For my family the big election last year wasn’t the presidential one. Okay, there were similarities: Like the Bushes, we cheered a family member—one who, like George W., has strong Midland ties and ultimately prevailed (although with a lot more dispatch). The candidate in question was my brother, William F. Dingus, who won his bid for the Midland City Council last spring. I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think Bill’s tale is worth a recount. I mean, it’s worth recounting.
My little brother is now 41, but ever since Bill was a kid growing up in Pampa, my parents knew he was bound for glory, or at least for moderate renown. For one thing, as the youngest of four children and the only boy, he had a built-in audience of doters, and he quickly grew comfortable in the limelight. In elementary school he was already displaying an interesting bent of mind: He invented a bed-making machine of clamps and cranks, for example, and formed a detective agency with his best friend (they successfully located one ring and a few dogs, although Bill now says, “I’m not sure those dogs were ever really lost”). By age fourteen he was performing cute-kid roles in musicals at Pampa High School, where he later became the senior class president. Bill always let me know that I was his favorite sister, which naturally made me all the more inclined to shower him with time and trinkets. It took a decade before I discovered, by comparing notes with my sisters at last, that he had been telling Jane and Nancy the exact same thing all along. What surer sign, I ask you, could there be of a future politician?
He decided to run for a simple reason. “I wanted to be in a better position to get things done,” he says. “I found myself thinking, ‘Somebody’s got to be a good politician. And if someone like me isn’t going to give it a try—someone with the time and the education and the financial freedom—who is?'” He launched himself into the fray—hammering signs into yards, setting up a Web site, glad-handing to a fare-thee-well. Others were less optimistic: “He was running against one incumbent and five other candidates,” says oilman Bill Rutter III, “and frankly, I didn’t give him a ten percent chance of winning. The fact that he won is mind-boggling.” What’s also surprising, at least in pro-Bush Midland, is that Bill is not a Republican. He’s not a Democrat either. “It’s a lot easier to represent everybody,” he asserts, “if you don’t antagonize half of them by putting on a label.” Says a longtime friend, Andrew Swartz: “Midland is such a homogenized town—one industry, one mind-set. But Bill breaks the mold. For a guy like him to gain entrance to the traditional bastion of the city council just tickles me to death.”
Bill’s particular goals for the city are beautification and economic diversification. He is collaborating with the Arts Assembly of Midland to create Art on the Range, a group of mega-sculptures to enliven the city’s public driving range. “If I were an artist,” Bill says, “I’d be intrigued by the idea of creating something designed to be seen from two hundred yards away and hit by golf balls.” He also wants to subsidize the spaying and neutering of pets. “I’d like to see us reduce the number of unwanted animals without resorting to killing them,” he says. To enlighten himself about the topic, he drove around one day with an animal control officer. “We scraped up a thirty-eight-forty-five off the pavement—that means a wild animal, in this case a mockingbird. We looked for eighteens—those are dogs running loose. Then we get a report of a forty-five-F—that means a dead cat—and it was only a block from my house! Well, it wasn’t my cat—but it was a friend’s cat, so we had to go over there and tell her Harrison was dead. It was quite a day.” For Bill, such adventures are the perks of his $300-per-year job. (He can’t wait to tag along with city officials for the annual water tower inspection.)
Not every outing, however, is a fun one. Last fall the council approved a raise for the police force, which angered firefighters, whose salaries remained unchanged. Bill scheduled a visit to the fire department to “let them have at me,” as he put it. “We had a nice lunch, and everyone was being very polite, and just as I was fixing to bring up the subject of the raise, alarms went off all over the place and everybody left. And the joke going around the next day was, ‘Who’d Bill get to start that fire?'”
Another dilemma Midland may soon face again, Bill says, is whether to adopt an economic-development tax and use the proceeds to woo new businesses and hang on to existing ones. “I wish Texas had never legalized that tax; it just takes money from taxpayers and puts it in the coffers of the ABC Widget Company or whatever,” he says. “Midland has voted it down twice. But if you’re the only city that doesn’t have it, you could be in a heap of trouble. Odessa has one, and when we get jealous of the success Odessa is having, we’ll be voting on that tax again.”
Even when he’s talking about Serious Issues, though, Bill is irrepressible. I edited his campaign literature, which he wrote himself, and one print ad, titled “Eleven Reasons I Am Going to Vote for Myself,” began, “I can’t be corrupted, although I am looking forward to having someone try.” In fact, he sent back the parking sticker the airport gave him to use while attending official functions there, with a note saying, “Thanks very much, but if I kept this I know I’d be tempted to use it when I leave on vacation.”
No wonder he has attracted supporters like former Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen and Alan Simpson, the stalwart Wyoming Republican. Bill knows Alan and Ann Simpson because their ranch adjoins his in-laws’ in Wyoming, and they think he’s a hero. “We had gone out to a party one night, and I had forgotten a pot of oxtail on the stove,” Mrs. Simpson recalls. “Bill heard the smoke alarm go off and went racing over there.” Says Bill: “I figured the senator and Mrs. Simpson would credit me with saving their house. And I did break in through a window and turn off the soup. Then I found out the door was unlocked all along.”
The funny thing about Bill’s political serendipity is that he never wanted to move to Midland at all, and he was less than thrilled when Exxon transferred him there in 1987. At the time the Tall City, as it styles itself, was still reeling from the failure of the locally owned Midland National Bank and dreading the ripple effect on the oil business, but for some reason the town got to him. Bill’s job description soon included the duties of unofficial master of ceremonies for many company events. When Exxon left Midland in 1993, Bill and his wife, Mary Anne, formed their own company, which participates in drilling five to ten wells a year, mostly in the Permian Basin.
Being his own boss gave Bill even more time to lend his talents to various charities, notably the United Way and the Boys and Girls Club of Midland. As an emcee, Bill makes what is all too often a droning necessity into stand-up comedy. For example, in 1994, while presenting a gift to guest speaker Roger Staubach, he lavished praise on the great Dallas Cowboy quarterback, then closed with a quote from the athlete’s autobiography: “A guy could really get into trouble if he started believing everything people said about him at banquets.” Another gala, recalls former United Way honcho Kay Bivens, took place shortly after faulty wiring had started a fire in her office. “Every time Bill said my name,” she says with a chortle, “he used magician’s flash paper to make flames shoot up from his fingers.”
When it comes to entertainment opportunities, Bill gets plenty of help from Mary Anne (who is no stranger to the political arena; her father, Charles Duncan, was Secretary of Energy under Jimmy Carter). She is a serene individual who takes receptions and such in stride and is often the behind-the-scenes instigator of Bill’s pranks. Once, when they were scheduled to appear at a black-tie ball, Bill complained about having to don a tuxedo. “Well, then,” suggested Mary Anne, “why don’t you wear those robes your friend sent from Saudi Arabia?” So Bill appeared at the bash with burnoose, shades, five o’clock shadow, and borrowed Rolex and proceeded to amuse fellow partygoers by identifying himself as Prince Facade of Kostume, lately of the yacht Allah Board.
I’ve hung out with Bill in Midland, and his fondness for the town is evident. On one recent jaunt he pointed out the new Subsurface Library, an oil-biz archive, with its cool fossil-pocked stone exterior; bragged about Tomcat USA, a manufacturing company that has helped build sets for Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones as well as England’s Millennium Dome; schmoozed at Luigi’s restaurant long enough to have to eat his pasta cold; and drove his kids—Lizby, Paul, and Mariah, ages eight, six, and four—to scatter pennies on the Santa Fe tracks for custom smushing. “In Midland the rat race seems never to have started,” he says. “I’m lucky. I’ve got the good life.”