Tiny Giant

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There are three things always at the tip of Pam McCollough’s tongue—The University of Alabama, adversity, and her mom.

In the fall, especially, the University rolls off her tongue like drumsticks on a snare beginning the national anthem, and rightfully so. Since 1984, the year she graduated from law school, it’s been her tradition to attend nearly every home football game, trekking from Houston and further to Alabama to cheer on her alma mater. The most home games she’s missed were those played during her two and-a-half-year stint in London. And even then, she made it to a few.

Adversity, for the 1979 graduate, has come mostly through her profession, practicing intellectual property law for a Fortune 500 oil company. Though she talks of adversity that happens to everybody—not getting the job you want, losing parents and grandparents, biting off more than you can chew—she also talks of working in an industry in which less than a quarter of her colleagues are women and,
one of her biggest obstacles, losing her father as a 15-year-old, high school sophomore. She and her mom had always been close, but her father’s death made them best friends.

McCollough is what some might call a tiny giant—a 5-foot-2 woman with an unassuming stature but immense tenacity and grit. As a senior attorney, she has survived numerous recessions and more layoffs than she can count, all while working for one of the world’s largest oil companies in the fourth-largest U.S. city. In her 32 years at Shell, not once has the company been sued for an agreement she was responsible for.

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THE BEGINNING OF TRADITION

But she hasn’t always been in the hustle and bustle of the city. The southeast Alabama native grew up in Enterprise, a town of about 15,000. Her dad, Joe, was the assistant county engineer for Coffee
County, where both sides of the family had lived for five generations; her mother, Doris, worked in the business office of Alabama Power.

Some of McCollough’s fondest and earliest memories involve high school football.

“I remember taking naps when I was in kindergarten so I could go to the Friday night high school football games with my parents and sister,” McCollough said. She also remembers her dad coming home after work on Fridays and roasting peanuts for everyone to take to the game that night.

McCollough’s older sister, now Brenda Dickinson, began marching in the Enterprise High School band when McCollough was in the third grade. Although McCollough would become involved with a variety of school and community organizations, that she would follow her sister’s lead and arch in the band was never a question.

McCollough’s love for the University also began early. Just as she entered elementary school, her cousin, Gaylon, began playing football at The University of Alabama; cheering for the Crimson Tide came natural.

By the time she lost her dad, McCollough was in high school playing flute and marching in the band. What her sister will tell you—but what McCollough won’t—is that their father died on a Thursday in October, and McCollough marched with the band at an away game the next evening.

“They had to stop the bus on the way there because she got sick,” Dickinson said. “But it was one of those things where you just keep going. You don’t give up.”

McCollough, when talking about resilience in the face of adversity, references Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

“Coach Saban talks about it all the time,” she said. “You have to be resilient because things aren’t always going to go well. Adversity is going to come, and it’s going to come in all kinds of ways. You have to face it.”

Often, McCollough faced adversity through her faith and determination. She double majored in English and chemistry at The University of Alabama, where she also marched in the Million Dollar Band. Then she put herself through night law school at the University of Houston while working
full-time as a chemist at Texaco.

Soon after McCollough finished law school, an opportunity arose with UA that she couldn’t turn down—a new program, now called Tide Pride, which would guarantee her seats at Alabama home football
games every year. Part of her motivation was to support the University; her other motive, though, was to have an opportunity to spend more time with her mom. She bought two tickets and started flying to Alabama to see her mom and attend Alabama’s home football games nearly every weekend in the fall.

“It gave me a chance to see my mom and to take both of us out of our worlds to do something that we both enjoyed doing,” says the charter Tide Pride member.

But she rarely flew to the games’ nearest airport; rather, she often flew to Dothan, nearly four hours away, so that she could meet her mom and drive with her to and from the games. She didn’t want her mom to have to drive too far by herself.

With the exception of a handful of games, McCollough has been to nearly every home game since she bought her first set of tickets.

“I often tell people that I remember the 4-and-7 season,” she said. “I attended the games then just like I do now. I wasn’t coming because we won all the time—or even most of the time.”

