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Akin vs. Dahl

For love or money? When a daughter seeks custody of her father and his wealth, a prominent family splinters in the courtroom.
By David Bauer |
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Akin vs. Dahl

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The old man sat alone in his study, late into the night. George Dahl was composing a letter to his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Judge Ted Akin. At the top, he had dated the letter April 24, 1978. It began, “I speak to you for the last time…” He finished his letter at 3 a.m. and went to bed.

The next morning, at the office of his architectural firm, George Dahl had his comptroller type up the letter. At 6 o’clock that evening, as requested by Dahl earlier in the day, Gloria Dahl Akin, Judge Ted Akin, and Laurel Akin, their 22-year-old daughter, gathered at Dahl’s apartment on Turtle Creek. He told the three of them to sit down. Then he stood and, in his small and raspy voice, he read them the letter:

I speak to you for the last time. I had hopes that you would be a joy and a source of pride and happiness to me. That is not possible now as I leave you for the last time that we see each other. You must be proud of what great irreparable damage you have done to me and Joan Renfro. You have torn asunder my hopes, you can never rise and undo your malicious justice to either of us. You have sunk to the very bottom of the heap … You all have done your dastardly damage … I had hoped you, Ted, of all people, would be fair and never engage in smear tactics and unjustifiable fabrications. Your actions do not qualify you to sit on the bench of justice. When you smeared my intended wife, you smeared me. I and Joan Ren ro have been damaged … You both speak of the fact that you are: One, watching out for my good: Two, that you love me: Three, that you are looking out for my financial affairs … These are idle words … When I question your expenditures, you say all I want is your money. What do you mean ‘your money’? … The truth is … that over $2,555,888 has been dished out to you … all through the efforts of George L. Dahl only. These financial fiascos do not ameliorate the sorrow that you have caused me by your ugly activities and your further threat of a lawsuit … You have ruined my life, my heart is heavy. Instead of being a blessing, you all have become a curse. As for the future, I shall attempt to live out my life in sorrow and sadness and shall plan for other things in the future. Remember, be honorable, just and fair … You all need guidance and counseling and now you can live without me. I regretfully say good-bye.”

The reading lasted only three minutes. The Akins were stunned. Without speaking, they took the letter from his hands and walked out.

Two days later, early in the morning, George Dahl was alone in his apartment, readying himself for work, when the telephone rang. It was the doorman downstairs calling to tell him that there were two gentlemen waiting to see him. Dahl took the elevator down and walked into the lobby. Two men in suits approached. “Mr. George Dahl?” they inquired. “Yes,” he replied. “We’re here to serve a warrant, sir,” they said, “You’ll have to come with us. We’re going to take you to the hospital.”

George Dahl was confused and frightened. When he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Presbyterian Hospital, he was only partially aware of what was happening. This, he knew in a rush of anger and frustration, was Gloria’s work. Ted and Gloria had put him here. But to what end? Were they, God forbid, going to have him put away? Or was he indeed already put away? Nobody had told him anything. Finally, in the afternoon, he was contacted by his lawyer, who had learned of the arrest from the worried apartment manager. His lawyer tried to explain the situation: A temporary guardianship order had been served; he was being held in the hospital for mental examination. The next day, a sheriff’s deputy visited his room and officially served the guardianship order. He was now a ward of his daughter, Gloria Akin.

During the next 16 days, George Dahl was visited and questioned by three different psychiatrists. He was given tranquilizers to relax his nerves. He was subjected to a painful bone marrow test. Blood samples were taken repeatedly. He was given an electroencephalogram.

On Thursday, May 11, in his hospital bed, George Dahl celebrated his 84th birthday.

• • •

Young George Dahl, with his lovely wife Lillie, his childhood sweetheart, arrived in Dallas in 1926. The only child of Norwegian immigrants, his father a Minnesota blacksmith, George Dahl had blazed through a brilliant academic career in the study of architecture, culminating in a Harvard master’s cum laude and a Robertson Fellowship in Europe. He had worked for the prestigious Los Angeles firm of Myron Hunt before being lured to the Texas prairie by Dallas architect Herbert M. Greene.

Today, one can hardly turn a street corner in Dallas without being faced with evidence of George Dahl’s work. His career has touched upon every conceivable kind of architectural project. Some 3,000 different projects, in fact, worth $3 billion: Methodist Hospital, Mrs. Baird’s Bakery, Sears on Ross Avenue, Lakewood Baptist Church, Fair Park, Ursuline Academy, Titche’s downtown, the Dallas News building, the Earle Cabell Federal Building, the Dallas Public Library downtown, the Dallas Public Health Center, the Employer’s Insurance Building, Rusk Junior High School, Jesuit High School, Rogers Electric building, Owen Arts Center at SMU, LTV Aerospace Center, Hart bowling alley, First National Bank, the Chi Omega house at SMU, Neiman-Marcus downtown, the Park Cities Bank, Dal-Rich Shopping Center, Dallas Memorial Auditorium.

Almost every county in Texas has a sample of his craft, from Central Elementary School in Texarkana to the El Paso National Bank. Much of the University of Texas at Austin, including the landmark library, is the work of Dahl. His firm was the first in Dallas to do extensive work on a national scale, including buildings for General Motors from Portland, Oregon, to Jacksonville, Florida. RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., is the work of George Dahl.

