The John Wiley Price that his constituents thought they knew was passionate and personable and caring. He listed his home number in the phone book. He returned their calls personally if not always promptly. He was there for them in times of crisis. He was truly, as he has become known south of the Trinity, “Our Man Downtown.”
The John Wiley Price that the rest of Dallas thought they knew was the one who screamed at them from their TV sets and prepared to declare war on Dallas at a moment’s notice. He could find the racial angle in any dispute. He was a showboat, a rabble-rouser, a poser. Some were certain he was even worse than that. How, people often asked, can that guy drive an $80,000 sports car on a commissioner’s salary?
The answer to that question can be found in that part of Price that isn’t so easily known. If John Wiley Price is anything, say the handful who know him—including his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend, former and current staff members, business associates, and friends—he is a hustler. Sometimes he wants power, sometimes money, sometimes sex. He’s always out to cut a deal, on his terms, for his gain. And if you don’t recognize that in him, then you won’t ever know him.
Ironically, these people say, it was Dallas that taught him how to hustle.
Price came to Dallas from Forney in the summer of 1968, just a green kid out of high school, hoping and praying to get a job as a janitor at Sanger-Harris. The day he applied for that job, the store manager at Big Town sized him up and made him a menswear salesman. Seven months later, he was hawking the store’s big-ticket items, TVs and stereos, for a 5 percent commission plus manufacturers’ bonuses. He was so aggressive, so competitive, so intense, he recalls, that company brass were forever admonishing him for stepping on other employees’ toes. “You had little guys who had been there forever, and hell, I was starting to hustle hard and take money, so they were complaining,” he says. “I’d be popping the stereos, and people would come in and look at them, and I'd help ’em. I was aggressive, yeah.”
And he stayed that way, no matter how much trouble he got in. “It was more money than I’d ever seen.”
Back in those days, Price’s main cause was making money, pure and simple. Sure, he knew what racism was—it was hard not to when you had to buy your hamburgers at the back door of the all-white cafe in Forney, when you and every other black kid in town were pulled out of school to harvest cotton in the fall, when your English teacher insisted on calling you a “nigra” in class.
But even though he spent many an afternoon in the principal’s office for having it out with teachers, Price did not become politically aware until 1970, when he enrolled at El Centro Community College downtown to study computer programming while he worked at Sanger’s. Back then, the black student movement was strong. The Black Panthers were active on campus, and people like Marvin Crenshaw, a fellow student, were learning how to make waves. Price, running on a black consciousness platform, ran for a spot on the student council and won.
It was during this time that Price met Vivian Pauline Salinas, who was part Italian and part Hispanic and had two small children. “I met him at a club—the Red Jacket on Maple, across from the Stoneleigh Hotel. It’s not there anymore,” she says today. “He used to go there with his college friends. At first I had a boyfriend, but I kept dating John, and I fell in love with him. Oh, he was really good to me and my kids. He bought them stuff. He bought me things.”
Nine months after they met, Price’s father, a part-time minister, married them in a little church in Forney. It was Valentine’s Day 1970. He was 19. She was 23.
Price does not talk much about having married a woman who is not African-American, but he doesn’t duck the question. He married Vivian, he says, because he was young and new to the big city, and “she was the first lady who looked at me.” He says the relationship would never work today.
“I doubt very seriously I could fall in love with an Anglo woman now, or anyone who is not an African-American woman,” he says. He would need someone, he says “who understands me, understands the culture … understands my pressure and what I’m going through.”
The Prices had a son nine months after they were married. It was Price’s first child, and, his ex-wife says, his last. “He just wanted to go out and have a good time and not worry about getting somebody pregnant,” Vivian says with no bitterness. “So he got a vasectomy.”
It was Price’s penchant for having a good time, Vivian says, that led to the couple’s separation three years later. “I guess he married [too] young,” she says. “He started being a playboy.” But Price refused to divorce her, she says, and they stayed legally married for the next eight years. The relationship was not always friendly, and things got progressively worse over the issue of child support. At the time of the divorce, which was final in April 1981, Price was ordered to pay $35 a week in child support, a sum Vivian felt was inadequate—especially in light of the fact that he didn’t always pay it. “I went to see I don’t know how many lawyers. No one would take the case. Once they heard the name, they wouldn’t take it,” she says. “I had to end up going through [then attorney general] Jim Mattox, but it took them nine months to do anything.” Price says he gave Vivian money not necessarily regularly, but whenever she asked for it. Often, he says, he gave more than the $35 ordered.
Some of the media’s reluctance to investigate Price stems from simple fear of being labeled racist, but Price also works diligently to charm the press.
For 20 years, Vivian Price has seen her ex-husband get more prosperous and much better known—going from Sanger-Harris to an office job in the Dallas County Public Works Department to a newsroom stint with ABC Channel 8 to a paralegal job with Cleo Steele’s old law firm to the clerkship in Steele’s JP court to county commissioner. But no matter how well he has done or how far he has gone, John Wiley Price will tell you that he has never felt he owed his son child support.
