In January 1964, a group of men in hats and heavy overcoats emerged from the Mercantile Bank Building and stepped into waiting cars. The group included the chairmen of the three major banks, the presidents of the two utility companies, and several other notable citizens. They waited patiently as the elderly R.L. Thornton walked with the help of a cane to the lead car (he would die later in the year).
None of the men were happy, but Thornton was heartbroken. All he had worked to build for 30 years had been wiped out by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. The aftermath of the president’s assassination had been brutal. The nation’s most important media dubbed Dallas “the City of Hate.” Walter Cronkite on CBS and Huntley-Brinkley on NBC reran film of the Stevenson incident countless times. Newspaper columnists coast to coast speculated on how paranoia and fear in the city created a climate that made the assassination possible. Dallas was the city that killed Kennedy. Its citizens were just as guilty as the assassin. Business deals dried up. Dallas tourists in New York and Europe were insulted or refused service. The effect was traumatizing. Bombarded, the city curled up into a collective fetal position.
The cavalcade of cars made its way up Central Expressway, heading north. To Thornton’s thinking, it was time for another radical move, like back in the day when he talked his fellow Dallas bankers into going after the Texas Centennial Exposition. That one event had attracted nearly 7 million visitors to Dallas in 1936 and set the stage for the city’s dramatic postwar growth.
The cars were headed to Texas Instruments. The men intended to talk its chairman, J. Erik Jonsson, into becoming mayor.
Texas Instruments in the 1960s was an international phenomenon, the leading technological company of the day, the world’s pioneer in transistors (it invented, produced, and sold the first transistor radios), semiconductors, and integrated circuits.
Although the TI founders—Erik Jonsson, Eugene McDermott, Patrick Haggerty, and Cecil Green—had been very generous in their support of Dallas charities, they were not of the same breed as the men in the cars. They weren’t even from Texas. They hailed from New York, North Dakota, and Manchester, England. They were unaccustomed to the back-slapping, old-school mode of doing business in Dallas, and they were completely divorced from the Southern traditions the other men had grown up by. Nor did their business depend on Dallas as the other men’s businesses did. Their backgrounds and their interests—indeed, their self-interest—placed them apart from the Dallas norm. And that, Thornton and his younger colleagues had decided, was exactly what Dallas needed.
When the men from downtown trooped into his conference room at TI on that January afternoon, Jonsson was 63 years old. He worked for the company he co-founded for 34 years and served as either its president or chairman for 13. Along with General Motors and General Electric, TI was one of the most successful companies in the world. (In 1975, when Fortuneestablished its Business Hall of Fame, Jonsson was among the first inductees, along with such figures as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and J. Pierpont Morgan.) He was, on this day, at the pinnacle of his business career.
But the moment was right for Jonsson. He needed a new challenge, and this one was enormous. He was interested. There was only one problem, as he saw it. Dallas already had a mayor.
That was not a problem, the men assured him. In fact, it was an opportunity. They would get Earle Cabell to step down by offering him the Congressional seat currently occupied by right-wing Republican Bruce Alger. Cabell was popular. He would beat Alger, thereby eliminating an embarrassment that had plagued them for years. Meanwhile, the mayor’s job would be open, and the city council would fill it by electing Jonsson. Simple as pie. Two birds with one stone.
Jonsson asked for time to think it over, and the men readily agreed. Outside, gathering by their cars for the return trip downtown, Thornton pronounced his verdict. “Done.”
When Jonsson did call back with his yes, he asked for two months to put his affairs in order at TI. Fair enough was the answer. But Jonsson didn’t need the time at TI; his co-founders had already implored him to stay on as chairman, even in a reduced role. Instead, Jonsson, in typical engineering fashion, had already begun his research. He contacted and talked with urban specialists across the country. Jonsson was smart enough, successful enough, and, one might add, humble enough to know what he did not know. He wanted two months to learn how cities worked.
He enlisted as his teacher the Boston-born, Harvard-educated Vincent Ponte, recently relocated to Montreal and at the head of everyone’s lists as the top urban designer of the day. Believing that seeing is better than hearing, Ponte arranged a whirlwind tour for Jonsson of the world’s major cities, beginning with the new (the rebuilt Tokyo and Singapore) and ending with the old (London, Paris, Rome, and Athens). Together, they intended to answer a single question, “What makes a city great?”
Jonsson would later recount that it was standing on his hotel balcony one night in Athens, overlooking the ancient port of Piraeus, that he understood what each of the cities he visited had in common. Each was a port city.
Dallas was landlocked. In fact, it is one of the largest landlocked cities in the world. If Dallas was to make itself a port, it would have to be an airport.
