There are a lot of memories surfacing of H. Ross Perot, who passed away on Monday, but any recollection of the man and his impact on Dallas would be incomplete without acknowledging his role in the development of one of the city’s truly exceptional cultural treasures: the Meyerson Symphony Center. In 2000, we published an excerpt from Laurie Shulman’s book about the development of the Meyerson, The Meyerson Symphony Center: Building a Dream, and it contains an anecdote that perfectly captures Perot’s selfless, sharp-minded, and determined character.
In 1984, the dream of building a grand symphony hall for Dallas’ struggling orchestra was anything but a sure bet. The Arts District was mostly a collection of vacant lots. The symphony was in bad financial shape, and it was still playing at the Music Hall of Fair Park, a lovely building but one with the acoustical appeal of a barn. Still, boosters believed the orchestra–which had the distinction of being the first symphony in the country to declare bankruptcy–could become one of the best symphonic ensembles in the world if it only had a suitable home.
Symphony boosters tasked a young Robert Decherd–the Dealey family scion–with the job of taking over the operations of the symphony and overseeing the dream of building a new symphony hall. Decherd recruited Morton H. Meyerson, the new CEO of EDS and another young rising star in the local business community, to chair the committee raising funds for the new hall.
Meyerson knew that in order to get the symphony hall project going, he would need to find a huge initial donation that could galvanize philanthropic enthusiasm for the project. He turned to his old boss, Ross Perot:
Not realizing that he was undertaking a ten-year project. Meyerson met with Leonard Stone [general manager] to discuss who would be invited to serve on the committee. Leonard Stone opines. “In Mort, you had a guy who knew how to make things happen. He knew how to move things off a dime. I think the genius of Meyerson was the way he put the committee together and the reasons that he invited certain people. You had academics, people who knew music, the quintessential administrator: Mort. You had the elder statesman: Stanley Marcus. You had two ladies-Nancy [Penson] and Louise [Kahn]-who were diametrically opposite; one demure and ladylike, the other strong as battery acid. It made for interesting chemistry. What was good was that Mort did not fashion a group of people who were going to be ’yes men.’”
Negotiations for General Motors” acquisition of EDS began in earnest in February 1984, with a signed contract by September of 1984. Meyerson remembers, “I was up to my eyebrows in General Motors stuff at that time. One day in July. I went to see Ross in his office and said that the symphony needed one donation that would be the pacesetting donation, which would allow for the possibility that the hall would be actually built. The donation would be $10 million, and I was there to ask if he would consider donating the $10 million and naming it for his mother, who had recently passed away, or for the Perot family. That took me about five minutes.
“He looked at me and said. ’Yes, I will make that contribution,’ which just floored me. Then he added, ’That would be upon only one condition.’
“I asked. ’What’s that?’
“He said. ’That we name it for you, because you’ve put so much of yourself into this. I think it would be a wonderful honor.’
“I thought about that for a few minutes. I said, ’Ross, I now am embarrassed about this because you could-you might think that I’ve come here to ask you to do something, maybe with the hope that you would do that. I must tell you that I don’t want to do that. that I think it’s inappropriate, and I think it would best be named for Margot, your mother, or for the family.’
“He looked at me with his fierce eyes and said, “You’re not listening to me. Meyerson. You can have the money, or you can not have the money. But you won’t tell me upon what conditions I’ll give it.”
“I said, I think I’ve heard you…. We’ll do it.’ I mean, how could you-what would you do? Say no to $10 million? The entire meeting took less than ten minutes.”
In July 1984, Liener Temerlin was in Chicago for an agency meeting when his wife called him at his hotel. [Temerlin, now chairman of Temerlin McClain, had taken over as DSA president.] “Liener. Ross Perot wants you to call him.” It was about 10:30 or 11:00 P.M. Temerlin said, “It’s too late: I’ll call Ross in the morning.” He knew Perot, and talked with him often, but had no idea what he wanted. The next morning he returned the call.
After chatting briefly, Perot remarked, “Liener, you’re very cavalier with $10 million.”
Temerlin was taken aback. “What are you talking about. Ross?”
“Well, the symphony had sent a brochure [stating] that they would name the hall after anyone who would give a gift of $10 million. I’ll tell you what. I will give you the SI0 million, with a couple of provisions.”
Temerlin collected himself and broke in. “First of all, Ross, I want to express my appreciation.”
“Let me tell you what the conditions are.” Perot continued without pausing. “One is that you follow the designs of I. M. Pei and make sure you deliver the world-class hall that we all want.”
“We have no intention of doing anything but that. Ross.”
“Two is that you don’t name the hall after me [or my family]. I want you to name it after Mort, I want it to be called the Morton H. Meyerson. not the H. Ross Perot, because 1 know how long and hard Mort has worked on the hall. Also, Mort is the person who helped get EDS to the position it enjoys today. I don’t want you to name it the Meyerson. but the Morton H. Meyerson: there are a lot of Meyersons around. Let the focus be on Mort.”