When Paul N. “Red” Adair died in 2004 at age 89, his exploits as an oil well firefighter qualified him as one of the true heroes of the 20th century. History identifies his name with a host of the biggest, baddest man-made infernos from Texas to Kuwait.
“There are two things I really like about my job,” Red once told an interviewer. “When the phone rings I never know where I’m heading to next – and I’m never bothered by life-insurance salesmen!”
The staggering Adair resume includes the 1959 Catco offshore fire, the 1962 “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter” in the Sahara desert, a 1970 offshore blaze in the Bay Marchand field off the Louisiana coast, the 1977 Bravo blowout in the North Sea, the 1979 Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea that involved an explosion that killed 167 oil workers.
The climax of his career came in the 1990s, extinguishing 117 oil well fires in Kuwait ignited by Saddam Hussein’s troops fleeing the first Gulf war invasion. But according to Sunny Hinson-Adair, youngest grandchild of Red, none of these adventures were ever discussed at home.
“He and I would go fishing or hit golf balls,” Hinson-Adair said. “We would just sit there and talk and joke. I would sleep on his tummy when I was 11 years old. He was just a regular grandfather to me.”
When her grandmother died in 2010, Sunny found herself the curator of the Red Adair legacy. Yet she knew very little about what Red had done to become famous.
“I had to get on the Internet,” Hinson-Adair said. “I had never watched the John Wayne movie “Hellfighters,” inspired by Red’s life. I had never read the authorized biography about him. I was amazed when I read about his inventions and learned about all the people he had helped.”
Her grandfather had always been someone special to her. Then she learned what Red meant to the average person of his generation.
“I finally got it,” Hinson-Adair said. “I could appreciate all he was.”
More than a quarter century ago, Adair granted Industrial Fire World permission to present the annual Red Adair Award to a recipient who had made the greatest contribution to industrial fire fighting. Unfortunately, the average person of Hinson-Adair’s own generation, to say nothing of their children, may well be ignorant of the rich heritage Red Adair left behind as a firefighter and a human being.
To remedy that, Hinson-Adair has launched a web site – www.redadair.com – as a repository for information about Red and to help market officially licensed merchandise about him.
During his life, Adair was closely identified with the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston and other charities helping children. That association continues through the web site.
“Our campaign is Help Red Help the Children,” said Ed McDonald, chief marketing officer for Adair Enterprises. “We want to get the focus on Red Adair to build a platform to educate and teach the history of what Red left behind for us.”
Hinson-Adair said Red’s interest in helping children stems from his tough upbringing in Houston.
“He had a hard time as a child,” she said. “His family was very poor. He worked from the time he was little. One of his first jobs was to keep the fire going overnight in the forge at his father’s blacksmith shop.”
If he let the fire go out he experienced the discipline common in those days for not doing his job, Hinson-Adair said.
“It’s kind of funny that he grew up to put fires out,” she said.
Red was forced to drop out of high school to take a job delivering prescriptions and pies by bicycle, she said. Although he received many awards and honors during his lifetime, one in particular touched him more than any other.
“I’ll never forget the time I walked into his office and found him crying,” Hinson-Adair said. “Reagan High School had sent him an honorary diploma and a high school ring. He said that of all the things he’d done in his life, this meant the most to him.”
Hinson-Adair said she is exploring avenues that would instill Red’s work ethic in today’s children.
“My idea is to write a children’s book introducing kids to him to teach them that no matter where you come from, no matter what you do, rich or poor, no matter what the barriers, you can do anything with old fashioned hard work and determination. I don’t think kids are taught that any more.”
Another project under consideration is a coffee table book compiling photos of Red’s epic fires taken from his personal collection.
Already available online is an array of calendars, shirts, golf tees, hats, baby clothes and ties, all bearing the distinctive Red Adair logo. A line of food seasoning based on grandmother Kemmie Adair’s favorite recipes is also in the works. Hinson-Adair said the products are also finding their way onto store shelves.
“We are working to make it more mainstream, not just an eBay-type item,” she said. “It’s available in some high-end boutiques in the Houston area.”
Merchandising is nothing new to the Adair name. Back in the 1950s Adair sold caps, pens and golf tees with his name on them.
“He started doing it because the stuff disappeared from his office so much,” Hinson-Adair said. “He started putting ‘Stolen from the offices of Red Adair’ on it as a joke.'”
Beyond the website, Hinson-Adair faces the task of dispensing with her grandfather’s vast collection representing a lifetime’s interest in auto and boat racing, fishing, cutting horse competitions and, of course, fire fighting.
“We actually had four railroad cars full of it at his ranch in Bellville,” Hinson-Adair said. “Before the first auction in October 2010 I personally moved ten full-size U-Haul trucks out. We sold more than 1,000 items at the first auction, mostly cattle and equipment.”
Aside from the railroad cars, Adair managed to fill a 10,000 square-foot replica of an Old West saloon all the way to the roof with items he had collected.
“My grandma always told me ‘When I pass, please use your inheritance for good and not for greed,’” Hinson-Adair said. “I said ‘OK,’ but had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really thought I’d get some T-shirts and hats. Suddenly, I discovered it involved mountains more than that.”