Born in 1928 in Holdenville, Oklahoma, Pickens amassed a fortune in the 1980s as a "greenmailer," buying stakes in large oil companies such as Gulf, Phillips Petroleum, and Unocal and threatening to take them over until they bought their shares back at an elevated price. While the tactic earned the folksy Pickens the animus of corporate America, the media loved it and Pickens became celebrated as a sort of Robin Hood-in-reverse of the oil patch. But his celebrity — and fortune — faded in the 1990s, as too much debt and stubbornly low gas prices made his own company, Mesa Petroleum, a target for a new generation of corporate raiders. Nothing if not resilient, Pickens rebounded in the 2000s and by 2010 had amassed $1 billion as the manager of a natural gas-oriented hedge fund, BP Capital Management. That same year, he became one of the initial signatories of the Giving Pledge.
In donating nearly $1 billion during his lifetime, Pickens sometimes generated controversy. According to the Times, a $165 million gift to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, on December 30, 2005, "spent less than an hour...in the account of the university's charity, O.S. Cowboy Golf Inc., before it was invested in [BP Capital Management]." Roughly half of Pickens' giving over his lifetime was directed to OSU.
"All of us in the Oklahoma State University family are deeply saddened by the passing of Boone Pickens," said OSU president Burns Hargis. "At the same time, we join in celebrating his incredible life. He was the ultimate cowboy. It is impossible to calculate his full impact on Oklahoma State. His historic gifts to academics and athletics not only transformed the university, they inspired thousands of others to join in the transformation. OSU will not be the same without the legendary Boone Pickens, but his mark on our university will last forever."