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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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In 1966, age had made little headway with George Dahl; his mind, at 72, was as acute and expansive as it had always been. He figured to be a long-liver; both his parents had lived into their 90s. Friends and employees marveled quietly at his unflagging energy, at the precision of his wit, at the exuberance of his style. His daily life was that of a man 20 years younger.

Except for a neurological pain in his left ear, and some apparently related seizures, which had required ear surgery back in the ’40s, Dahl had experienced a minimum of serious health problems. Ill-health, in fact, had always seemed somewhat shameful to him; he had a tendency to downplay any ailments. In 1966, though, he suffered what was apparently a minor stroke. His personal physician, Dr. Haynes Harvill, knowing Dahl’s attitude about infirmity, never spoke the term “stroke” to him, but the result was obvious: a minor paralysis in his left leg, which caused him to drag it slightly as he walked (he still likes to pass it off as a “charley horse”). It was the first intrusion of age, and George Dahl didn’t like it.

Anyone can suddenly find himself confined to a psychiatric ward. The person subjected to a mental illness inquiry has fewer rights than an accused felon.

But his health nagged him less than something else as he moved through his 70s: his money. Not that there wasn’t enough of it — he was still making plenty; when his firm undertook the lucrative LTV Aerospace Center in Grand Prairie in 1967, his staff peaked at 185, huge for an architectural firm. From that point, the company workload began to slacken; still, Dahl held to his longstanding policy of not taking on partners — he preferred to take the ultimate responsibility for all jobs; the company was built on that basis. He was content to wind down gradually. But the fortune he had already made began to cause troubles.

Shortly before the death of Lillie Dahl, her will was revised to establish the Lillie E. Dahl Trust. For tax purposes and for future security, a substantial portion of the Dahl assets, essentially Lillie’s half of their community property, was placed in the trust, with George Dahl as sole trustee. The beneficiaries were Gloria and her children. All distribution of money was controlled by the trustee, George Dahl. Through the years, the trust grew, and Dahl was generous to his daughter. When Gloria had substantial bills, she would submit them to her father; he paid them to the penny. When pinched times arose for the Akins, he would help them out. When it was time to provide for the education of the Akin children, he provided. And always there were gifts, at birthdays, at Christmas — generous gifts.

But in 1967, there was some haggling between the Akins and Dahl over the distribution of funds from the Ra-Dahl Corporation, a joint venture established by Meyer Rabinowitz and George Dahl with investment money taken from the Lillie Dahl trust. Gloria, as beneficiary of the trust, sought payment of $283,000 due her from Ra-Dahl. George Dahl was reluctant to make the distribution at that time. Gloria and Ted became more forceful in their request. It was not until late in 1969, almost two years later, that Gloria got her money. There were ill feelings.

In 1969, Ted Akin relinquished his judgeship to return to private practice. But things didn’t go well financially; in his income tax statement for 1970, Ted declared a net loss of $24,000. In the late ’60s, Ted Akin became impressed by a young company called Telectronics Industries, and discussed investment possibilities with Dahl. Ted and Gloria invested a quarter of a million dollars in Telectronics; George invested additional funds from the trust. Telectronics bottomed out, and they lost it all. Ted also closed down a company called Tampsco Inc. at a loss. Not all of his investments were failures — Hargrove Electronics proved quite successful — but the net result was mild financial animosity between Ted Akin and George Dahl. George became skeptical of Ted’s business judgment; Ted began to resent Mr. Dahl’s tightening control on the trust. Ted decided to close up shop on his legal practice and return to the bench; in November of 1972 he won election as judge of the 95th District Court. George assisted with the campaign. The peace was brief.

• • •

In 1973, Ted and Gloria first began raising serious complaints about Dahl’s trusteeship. On several occasions, Dahl had made distributions of funds from the trusts to the names of Gloria and two of the children, Laurel and George. He would then borrow that money back from them, giving them notes for the amount borrowed (the circuitous route was used, legally, because Dahl, as sole trustee of an irrevocable trust, could not pay funds directly to himself). The notes eventually amounted to $350,000. The Akins began complaining on two counts: One, Mr. Dahl had not been paying them interest on the notes; and two, the Akins were paying the income tax on the money extracted in their names. George Dahl resented the implications. In his mind, all the money was his money; there would have been no trust at all had it not been for his toil. The Akins’ complaints struck him as avaricious, ungrateful, and unsavory.

The Akins were more than a little disturbed with Dahl. He was, they felt, becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. He was, they thought, changing.

