Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • L. KENT THOMAS (1940-2020)
    L. KENT THOMAS

     

    BY ABBAS FIROOZABADI

    LEONARD KENT THOMAS, an outstanding reservoir simulation engineer, mentor, and friend, passed away on May 6, 2020, at the age of 80.

    Dr. Thomas was born in Miami, Oklahoma, on January 25, 1940, to Leonard and Geneva Thomas. He attended Miami Public Schools and NEO Junior College, where he was honored as an Outstanding Alumnus in 1999. He received a BS degree in chemical engineering from the University of Oklahoma. Kent married Kayleen (Studebaker) after his junior year at OU. They were high school sweethearts and were happily married for almost 59 years. Upon graduation, Kent was offered a fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where he earned his PhD in chemical engineering in 1967. Afterwards, he began his career with Phillips 66 as a reservoir engineering analyst in the computing department in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

    In 1971 Kent moved with his family to Caracas, Venezuela, for 15 months for a work assignment with Phillips. Kent was promoted to manager of engineering sciences with responsibilities for the development of reservoir simulation software for use within the company and application to major field projects such as Ekofisk in the North Sea and consultation to field engineers. JJ Mulva, CEO of Conoco Phillips, recognized this work in a 2008 letter, which reads, “With your long history and extensive knowledge of the Ekofisk field, it’s not only very valuable for me to be able to consult with you on this, but it’s also enjoyable. As you could tell, it’s fun for me to not only look back on what has been done in Ekofisk, but to know there is still more to come.” After his retirement on December 15, 2002, Kent was a contract employee for Conoco Phillips.

    Kent served on the board of the Reservoir Engineering Research Institute (RERI) in Palo Alto, California, from its inception and attended all of the board meetings until 2018. He provided help and support during the whole period. Kent was my mentor for a long period, and I enjoyed his sincerity throughout. He always wanted to help.

    Kent authored or co-authored over 50 technical papers and served on more than 45 Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) committees, chairing many of them with the guidance of his mentor, Dr. Donald Katz (NAE 1968), who helped set up the Research Development Lab at Phillips in Bartlesville. Dr. Katz became a world-renowned engineer, receiving the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan.

    Kent received the 1993 SPE Reservoir Description and Dynamics Award in recognition of major contributions to reservoir simulation technology. He served as a 1995–96 SPE Distinguished Lecturer, traveling to many countries to speak. He was elected to SPE Distinguished Member status in 1995. Kent received the prestigious Robert Earl McConnell Award from the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME) in 2002. This award recognizes beneficial service to mankind by engineers through significant contributions that tend to advance the nation’s standard of living or replenish its natural resources. In 2007 he received a Conoco Phillips Technology Innovation Award in Houston for a lifetime of achievement of excellence in reservoir engineering, as demonstrated by his countless awards, recognition, and professional contributions, including numerous reservoir engineering simulators and their application in the field. In 2012 he received another major recognition, the SPE and AIME Honorary Member Award “for his brilliant 40-year career encompassing the depth and combination of physical concepts and sound mathematical modeling in all his work and publications, for his contributions and concepts significantly advancing reservoir simulation, and for his work on reservoir simulation of fractured reservoirs, the most important piece of work on dual-porosity modeling.” In 2016 Kent was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, DC. The NAE recognizes the superior achievements of engineers, and members are elected by peers. This is one of the highest honors in US engineering. Kent’s family attended the ceremony, where he proudly honored them in his acceptance speech.

    While at Phillips, Kent continued to mentor students. According to his wife, Kayleen, “Most summers Kent was the supervisor for students from Stanford that Phillips hired for jobs. Most were originally from other countries, such as China and France. We became friends with them and he guided them into the corporate world and watched them grow. Many were hired on by Phillips after graduation.”

    His colleagues at Phillips admired him for bringing the same spirit to his leadership. Ray Pierson said, “You have a unique talent to bring out the best in your employees and peers and the ability to find good solutions in a reasonable amount of time to the problems that we have faced.” Clayton Evans said, “Thank you for the opportunity and honor I’ve [had] working with you over the last 23 years as we made many strides forward in the simulation and other petroleum engineer software. Your leadership significantly helped Phillips Petroleum Company continue to be successful. Your wisdom and vision provided us with the personnel and goals to reach high and to perform in ways unparalleled in the industry.” Bruce Freeman recalled, “He was a very brilliant engineer. But unlike most, he was a great supervisor as well, the best I had at Phillips.” Sada Joshi of Joshi Technologies International remembered, “He was a brilliant engineer and was a gentleman. I really enjoyed working with him. He will be missed.” He made lasting friendships at Phillips—his wife Kayleen recalled that “Kent began work in computing around the same time as Wayne Allen, who later became CEO of Phillips. We shared a lot of experiences with Wayne and his wife, Judy, some sports-related and others were … tall tales of fishing.”

    Kent was a good listener and was deeply interested in helping others through teaching and mentorship. While working at Phillips, he taught extension classes in algebra and calculus in Bartlesville for Oklahoma State University, including an algebra class for nurses. He loved helping solve problems and making math easy for reluctant learners. No problem was too big with his “we can do it” attitude. He was highly regarded for his mentorship ability. Chris Pierson, his student at OU, said, “I knew he was a very accomplished engineer. I’ve met very few people who had his heart for the discovery of learning. Always searching for how to do things better, smarter, or find a solution to problems that couldn’t be solved and then sharing it with others. He was gifted for sure. I can remember many times where he would try to explain problems he was working on. The flow of complex math that he could put on paper was simply breathtaking. On a personal level, I can think of a number of instances in my life where he believed in me when others probably wouldn’t and/or he shouldn’t have. He provided nudges and, at times, second chances during critical turning points in my life that altered my path. As a result, I’ve experienced and achieved things in life I wouldn’t have thought were possible. For that, I’ll always be grateful and thankful.”

    Kent enjoyed playing, watching, and coaching sports. He participated in the Phillips baseball and volleyball leagues. He coached the First United Methodist Church’s Y Basketball and his son’s Overlees Little League Baseball team. They won the “A Minor” City Championship in 1979. He attended Boy Scout campouts and summer camps with his son’s troop. He attended countless Phillips swim meets and cheered for his children and the team. Angela Remke Henderson, a friend of his daughter, “thought of him as a second father. He was full of wisdom, kindness, grace, and compassion.”

    The outdoors was always beckoning Kent – hunting, fishing, and caring for his acreage. He took his family on many trips that involved camping and nature. Some trips were related to his work, and others were planned based on the family’s desires. He loved exploring the United States, especially Colorado, California, and Hawaii. His favorite places to visit outside of the United States were Canada, Norway, and England.

    Dr. Thomas is survived by his wife, Kayleen (Studebaker); his daughter, Jana Thomas-Roach, and her husband, Michael; and two granddaughters. He is also survived by many nieces and nephews in Missouri and Oklahoma. His son, Christopher Kent Thomas, sister, Joanne Kaylor, and parents, Leonard and Geneva Thomas, preceded him in death.