Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Rollin King Dies, Also Has Many Regrets

Rollin King had regrets. The co-founder of Southwest Airlines who passed away yesterday at age 83, regretted that he never got a chance to be the CEO of a company that is still largely associated with its other, now legendary founder, Herb Kelleher. King also regretted the way Kelleher grabbed the limelight at Southwest, and he was troubled that his own name had mostly faded from the company’s history. Plus, King was downright angry that, when he was talked about publicly, it was in the context of a lie.

That lie: That in the winter of 1967, King and Kelleher got together for drinks at San Antonio’s St. Anthony’s Club and King sketched out the business plan for Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin. The drunken doodle displayed a triangle connecting Dallas to San Antonio and Houston, the cities Southwest would first serve.

True story? “No it wasn’t,” King first told me in 2006. “A number of other things that have been said about the early years were not true.”

King and I were talking for a story that ran in Spirit, Southwest Airlines’ in-flight publication. The piece was edited gingerly in hopes of keeping the client from being displeased with what King had to say. Among the things it therefore did not end up including was King’s outright denial of the accuracy of cocktail napkin story, although that did appear in D CEO months later. The Spirit story also did not include the fact that King wanted to be CEO of the company from the very beginning. He decided it wasn’t fair to the investors, though, since he had no experience running a large airline. So he and the company’s board hired a longtime airline veteran, Lamar Muse, in 1971 when the first flights were set to take off. That “was the right thing to do,” King said during our interview at The Mansion in 2006, “but it was the worst thing for me in the long run.”

After Muse resigned in 1978 related to a long-simmering feud with King, King saw another opportunity to take over the CEO post. But King told me that Kelleher talked him out of it. John Murchison, one of the original owners of the Dallas Cowboys and a man King considered to be a co-founder of Southwest Airlines, “suggested that I should be in charge,” King said. That happened during a board meeting that Kelleher did not attend. After the meeting, “Herb talked me out of it,” King said. “If I’d known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have let him do that. But he convinced me that if I took over as CEO, because we were having such a big fight and Lamar was going to the press and all, that it would be bad for the airline. It was a stupid mistake for me to agree. That’s all right. I lived with it. But now the only people who know about that are my family and a few people around the state.”

Weeks later, when King talked to a recruiter who was helping to find Muse’s replacement, he says he learned that Kelleher had “thrown his hat in the ring.” Kelleher did take over the airline’s top operational post that year. “And that’s when Herb started calling himself a founder,” King told me. “That pisses me off, but there’s nothing I can really do about it.”

Actually, there was something he could have done about it. The Morning News reported today that they offered King the chance to write his own account of those early years. He never took them up on it. There’s probably a good reason for that: In spite of his few regrets, King loved the airline he founded. And in spite of his differences with Kelleher, he had a deep respect for Kelleher’s leadership of the airline.

In fact, one of the last things King told me back in 2006 was that Kelleher, “has done a hell of a job, and I don’t know if I could have done as good a job as he did. There’s no taking that away from him. He’s grown the airline without screwing it up.”