• • •

At the age of 78, George Dahl decided it was time to get out of the business of architecture. In August of 1973, he effected a merger with two younger firms, and the new firm of Dahl, Braden, Chapman & Jones was born. Dahl was to serve primarily as a consultant; George Dahl Inc. existed as a separate entity to finish up a few dangling projects and oversee a few investments. But his architectural endeavor would be minimal, as established by a noncompetition agreement between George Dahl Inc. and the new firm. The builder of 3,000 buildings would put away his tools and attend to the business of graceful retirement.

Dahl’s social life had for several years been centered on the Dallas Rotary Club. Over the years he had struck up a friendship with Joan Renfro, the club’s executive secretary. One evening in 1975, much more as a matter of circumstance than romance, Dahl escorted Mrs. Renfro to dinner at Chablis. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and their long relationship suddenly became a much closer one. Joan Renfro was 28 years younger than George Dahl, but she could hardly be called a femme fatale. A quiet, gracious woman with a somewhat portly figure and a ready smile, Mrs. Renfro had been divorced 15 years before, and had spent most of those 15 years in work for the Rotary Club. Over the course of the next year, George and Joan went together to fancy restaurants, the opera, art exhibits, small parties with friends. By the fall of 1976, they began talking, if only casually, of marriage.

On Christmas Day of 1976, the Akin family planned to have a holiday dinner at Dahl’s apartment. But that morning, Gloria learned there would be an additional guest at the table: Joan Renfro. Gloria was shocked. From the beginning, Gloria and Ted disapproved of the relationship between George and Joan. That summer, Gloria had encountered Joan for the first time in the lobby of St. Paul Hospital, where George was undergoing minor treatment. Gloria made her message to Joan clear: Stay away from my father; you only want his money.

Otherwise, the Akins had never really met Joan Renfro, and they were not eager to. It seemed clear to them that a 54-year-old woman, any 54-year-old woman, could only be interested in a wealthy 82-year-old man for one reason: his money. George, they were sure, was being taken in by a young and crafty secretary. The Akins had indicated their disapproval to George, mostly by showing a lack of interest when he would mention Joan to them. They had hoped he would come to his senses.

But now, on Christmas Day, Ted and Gloria talked it over and made a firm decision. They called Dahl and told him that the Akin family would not be joining him for Christmas dinner.

Resentment simmered on both sides. Meanwhile, Ted Akin had been elected in 1975 to associate justice of the Fifth District Court of Civil Appeals, a prestigious bench. But Judge Akin’s salary was still less than $50,000 a year, and the tax problems related to the trust had become nearly insurmountable without the cooperation of Dahl. Still, George Dahl reported to his office every morning at 9 and worked until 5; Gloria called him almost every afternoon to inquire about his health and his needs; George had dinner at the Akins’ home almost every Sunday, and maintained his fond relationship with his four grandchildren.

But the tensions could not be ignored. Dahl became increasingly distressed by the Akins’ attitude toward money and their attitude toward Joan. Late in May of 1977, he decided to try to put his distress on paper, and wrote a letter to Gloria and Ted:

I have had a feeling of great disappointment and anguish for some time. First, I have struggled with myself in that you doubt my judgment and actions. You have cast a great doubt in my mind of your fairness and the ability to seek the truth … In that your mind has been poisoned, it may be difficult for you to be fair and unselfish and forget your desire dictates. I hope that your thinking is not blinded by avarice and personal greed … I still love my family and still think that they can be fair in hope that I will not have to step out of their lives. I would like to share life happily with you, but not on your terms or actions.

Yours truly,

George Dahl.

He read the letter over; it sounded harsh. He folded it up and put it away. He thought there was still a chance for reconciliation through talk.

Gloria Akin’s worries about her father’s physical health grew into worries about his mental health. She saw signs that bothered her, signs of senility. His problem with his leg had become aggravated by age — he was occasionally unsteady; Gloria worried about his falling. Worse, he showed an increased aversion to her aid; he had always refused a cane but accepted her arm. Now he resisted that. She tried to help him walk down the driveway. “I don’t need any help,” he said, “But, Daddy, there are acorns … You’re going to stumble. Daddy, pride goeth before a fall.” He still resisted.

There were other things. She thought he showed less care with his once-impeccable attire; she’d heard Clara mention deterioration of his personal habits. She had been disturbed by reports from his office of “irascible behavior,” flares of temper, including an incident in which he began smashing Coke bottles against the wall. She worried about his driving, which had, amongst his employees, long been notoriously reckless — now it scared Gloria to death. But worst of all, she thought she felt a growing “coldness” in him; when she talked to him, she sensed he was turning her off; when she tried to hug him goodbye after Sunday dinners, she felt him withdraw.

