home from his college geology courses. Decades later, the brothers’ shared interest would culminate in a good-natured professional rivalry when they headed U.S. exploration efforts for different companies.
Larry Funkhouser earned his AB in geology from Oberlin in 1943 and entered the Air Force, where he served as a communications officer in North Africa during WWII. Having married his college sweetheart, Jean, just after the war, he planned to pursue a graduate degree in geology. He wrote to ask the advice of eminent geologist Hollis Hedberg, PhD ’37, whom he had met through his brother. That’s when he was told he needed to go study with Levorsen, recalls Funkhouser.
“He told me, ‘There is only one place to go, and that’s Stanford.’”
Stanford’s expertise in the Earth sciences dates to the founding of the university, when geologist John Casper Branner was hired as its first faculty member. With petroleum and mineral resources central to American postwar recovery and economic growth, Stanford consolidated this long-standing expertise in its new School of Mineral Sciences in 1947, naming Levorsen its inaugural dean. The school was renamed the School of Earth Sciences in 1962 and later the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences in 2015.
With the GI Bill and little else, Larry and his new bride arrived at the Farm in the fall of 1946 and settled into a small room in Stanford Village, a former nurses’ barracks on the edge of Menlo Park. Having no cooking facilities and no money to eat out, they took part-time jobs at a cafeteria in Palo Alto, where they earned each night’s dinner and a packed lunch for the next day.
Larry Funkhouser enrolled in Levorsen’s Geology of Petroleum course, where he and his classmates were captivated by tales from the field.
“Lev had a profound influence on all of us who were privileged to hear his lectures and to observe his enthusiasm for petroleum exploration,” he says. “His passion for finding new reserves made us all realize that exploration was a fascinating treasure hunt, one that could lead to discovery of new energy sources as well as a rewarding and unusually interesting life’s work.”
Funkhouser recalls that the class consisted primarily of returned servicemen, all as eager as he was to get started on careers delayed by the war and intrigued by the intellectual and economic opportunities offered by exploration geology. “Sometimes Lev would keep talking after the bell rang and no one ever moved,” he says.
Success and a good eye for talent
Upon receiving his master’s degree in 1948, Funkhouser joined Standard Oil Company of California, now known as Chevron Corporation. Beginning as a geologist in the Gulf Coast area, he rose quickly through the company’s exploration ranks, moving from Louisiana to Texas and eventually to the headquarters in San Francisco. In 1974, he was named director and vice president for exploration and production, from which position he guided Chevron’s worldwide upstream activities until his retirement in 1986.
Throughout this tenure, Funkhouser was known for championing closer collaboration between the company’s research division and its operating company—connecting basic research scientists with the geologists and geophysicists who were working on practical applications.
“He was ahead of his time,” says James Ingle, the W. M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences, Emeritus. “He realized it was best to use every possible tool. I think that was one of his secrets to success. Corporations tend to be factional and one of Larry’s real talents was to bring people together.”
Funkhouser is reluctant to take credit for Chevron’s exploration successes under his leadership, often responding to praise by saying, “I had good people working for me.”
It’s true, says Ingle. “Like many good leaders, he was an excellent spotter of talent.”
And, although quick to dismiss kudos for himself, Funkhouser is emphatic about the contribution a single geologist or geophysicist can make to a major operation.
“While teamwork is essential in using all the modern tools applicable to an exploration program,” he says, “it’s the spark of the individual creative geoscientist that ignites the process.”
Remaining always in close touch with his alma mater, Funkhouser has contributed to the development of legions of Stanford Earth students and alumni over many decades. He served on the Stanford Earth Advisory Board from 1972 to 1987, including a term as chair. He was also an active member of the school’s program review board, a body of outside experts who evaluated departments and programs on behalf of the dean.
Ingle, who was chair of the Department of Geology when it was reviewed during the 1980s, appreciated Funkhouser’s attitude toward this role. “He was truly concerned about the wellbeing of the school,” he says. “He was someone who took the job very seriously.”
Funkhouser remained a leader in the field following his retirement from Chevron, co-founding the independent Energy Exploration Management Company in 1989 and serving as its director and vice president until 1993.
He chaired the AAPG Foundation Board of Trustees for the decade 1991 to 2001, during which time he oversaw a near doubling of the foundation’s assets for the support of educational and scientific activities in the field of geology. He was awarded AAPG’s highest honor, the Sidney Powers Memorial Award, in 2004.
Upon learning that he would receive Stanford Earth’s 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award, Funkhouser said he was surprised, but grateful, to have his work acknowledged so many years into his retirement.
“It means a lot to me,” he says. “This is where it all started.”