When her mom died in 2006, she began inviting her sister, niece, nephews, and friends to attend the games with her, but not without carefully considering who her guests might root for.

“She doesn’t want anyone sitting in her bama,” said Dickinson, who attended graduate school at Auburn. “I go with her to a lot of games, but if I want to go to an Auburn game, I’m on my own.”

The same is true for Dickinson’s two sons, who graduated from Texas A&M.

“She’s very strict about that—she will not let my boys or their wives go with her to an Alabama-Aggie game, so she’ll take my son-in-law, who went to Texas Tech, or my daughter, who went to Lipscomb,” Dickinson said. “She is a very, very loyal Alabama fan.”

WORKING AT SHELL

Shell hired McCollough in 1984 several weeks before she learned that she had passed the bar exam.
“In those days it took months to get your bar exam results,” she said. “You took the bar exam in July, and you didn’t find out until late October whether or not you passed. I sweated bullets for about two to three weeks wondering what would happen with my new job if I didn’t pass the bar exam, but I did.”

At the beginning of her career, McCollough primarily secured U.S. patents on chemical inventions made by Shell’s researchers inside and outside the United States. Her role soon expanded to drafting
and negotiating intellectual property-related agreements, advising on disputes, and giving intellectual property legal opinions in support of various Shell businesses.

While McCollough doesn’t work in a courtroom, she often helps determine Shell’s response when the company becomes involved in an intellectual property-related legal dispute. What McCollough enjoys most is providing legal advice that helps Shell succeed.

“My client is the corporation, not the individual sitting across the table from me,” she said. “People don’t always appreciate that, but at the end of the day, I’m there to try to make sure that Shell accomplishes its business goals and avoids unnecessary lawsuits.”

But that has also been hard at times—dealing with people who are more concerned about their short-term goals than they are about the future of the company.

“It’s my job to give good legal advice,” she said. “It’s about doing and encouragingothers to do the right thing for Shell, regardless of the circumstances.”

Being a woman has been equally tough. When she started at Shell, there were very few women in her department.

“When I was in my mid-20s, it seemed as if no one wanted to listen to my advice because they thought, ‘Who is this woman and why should I listen to her?’ And of course I’m not physically imposing,” she says with a laugh.

In fact, on interview day at Shell, she was asked the question: Do you think you’re tough enough to do this job?

“My answer to the question on interview day is the same one I’d give today,” she said. “I want to be tough enough to accomplish the task at hand, but hopefully not tougher than I need to be.

“As a female, if you show passion about your work and the advice you are giving, it just comes across differently. It has gotten better with time, so I don’t think about it much anymore unless someone asks me about it. It’s another of those things that you just deal with and move on.”

LIFE IN HOUSTON

Today, in Houston, McCollough lives just a few miles away from her sister and brother-in-law and spends much of her time with the Dickinsons and their three children and five grandchildren.

Dickinson said Aunt Pam is always doing something special for her four great nieces and her great nephew.

“My granddaughter has started playing soccer this year, and my grandson plays t-ball, coach-pitch baseball, and flag football,” she said. “And Aunt Pam makes it to their games if she’s in town.”

The sisters, when they don’t see each other at church or ball games, meet for breakfast, shop, and accompany one another to wedding and baby showers and other church activities. Despite having won several company recognition awards for projects she’s worked on, McCollough says one of her
greatest accomplishments was working with a team that sold 40 percent of Shell’s chemicals businesses a number of years ago.

“That was such a large project, and we were able to minimize intellectual property-related legal disputes through our work,” she said.

When she’s not spending time with family or providing legal counsel at Shell, she volunteers her time at her church, with civic organizations, and at The University of Alabama, serving in leadership positions on boards that help raise funds for her alma mater. She has also honored her parents by
establishing the Doris and Joe McCollough Endowed Scholarship in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s fantastic to be able to do that,” she said. “I am so thankful that I can even just give back a little bit because were it not for The University of Alabama, I couldn’t do what I do today. I’ll be forever thankful for that. I have been tremendously well blessed, and I want to be a blessing to other people.”