His firm, at its peak the city’s largest, has been referred to as “Mr. Dahl’s Finishing School,” having spawned many of Dallas’ most prominent architects whose own firms now dominate the local trade — names like Harwood K. Smith, Harris Kemp, Gordon Sibeck, Donald Jarvis, Dave Braden, and Terrell Harper. By the time of his retirement, George Dahl was worth $5 million.

George and Lillie Dahl had always lived in style. They made a lovely couple: She was shy, pretty, gracious, elegant, literary; he was gregarious, clever, gallant, with a ribald sense of humor. Together they threw grand parties; those who were there remember them as “fabulous affairs.” They were generous supporters of charitable foundations, and of the Dallas Civic Opera. They traveled widely. George became an avid collector, a spontaneous and whimsical buyer — medieval weapons, strange musical instruments, Oriental statues, whatever caught his fancy. Once, when he admired a room display in Bloomingdale’s, full of furniture and trinketry, he bought the entire room for $10,000. His office wall is adorned with an extraordinary collection of masks; outside the door to his apartment, in the hallway, sits a large stone lion under a portrait of Napoleon. The mildly eccentric streak of George Dahl was emblematic in his personal trademark — he always wore his hat with the brim rolled down on the side.

The couple had reached the age of 40 still childless, but in 1934 they became parents of a daughter. George called it “a glorious event,” and she was named Gloria. The Dahls hired a live-in housekeeper before Gloria’s birth, a gentle black woman named Clara Thomas. Clara quickly became one of the family. They were a close family, and Gloria was a dutiful daughter. She grew into an attractive young woman.

As a student at SMU, Gloria found herself on a blind date one evening with a fellow student, a young man named Ted Akin. The attraction was mutual, and a four-year courtship ensued. Ted visited often at the Dahl house. George and Lillie liked the young man; Ted was similarly impressed, an immediate fan of the magnetic George Dahl. In December of 1954, while Ted was finishing law school at SMU, he and Gloria were married. George, in his style, provided a lavish wedding and reception.

In 1955, Ted graduated, entered the Air Force, and was shipped to a remote base in Wyoming. George Dahl decided the quarters provided for the young Akins were not suitable for his daughter, and would certainly not be suitable tor his grandchild; he bought them a house. Shortly thereafter, the Akins’ first child was born, a girl whom they named Laurel.

• • •

His daughter was happily married, and he was a proud grandfather; life was better than ever for George Dahl. Then, in 1957, Lillie Dahl returned from a routine medical examination. The diagnosis was cancer. Two and a half months later, she died.

George Dahl was staggered. Life without Lillie was something he had never tried to comprehend. Fortunately, Ted and Gloria had returned to Dallas. Ted worked briefly for Dahl before setting up a private law practice. Gloria, meanwhile, took it upon herself to care for her father in the absence of her mother. Clara Thomas was still there to see to Dahl’s daily needs, but it was Gloria who called him every day; several times a week she would visit him; almost every Sunday Dahl would join the Akin family for dinner. George Dahl instructed his secretary, “Whenever my family calls, you always be sure, no matter what I’m doing, let me speak to them.”

A second child was born to Ted and Gloria, a son; he was named George Leighton Dahl Akin because, they said, Dahl had always wanted a son. Later, a second daughter, Adrienne, was born. George Dahl often took Ted with him on business trips, introducing him to various important people. Ted appreciated the attention and looked on Dahl as “a second father.” Ted’s own career blossomed, and in December of 1963, he was appointed first judge of County Court No. 4.

Early in 1965, Dahl’s longstanding generosity toward his daughter and her family climaxed in a birthday gift for Gloria — the family home, the lovely North Dallas house he had built for Lillie back in 1941. Dahl had just completed construction of a luxury apartment building on Turtle Creek, the Gold Crest, and had decided to move into it. The family house was wasted space for him; he wanted the Akins to have it.

In the wake of his wife’s death, Dahl had not become a recluse. On the contrary, the wealthy and charming George had become something of a heartthrob for the wealthy older widows of the city. He remarked to a friend one evening at a a cocktail party, “These widows are wearing me out.” He became quite close with one long-time acquaintance, a widow named Ivy Rabinowitz, whose husband, Meyer Rabinowitz, had been a friend and business associate of Dahl’s. George and Ivy dated often, attended the opera together, dined together. At the same time, Dahl had become an increasingly active member of the Rotary Club, attending the weekly meetings with regularity. There, in 1964, he became acquainted with a younger woman named Joan Renfro, the Rotary Club’s executive secretary.

Late in 1965, at the age of 71, George Dahl went to Gloria and told her that he and Ivy Rabinowitz were contemplating marriage. Gloria was fond of Ivy Rabinowitz, but she balked. She had heard — she thought from her father — that Mrs. Rabinowitz was in the midst of some legal difficulties with her children regarding the distribution of her husband’s estate. Gloria told her father she didn’t want him to get involved in another family’s problems. She was also disturbed by the fact that Mrs. Rabinowitz was Jewish. “I’ll admit,” she said later, “I was a little selfish, too. I loved him very dearly and wanted to take care of him.” Ted Akin, for his part, thought the marriage idea a good one — he even offered to perform the ceremony. But Gloria’s dissuasion apparently had its effect. “Oh, Daddy, Daddy,” she said. “Please don’t.” George Dahl decided not to marry Ivy Rabinowitz.

Dahl didn’t seem to resent his daughter’s resistance. A few weeks later, just after Christmas of 1965, he took Gloria and Ted on a vacation trip to Mexico City. They had a wonderful time. It was perhaps the last time of untainted pleasure this troubled family shared.

• • •

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