Houston – In The Rearview Mirror

[learn_more caption=”Ken and Hope Nibling leave the oil and gas business behind for golf, nature and family.”] [/learn_more]

by Michelle Burgess :: Photography by West Vita

It’s a busy weekday morning at the Texas Tuscan home of Ken and Hope Nibling, but that’s nothing new for this couple of nearly 35 years. Retired oil-and-gas executive Ken is showing guests around while Hope, a petite brunette with striking green eyes, oversees her grandchildren’s efforts to make her own grandmother’s recipe for hot chocolate. “You poured the milk into the cup, so she gets to pour it into the pan,” Hope tells 4-year-old Connor in her soft drawl, a remnant of her Louisiana upbringing. Connor and his sister are giving their mom, Kristin, who’s feeling under the weather and resting downstairs, a little peace. As he and Kenlee, 5, watch Hope stir the pan on the stove, the Niblings’ two Jack Russell terriers scamper back and forth between the kitchen and Ken’s study. The dogs bark, an overtired Connor begins to melt down from fatigue and excitement and the milk boils over its red enamel pot when Hope turns away for a moment.

The Niblings are unfazed by the chaos because it’s par for the course. Their other house, in Katy, is down the street from Kristin and the kids, so Ken and Hope are never merely weekend grandparents. Christian values and family were what drove them even before Ken’s retirement last year ended his Houston commute, enabling them to spend the majority of their time in Boerne.

It was faith, in fact, that brought the Niblings together in the first place. Hope’s position as a hydrocarbon supply specialist with Union Carbide spurred her move to Houston in the late ‘70s, where she began attending St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. There she caught the eye of young Ken Nibling, an usher who made Hope’s comfort his top priority that day. The pair were soon inseparable.

“After we got engaged, we were in a class (for young couples) and met a lady who made a point of talking to us,” Ken says. “She said, ‘I was sitting in the pew behind you and saw y’all meet’ that first day in church. She was so excited for us. She didn’t even know us but insisted on throwing us a shower and everything. It was very sweet.”

Two years before the couple’s 1982 marriage – and on the advice of his girlfriend’s parents – Ken left behind a career with the Veterans Administration to work for Penzoil in downtown Houston. His father, who also worked for the VA, thought Ken’s move was a bad one he would come to lament. But Ken’s 30 years as a successful human resources and risk management executive in the oilfield services industry have led to no regrets, he says. “If you can survive the downs, the ups are a wild ride,” Ken says of the business, which was particularly volatile in the ‘80s. His jobs with Louisiana Land & Exploration Company and Union Texas Petroleum took the young family from Houston to New Orleans and back again between 1984 and 1988.

Then it was time to stay put.

“When we returned to the Houston area in 1988, we moved to Katy and resided there to raise Kristin and (son) Kyle,” Ken says of the couple’s decision to settle in the then small community, much different than the affluent but crowded suburb of 275,000 residents it has become. “Hope grew up in a small town in southern Louisiana and actually lived in the same house until she went to college. After living in 12 different places growing up, I really wanted to establish roots somewhere and allow my kids to know what a ‘hometown’ is.”

And so for 25 years, the Niblings worshipped at one church, grew close to their neighbors and became regulars with their doctors, dentists and local shopkeepers. Kristin and Kyle grew up with the same kids from the time they were 5 and 2 years old until each went to college, she at Baylor and he at Houston Baptist. “It was all things I did not have when I was growing up,” Ken says. Hope, who had retired from Union Carbide to become a full-time mom when the Niblings moved to New Orleans in 1984, was involved not only with the kids’ sports but also as a Precepts International and Bible study leader at church and an active member of the National Charity League. She also dipped her toes into small-scale catering ventures, where her business acumen and skills in the kitchen led to a successful diversion from time to time.

A few years after the Niblings set up residence in Katy, Ken was recruited to become Vice President of HR and Administration for Tuboscope, an international company with operations in more than 50 countries around the world. During his 14-year tenure, Tuboscope/Varco grew through a series of mergers and acquisitions from $200 million in annual revenue to more than $2 billion. After an oh-so-brief retirement in 2005, Ken was lured back to work when the former president of Varco convinced him to join the executive team of a new private company, Complete Production Services, or CPX. After CPX went public and then merged with Superior Energy in February 2012, Ken strapped on his golden parachute and retired again – “hopefully for good this time,” he jokes.

It was during Ken’s first attempt at retirement when, with Hurricane Rita looming, he and Hope came to San Antonio to bunk with relatives until the storm passed. To have something to do one day, they took the advice of Hope’s sister, a real estate agent, and drove out to Boerne to take a look at Cordillera Ranch. Despite Ken’s tenuous employment, the Niblings weren’t yet ready to leave the Houston area for good, and besides, they had been considering Asheville, N.C. as a possible spot to move next. But their visit to Cordillera Ranch changed that.

“The place we were looking at in Asheville was a ‘water property’ on one acre,” recalls Ken, a trim, blue-eyed man whose close-cropped, once blond hair is now mostly gray. “This particular lot at Cordillera Ranch was four and a half times bigger and on the Guadalupe River. It made that so-called ‘stream’ on the other property look like the water that runs off the end of your driveway when you water your yard.”

