Refinery fix-it man’s ingenuity took him around the world

Bateman

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Jim Bateman, still going strong at 95.

It was apparent early on that Jim Bateman was no ordinary boy.

Just a week into kindergarten in Lawrence Park, Penn., his teacher sent a note home to his mother, who was also a teacher. His mother was told that she apparently had taught her son everything his teacher hoped to impart in kindergarten. He was being recommended for immediate transfer to first grade.

Also, the teacher added, her son was “too big for the furniture.” And off he went to first grade.

“I’ve been one year ahead of everybody all my life,” he said, chuckling at the thought.

At 95, he’s still ahead. He lives on his own in an apartment near Rocky Mountain College in Billings, continues to drive a car and recalls details of his very long life with little hesitation. It was a life of constant learning and much travel, working as an engineer for oil companies, specializing in solving complex technical problems.

“They’d say, ‘Jim, go fix it.’ And so we’d be off for three or four months.”

One early task was designing and then training a team to operate a Carter Oil Co. refinery in Lockwood, which is still running, now as an ExxonMobil refinery. He also played a lead role in the design of ocean-going tankers used to transport liquefied natural gas, something of an engineering marvel at the time.

Bateman was born in 1920 in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father was an electrical engineer for General Electric. When he was 18 months old, his family moved to Lawrence Park, Pa., a square-mile town built by GE and inhabited entirely by GE employees. Bateman, who was an only child, remembers that his grade school was on one end of the block and his high school on the other.

He was always too big for the furniture, but he didn’t realize it because there were some other very tall boys in the neighborhood. In his senior class of 22 boys, he said, he was the only third-tallest.

“Two of ’em were taller than me,” he said. “I was only 6-6.”

His high school math teacher helped him decide what he wanted to do with his life. Since Bateman like math and chemistry, he said, “Why don’t you try chemical engineering?” That was what he studied at the University of Pittsburgh. And even with several part-time jobs and membership in several organizations, he said, “College was easy for me. I had a huge memory. I never had to cram for finals.”

Bateman says such things without a whiff of braggadocio. His intelligence was as inborn as his height (he topped out at the 6-foot-6 he reached in high school), so talking about either trait seems as natural to him as talking about the other.

At any rate, as soon as he graduated, he and two other members of his class were snapped up by Esso (later known as Exxon and then ExxonMobil) to work at a refinery in Elizabeth, N.J. They were shifted all over the refinery at first, to learn as much as possible about the whole process, and Bateman ended up in a small department of expert troubleshooters who were on call to fix problems at refineries all over the country.

Boy

Bateman as a 5-year-old in Lawrence Park, Penn.

When the United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1942, Bateman tried to enlist in the Navy, but there was that furniture problem again.

“They told me, ‘You can go home. You’d never fit in a hammock.’”

Esso secured a deferment for him anyway because he was needed stateside. The military had to have aviation fuel for the war effort, and it was a tricky business making sure each refinery produced just the right amount of the necessary components for the various grades of fuel, and then to get that fuel to the military as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Bateman’s job had him running up and down the East Coast from refinery to refinery, coordinating production and transportation.

Meanwhile, he also got married. He happened to be boarding in a house across the street from the home of his future wife, Joan. He had seen her at local dances, but only met her after moving into the boardinghouse. He and Joan were wed in 1943.

During the war years, he also worked for a spell at a Boston refinery after its manager transferred to Billings. Exxon (Bateman used the words Esso and Exxon interchangeably) had recently expanded out to Montana and Wyoming, picking up four “junkpile refineries,” as Bateman called them, and “a whole bunch of gas stations.”

In the winter of 1945, the man Bateman replaced in Boston invited him out to Billings to form a “process engineering department.” Bateman said it didn’t take long to figure out that the antiquated refinery Exxon had purchased wasn’t worth the trouble of maintaining, so he was tasked with developing a new refinery in Lockwood.

Bateman hired a team of six engineers for the process engineering department. This was the team that made sure the refinery constructiuon plans were followed precisely, and it was the team that made sure the operators of the new plant received the proper training. The refinery was owned by Carter Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon. To make sure the plant had the people it needed to run the refinery, Bateman, in addition to his other duties, taught a night class for engineers who needed specialized instruction on what a refinery was all about.

College

Bateman, all 6-foot-6 of him, during his college years.

The Lockwood refinery was the smallest one in the company, so it became a pilot plant where new techniques or equipment could be tested. “We were the guinea pig, which was fun, actually,” Bateman said.

But even with that extra stimulation, running a small refinery wasn’t enough for Bateman. After the plant was up and running smoothly, he said, “I got bored. So I quit and joined Conoco.”

That would take him away from Billings in 1955, but with a bigger family. After trying unsuccessfully to have children, Jim and Joan applied to the state of Montana to adopt a child. Bateman described the couple’s difficulties with typical candor and an engineer’s thoroughness.

