By Brian Biggane
A desk job in New York City was never going to sit right with Tom Ambrose.
A native of Oklahoma who got his master’s degree in geology from nearby Rutgers University in New Jersey, Ambrose was doing geological studies on the Permian Basin of west Texas from a Manhattan office building when he heard about an oil discovery in Cuba in 1956.
Off he went, heading into a life as rich as the oil preserves he would discover, taking him to destinations as exotic as Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago and other South American locales, including lengthy stays in Colombia and Ecuador.
Ambrose thought he was heading into a stable political situation in Cuba, but six months after he arrived, Fidel Castro arrived from exile in Mexico and the revolution began. He stuck it out until 1959 when his company was nationalized, and he headed back to the U.S. with his wife, Thora, and daughter, Natalie.
Ambrose, 91, and his wife bought property in Ocean Ridge in 1974, as he put it, “when the town had plenty of open spaces, land crabs and other wildlife.” They built a house in 1990 inspired by their seven years in Indonesia, with the sense they can feel like they live in Bali without making the 22,000-mile round trip there.
Ambrose is a member of both the Palm Beach chapter of the Circumnavigators Club (www.circumnavigators.org/chapters/palm-beach-florida/), for those who have been around the world in one direction, and the more exclusive Explorers Club (www.southfloridaexplorers.org), for those with an interest in exploration and who have conducted scientific flag expeditions around the world.
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I was born and grew up in Oklahoma City when it was surrounded by oil wells, so I had a strong interest in natural resources. I later attended the University of Oklahoma, the oldest petroleum geology school in the U.S., where I earned a B.S. in geology. For a change of scenery, I went east to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where I was awarded an M.S. after doing geological field trips to the Catskills and the famous Palisades of the Hudson River.
The geology department was one of the oldest in our country. Geology Hall was built in 1869, the same year the first collegiate football game in the U.S. was played just up the street on College Avenue between Rutgers and Princeton (Rutgers won).
I would say where I grew up, around oil, influenced me more than my education did.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: The day I turned 18 I received a notice from my draft board to report for field artillery training at Fort Sill, Okla., in the summer of 1944. By the time training ended World War II was winding down, so I missed the last troop ship to Europe. How lucky I was, though I did spend two years in the service during the war.
After the war, and with two degrees, I got my first professional job as a geologist with a major American oil company based at 70 Pine St. (the third-highest skyscraper in New York) in the financial district.
In the 1950s, New York was the financial center of the oil industry, most of which has since moved to Texas.
I spent a total of 40 years in international oil exploration before retiring to Florida.
The professional accomplishment I am most proud of is finding oil. I found oil in Cuba, on the deepest well ever drilled there. It wasn’t commercial, but it was oil. Found oil in Colombia; that was a huge operation.
Worked and found oil in Ecuador. Found oil in Indonesia, offshore, and finally went to Trinidad, where we didn’t find any because it had been pumped out by then.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A: Choose STEM. That’s science, tech, engineering and math studies, and stay with them into the future. The U.S. needs you. The Asians are running ahead of us, so we do need technical people.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
A: Everything I do has maybe a geological slant. I like “the Ridge” with an elevation to 22 feet — the highest coastal ridge between Key West and Martin County. It should give some protection from flooding during an ocean surge, especially with rising sea levels.
Also, the big houses they’re building by the beach now could act as a sort of Chinese wall against flooding. If any water comes in I’d expect it to come from the Intracoastal.
Q: What is your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
A: In addition to the friendly neighbors, everything is so close, convenient and available just across the Intracoastal. We once lived at the very north end of the town of Palm Beach and it was a 6-mile round trip to shopping, banking, etc., and even farther to the nearest gas station. Very inconvenient. We also like the natural areas within Ocean Ridge, which preserve the mangroves and beach foliage along A1A. The Inlet Park is also great for boating.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: One Man’s View of the World, 2013, by Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore. The world statesman turned Singapore into a world-class city-state since independence in 1965. Today it has the fourth-highest GDP in the world, 2 percent unemployment, top education, builds more offshore oil rigs than any other country, and has a government-funded health care system. Our son, Serge, graduated from high school in Singapore when we lived there in the late 1980s.
Q: What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A: I don’t really get inspira-tion from music; to relax I like mostly tropical Latin music, which I learned during my 15 years living in Latin America, where both my children were born. I love Latin music, especially the Buena Vista Social Club music from Cuba.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A: “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.” — Louis L’Amour. People go on a cruise and don’t know anything about the countries they visit. You’ve got to appreciate these other places.
Q: If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A: Gene Hackman, who I met personally. He’s about my age. We were in Tangier, Morocco, once while Gene was in town and a reporter came to me and wanted an interview, thinking I was Gene. Later I met him along with the reporter, who took my picture with him, and I still have it.
Q: What makes you laugh?
A: This is old time, but the Three Stooges and old-time movies. They were so funny. Slapstick comedy. I don’t have a big sense of humor but I like that.