Plus, the Niblings had begun to realize that being a thousand miles away from their family just wasn’t going to work for them. So the pair returned to Cordillera Ranch the next day, and then again for a third time. On their third trip, they saw their Cordillera Ranch agent, Gary Peterson, showing the property – their property, as they realized they had come to see it – to another couple. “We looked at each other and then walked up to him and said ‘Gary, we’ll take it,’” Ken recalls. “He said ‘Y’all are going to kiss me one day,’ and he was right. We truly believe it was providential. God was setting this whole thing up – letting us look at that other property so that when we saw this one the differences would be highlighted and we would know this was the right place for us.”

The clincher for Ken, besides his and Hope’s gut feeling, was how well Cordillera Ranch fit with his other passion. Asheville was initially appealing because of its Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course; Cordillera Ranch had one too. The pair then spent their time working with Preferred Builder Ray Stadler on creating a house that blended well with the acreage’s unique terrain and incorporated features and furnishings that were meaningful to them. The result is a 6,300-square foot stunner.

With the neighborhood’s stellar golf amenities for Ken and a location that felt secluded as well as connected for nature lover Hope, the pair calls Cordillera Ranch “a perfect place for people like us who aren’t country folk but who do love the country.” Ken calls their place, where they now spend four days a week, “a legacy property” that they will be proud to pass down one day. In the meantime, though, there’s golf to be played. One doesn’t have to spend much time with Ken to see that his affinity for the sport is serious business – not as important to him as his faith or his family, but definitely a close third. He has played since the age of 10, even giving up a walk-on spot on the University of Florida’s baseball team because it took too much time away from golf. Over the years, when his work or vacations took him near significant courses, he teed up – and began a very extensive and unique collection.

“I began buying pin flags, and then got the idea of having them signed by the players who had won on those particular courses,” says Ken, a 7-handicap golfer. His mannerisms become animated and his voice excited as he talks about his much-loved pastime, much in the same way granddaughter Kenlee expounds on her sparkly silver shoes. His Turnberry flag bears Tom Watson’s signature, Nick Faldo signed Murfield and few if any other notable players of the past several decades are unrepresented. Ken has played all 14 British Open courses, 30 of the 33 Ryder Cup sites and all 50 past and upcoming U.S. Open venues, racking up dozens of flags and other pieces of memorabilia now on display in a singular way in his study, where, as with so much of the furniture and decorative pieces throughout the house, “everything has a story behind it.”

“There were way too many flags to hang on the walls,” especially with one full wall being taken up by bookshelves, Ken explains. My daughter said ‘Why don’t you put them in the floor?’ It turned out to be a great idea.” Protected behind tempered glass, the pin flags have become a prominent feature of the study, immediately drawing visitors’ eyes as much as the room’s gorgeous view of the far side of the river below. Other meaningful pieces include items commemorating Ken’s proudest role on the links: that as a forecaddie on the 11th hole of The Master’s at Augusta National beginning in 2011. It was a position earned through six years of hoping, praying and letter-writing – “dedicated stalking,” as Ken calls it – and stands as one of the highlights of his spring each year.

Ken’s domain could not be more tailor-made for him, but Hope’s favorite area of the house literally bears her mark as well. “Villa di Speranza” reads a fresco above the stove – The House of Hope. Indeed, while the entire house does bear Hope’s touch, nowhere is this more so than in the huge, open kitchen. Done in shades of white, blue and gray, it is a room clearly created by and for a real cook, not someone who simply unloads takeout onto plates or gets out of the way of the caterer. Well-worn cookbooks rest on easily accessible shelves and a farmhouse sink gets more use than the adjacent wine room. Of particular significance to Hope is the stained-glass pantry door she found in Alabama and had her nephew haul to Texas for her.

In a house where so many pieces make a statement, the Niblings’ kitchen table is a real show-stopper and so large and heavy that it is a permanent installation, poised to host generations to come. The huge alderwood and iron half-circle behemoth can seat 16 comfortably, most in the banquette and a few more in hand-painted wooden chairs. Made for go, not for show, the distressed-top table is kid-friendly and often filled with the couple’s family and guests. Ken and Hope wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than just host the occasional out-of-towners who want to see the new digs, the couple often has a full house; their gracious hospitality is an integral component of their shared philosophy on life.

“We call it ‘the Nibling Inn,’” Ken says. “It is a blessing to be here, and not just for us. We don’t think of ourselves owning everything; we’re just stewards.” In keeping with that approach, Ken and Hope say it is rare when the two of them are by themselves. “It’s fun to invite people to Cordillera Ranch and to share this with them. It’s like a resort.” When drawing up plans for the house, they were careful to give guests their own space, a three story wing with its own living spaces and roomy balconies.

That sort of thoughtfulness is an outcropping of the Niblings’ view of themselves as vessels of God’s work, as well as an extension of their own strong union.

“We share so much in common – it’s scary how much in-tune we are with each other,” Hope says, one hand resting on Ken’s arm and the other stroking a sleeping Jack Russell. “We see things the same way, including when it comes to sharing this house.”

No matter what you call it – Nibling Inn, House of Hope or the ‘nother house – it’s a safe bet that those fortunate enough to come for a visit know they’re somewhere special and feel well taken care of. “We believe that the Lord has blessed us so that we can bless others,” Hope says. “That’s what we try to do.”

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