Back home, he discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration had been badgering Dallas and Fort Worth for years to build a regional airport. It became his first order of business. He negotiated a deal that had eluded the FAA and the business leaderships of both cities for two decades. DFW Airport would open nine years later.
Jonsson also quickly decided that a new Dallas model of leadership was needed. In the fall of 1964, he organized Goals for Dallas, bringing together a broad range of citizens who had never before been invited into the halls of power in Dallas, including people of color, women, academics, and North Dallas Republicans. Through a series of conferences and meetings, these participants hammered together a list of priorities to guide the new mayor in transforming the city. Their conclusions were published in book form and widely distributed for public discussion. With that, Jonsson went to work.
The Dallas North Tollway opened in 1968. (The dip a driver experiences as the Tollway enters Highland Park is the concession Jonsson made to be able to run his new project through the township.) The new central library opened in 1982. The underground pedestrian network began construction in 1966. One of the TI founder’s earlier projects, the Center for Advanced Studies, was adopted into the UT system in 1969, renamed the University of Texas at Dallas. A new, expanded, and renamed Dallas Convention Center opened in 1973. The new City Hall opened in 1977, designed by Vincent Ponte’s mentor, I.M. Pei. Land for the Dallas Arts Center was designated north of downtown in 1978.
Jonsson also decided that a new Dallas model of leadership was needed. Being an outsider, he brought in outsiders.
No one man had such an effect on a major city in such a short amount of time since Baron Haussmann reorganized the streets of Paris in the 1860s.
Throughout his eight years as mayor—re-elected three times with overwhelming majorities—Jonsson operated as an inclusionary dictator. Being an outsider, he brought in outsiders. Knowing that genius can come from anywhere, he listened to everybody. Tough to the core (you don’t build America’s first major high-tech company with hugs and kisses), he thought like an engineer, worked a room like a politician, and somehow enabled people to see possibilities in dreams.
Shaken to its core by the assassination of President Kennedy, the Dallas Citizens Council had handed over the keys to the city, and it would never get them back.
That’s not to say that the old Dallas establishment faded into the woodwork. It supported Jonsson to the hilt, just as it had promised to do in that fateful January meeting at Texas Instruments. Deeply conservative, they had managed the city’s finances like an old-fashioned banker’s balance sheet. But Jonsson was a builder of empires, and investment was his life’s blood. The old guard acquiesced. If he wanted an airport, he got an airport. If he wanted a bond issue for a new project, he got a bond issue. Even though power was now dispersing into newer centers around the city—neighborhood groups, the black community to the south, the emergent Republican Party to the north—the downtown establishment still retained its financial muscle. It could make things happen. And it could still stop things in their tracks.
In 1976, two years after it started, D Magazine ran an editorial on—what else?—the Dallas school district and its flamboyant and deeply flawed superintendent, Nolan Estes. Within days of the magazine hitting the newsstand, I received a phone call from Alex Bickley of the Dallas Citizens Council. “A number of people have called,” he reported, “and they are not happy with that editorial. It looks bad for the city, and that’s not the Dallas Way. It would be best if you would not write something like that again.”
The phone call made me angry because it told me the point of the article had been lost on the people who could do something about it. So I wrote another editorial for the next issue. This time the phone call came from the president of Sanger-Harris, the department store that was our largest advertiser. He was clearly embarrassed, but he used words nearly identical to Bickley’s. “I’ve received a number of phone calls. Maybe you want to reconsider your approach on this.”
That the Dallas Citizens Council was attempting to interfere with my business instead of tackling the disaster on Ross Street infuriated me. I wrote a third editorial, and this time the call came from John Stemmons. “Son,” he said in that sonorous voice he used in his most persuasive moments, “it’s been a long time since you and I have talked. Why don’t you come down here for bourbon this afternoon? Say, 4 o’clock. Sharp.”
So that afternoon I drove to the Stemmons Towers on Stemmons Freeway to meet John Stemmons. The receptionist on the top floor opened the doors to usher me into his huge office with its plate glass window perfectly framing downtown Dallas. As I walked in, the theme from Fiddler on the Roof suddenly blared from four speakers in each of the office’s corners: “Tra-di-tion!” “Tra-di-tion!”
I broke out laughing. At his desk on the far end of the room sat John Stemmons, and he was laughing, too. He switched off the recording and motioned me to sit. On the desk, a glass of amber-colored liquor was waiting for me.
He raised his glass and said, “I told those old biddies that there wasn’t a damned thing any of them could do to stop you, so why piss you off by trying? I told them, that boy loves Dallas, so instead of bothering him, maybe you ought to listen to him.”
Three weeks later, Superintendent Nolan Estes resigned to take a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin, effective immediately.
It was the Dallas Way. And I have to admit, I miss it.
*name has been changed