“It turns out my sperm was lazy,” he said. “It wouldn’t climb up and do the job it was supposed to do.”

The Batemans were in the process of moving into a new house off Virginia Lane—he thinks it was early in 1950—when the state called with news. It turned out there was not just one child available but two, a 16-month-old girl and her 3-month-old brother. And that was how Pamela and Robert came into their lives.

When he quit Exxon and went to work for Conoco, that company had just decided to move its headquarters from Oklahoma to Houston, “so I actually arrived in Houston before my boss did,” Bateman said.

He became a “fixer” again, finding solutions for anything that went wrong or wasn’t up to snuff at the seven or eight refineries then owned by Conoco. Bateman said his wife was a “marvelous person” who never objected to a sudden move and was always ready to go, though she’d barely ever left her hometown before meeting her husband.

After he’d been with Conoco for a while, company brass decided they needed hybrid employees, rather than the engineers who knew nothing about business and managers with no engineering background. So Bateman was sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an intensive, 12-month master’s-degree program in industrial management.

Was even MIT no great challenge for the man who had breezed through engineering at Pittsburgh? Bateman just shrugged and laughed when asked.

Couple

This photo was taken two years ago, when Jim and Joan Bateman had been maried for 70 years. Joan died last January.

“Seems like the guy from Westinghouse and I were the ones who always answered the questions,” he said. “We tried to hold back.”

After MIT, though, “they didn’t quite know what to do with me,” he said of Conoco. He was soon working on a project for a client of Conoco that was interested in using LNG, liquefied natural gas, that had to be transported from Tunisia to England. LNG is produced by condensing natural gas, which involves cooling it to about minus-260 Fahrenheit. To be shipped by sea, it would have to be stored in an aluminum tank and surrounded by some form of insulation to protect the ship’s steel hull. The solution Bateman and his team hit on was insulating with balsa wood, which was strong enough to bear the pressure and dense enough not to compact, as normal insulation would have done.

It was the biggest project he ever worked on, and one of the most important, making possible the widespread production of LNG. There are now 30 gas liquefaction plants in the world, he said, and probably 100 giant tankers of the same basic design as the one he designed decades ago.

He would continue working until 1981, all over the world. He managed a refinery in Lake Charles, La., and then went to England to manage European refining and petrochemicals for Conoco.

“Before I retired I ended up in every damned department in that company,” he said.

He also worked for a spell in Milan, Italy, and once went to Indonesia to find out what was holding up construction of a new plant there. The construction foreman told him that, among other things, he had manpower problems. One worker driving a piece of heavy equipment had been attacked, hauled off the machine and killed by a tiger. Another employee was riding his bicycle when a snake struck and killed him.

“I said, ‘Yes, I can see you do have manpower problems,’” Bateman said drily.

Bateman was head of international refining for Conoco when he retired in 1981. He and his wife spent a few years in Florida to be near their daughter Pamela Gore and her children, then about six years in Arkansas in a retirement community before moving back to Billings.

The move to Montana was motivated by the desire to be near their cabin in Silver Gate, near Cooke City. When they first came to Billings in 1945, their first residence was a basement apartment in the house of P.R. Gorham, who owned a taxi service in Billings and who had built the Ranger Rider Lodge in Silver Gate in 1938. It was Gorham who introduced the Bateman family to that little town on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

They bought a cabin there in 1966 and would come back to Montana almost every summer, at least for a week or two. In retirement, the Batemans would spend the whole summer at their cabin. They helped build and were active in the interdenominational church in Silver Gate, and through that work Bateman became a member of the board of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.

Bateman has also been involved in music most of his life, as a clarinet player in high school and college and as a vocalist since then. He is a longtime member of the Kiwana Chords—“In fact, I sang at a funeral last Saturday”—and still attends First Presbyterian Church.

Last year, accompanied by his son Robert, who lives in Las Vegas, Bateman returned to many familiar haunts on the East Coast. He recalls spending most of one day at MIT, where the professors were fascinated by his account of what life was like there more than 60 years ago.

Daughter Pamela moved to Billings five years ago. She said she had a wonderful childhood, with its frequent moves and exposure to various cultures. During one four-year stretch of high school and her first year of college, she said, she attended four different schools—in England, Italy, Switzerland and Spain.

And her father, for all his brilliance, was a kind man who doted on his children. She said three words—“generous, gentle, loving”—describe him perfectly.

Joan, who was 11 months younger than her husband, died last January. They had been married for 71 years. Bateman ascribes his own longevity—somewhat jokingly but acknowledging it might be true—to the countless vaccinations he used to undergo on his international travels. And it helped that he always loved his job.

“It was fun,” he said. “I’ve had such interesting jobs that it’s hard to believe.”

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