Child support should be earned, not awarded, Price says. “I mean, your child support is something that you come and you work for,” he explains. So, as Price’s son grew up, he never spent a weekend with his father doing “kid things,” as Price calls them, “like the water waves.” Instead, John Jr. earned his child support doing things like helping his father fix up his Oak Cliff house and four rent houses he owned. “We did everything from roof houses to paint, sheet rock, to mow yards,” Price says. “You name it, and he did it.”
At one point, Price actually forged a deal with his son: he would agree to pay the boy his $35 a week, but he would have to mow his father’s yard for it.
“I always made the correlation between working hard and some remuneration,” Price says. “And what would happen is I would say, ‘Do this and you get support,’ and I could always tell when he wanted something extra because he’d say, ‘Come on, Dad, let’s go, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that,’ so that always meant he wanted a little extra. And if he worked hard, and he did a little extra, he always got a bonus. He may have gotten $10 or $15. See, so I was trying to give him that correlation between working and responsibility.”
Vivian always felt Price should have paid the child support, regardless of whether his son mowed his lawn. Though the battle between them raged for a number of years, and the attorney general’s office garnished $2,659 out of Price’s county paychecks in 1987 and 1988, the matter never hit the press. That still amazes a former member of Price’s staff. “We just knew a reporter would find out. We just knew. There are investigative journalists who are allowed blocks of time to dig things up, and we just knew we were living in that type of city. But we weren’t. And now, of course, everyone knows that—because nobody’s ever really looked at John.”
Some of the media’s reluctance to investigate Price stems from simple fear of being labeled racist, but Price also works diligently to charm the press, going so far as to flirt with reporters and send them bouquets of flowers. “He plays them like a piano,” says the former staffer, who once arranged an interview for Price that resulted in a story the commissioner liked so much that he autographed a copy of it for her. “He’s a master at that. I’ve seen no one do it better.”
Perhaps the ultimate example of Price’s press buttering is the relationship he cultivated with Lawrence Young, an African-American reporter at the Dallas Morning News who covered the county during the time that the attorney general’s office was pursuing the commissioner for failing to pay child support. Young became so close to Price and his staff that, at one point, he began seeing one of Price’s secretaries, Cora Lewis. Lewis says she abruptly ended the affair several months later when she learned, to her great surprise, that Young was married. According to Lewis, after she broke it off, Young went to Price to complain. After that, she says, Price brought her into his office and savagely reprimanded her; essentially, she says, he told her that her obstinance was threatening his good relationship with the press. Lewis held her ground. Two weeks later, she was fired. Price acknowledges talking to the woman about Young, but says he did so only after hearing that she had obtained Young’s address and gone to his house. Price confirms that the woman was fired, but insists that it was for poor job performance. Lawrence Young maintains that he never discussed his private life with Price and refuses to comment further.
The story has become legend around the courthouse. “Lawrence was just notorious for being the press secretary for John’s office,” says one of the other county commissioners. “There never was such a sweetheart deal.”
Vivian Price knows that her ex-husband has enjoyed a honeymoon with the press. Back when she was contacting attorneys to help her with child support, she made a few phone calls to reporters, too. Nobody would touch the story.
Looking back on those days, Vivian now concedes that there was a moment, when John Jr. was 16, when the boy’s father seemed genuinely determined to put both time and money into his son. Price called her one day, she says, and told her that he wanted John Jr. to come and live with him. He wanted to get his son a tutor to improve his grades in school. “He wanted him to follow in his footsteps,” Mrs. Price says. But too much had transpired by then between father and son—John Jr. had been worked too hard, cursed at too much, left alone too often, his mother says. He refused to go, and she didn’t make him. Price didn’t speak to them for the next two years. “He loved John, but he really couldn’t show the love,” Vivian says of her ex-husband.
Today, Price says he does not recall ever asking his son to come to live with him. “I could have,” he shrugs. “I don’t remember.” For his part, John Jr. never talks about his father—not to his mother, not to his girlfriend, not to anybody. When the newspapers are filled with stories about his father’s latest broadsides, or when the nightly news flashes his father’s face on the screen, John Jr. says nothing. “He never says anything about him being his dad,” Vivian says. “It’s like he doesn’t even care.”
Father and son talk only occasionally and see each other even less. John Jr. and his high school girlfriend had a baby girl more than a year and a half ago.
Price speaks often and long about the vulnerability of today’s minority youth. He points proudly to the fact that a close female friend of his is a foster parent to a toddler named Matthew. “I love kids,” Price says, showing off a picture of Matthew that sits on his office credenza. There is no picture of his son or grandchild. “I take him to church on Sundays,” Price says of Matthew. “I spend every chance I get with him—a lot of time with him.”
Meanwhile, his own son, whom he says he hasn’t talked to “for quite a while,” struggles to make something of himself. He is 20 years old now. He works at a Winn-Dixie supermarket, cutting meat. His father shrugs. There is a hint of regret in it. “He’s doing his thing. At some Minyard’s, I think.”
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