Akin, meanwhile, wondered about Dahl’s business acumen. Dahl had decided to sell the Gold Crest, the luxury apartment building he lived in and owned, to liquidate the assets of George Dahl Inc. Despite a $2 million dollar profit on the sale that Dahl had negotiated, Akin questioned the loss of the real estate’s potential, worried about tax consequences, and was disturbed by the lack of reinvestment plans for the capital gains, especially when Dahl went off to Iran with talk of investing there. And the Akins couldn’t understand why Dahl maintained a full office staff, at a cost of $130,000 a year, when the office appeared to be generating no income.

And when George mentioned to them, almost blithely, that he and Joan were talking about getting married, the idea was met with quiet horror.

For George and Joan, the plan to marry had become a serious one. George knew the family blessing would not be easily forthcoming. He teased Joan about eloping, of going off “to Denver or somewhere,” and telling the family when they got back. She tried to be amused, but couldn’t be. She had been stung by the family’s rejection; she thought if she could just meet the Akins, visit with them, they would soften, learn to accept her. But such a meeting seemed less likely than ever now. Gloria was tugging harder and harder at her father. “Please, Daddy,” Gloria would plead, “don’t marry her; give her all the money, but don’t marry her.” George and Joan decided at least to wait until after the Christmas season, particularly as it was the debutante season, and Laurel Akin would be coming out. George Dahl threw a party for his granddaughter at Dallas Country Club; like the whole debutante process, it was expensive. Laurel’s debut cost the family somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000. But Dahl had already indicated that it would be covered by funds from the trust; in essence, he would pick up the tab. Laurel’s major party was given at Brook Hollow Golf Club; Joan Renfro had not wanted to attend, but George insisted. When George and Joan arrived at the family reception line, they were chilled by the coldest of shoulders.

For George Dahl, this was a point of crisis. He wrote a memo to the Akins, expressing his disappointment and seeking to reestablish harmony in the family. In early February, Ted Akin responded with a letter of his own:

Dear Mr. Dahl,

We have reviewed the comments in your hand-delivered memo of several weeks ago pertaining to living in harmony, and dispelling dissension. Much thought has been given this matter by Gloria and me and we have concluded that this can best be accomplished by payment of the note due, as well as the note to Laurel and by turning over control of whatever assets the children may have to us … This leads, of course, to certain bills pertaining to Laurel that need to be paid immediately, i.e. Draper and Brook Hollow. You previously indicated that these should be paid out of Laurel’s funds or by distributions. We believe, however, that Laurel’s funds should come from the note due Gloria … We shall appreciate your immediate attention to this matter so that we may make appropriate arrangements with respect to Draper, et cetera, as well as our personal tax plan. This will result in harmony in our view.

Most sincerely,

On March 1, Dahl told Gloria that he and Joan were planning to be married on April 1. In the meantime, he had discussed with Joan a pre-nuptial agreement; he had his attorney draft it, present it to Joan, and told her to take it to her own lawyers. It was, he explained, protection for both of them. In the event of his death, it would provide her with $18,000 a year for the rest of her life. It would thereby protect his estate from the entanglements of any further claims by her. It might also silence the gossips who would inevitably see Joan as a golddigger; after all, $18,000 a year was a nice stipend, but it was no fortune. For the Akins, though, the idea of any kind of pre-nuptial agreement was ominous. It reinforced their suspicions. But the wheels were set in motion. On March 17, George bought Joan a $3,700 diamond engagement ring.

With the impending marriage, Dahl informed Clara Thomas, his housekeeper for 46 years, that he would no longer be requiring her services. Clara, an opponent of the proposed marriage, indicated that she would choose not to work for him anyway if he married. A confusing episode ensued. Clara arranged, before she left, to have the family silver transferred from Dahl’s apartment to the Akin home. She claimed it had been authorized by Dahl, that in fact he had given her the key to the storage closet. Dahl ultimately accused Clara of stealing, took back the car he had given her 10 years before, and, despite her half-century of service, refused her a pension. Clara was deeply hurt. “I never thought he’d do me that way,” she said. The Akins were enraged.

On March 27, Gloria and Ted Akin called Dr. Haynes Harvill, Mr. Dahl’s personal physician for many years. They told him of their concerns over Dahl’s mental condition, of their perceptions of his erratic behavior, of his physical deterioration, of dubious business decisions, of the incident involving Clara and the silver, and of the impending marriage. They were, they said, planning to institute guardianship proceedings which would entail an inquiry into his mental status. They wanted to know if Dr. Harvill thought their intentions to be reasonable and if so, would he provide medical information to the court? Dr. Harvill agreed that an evaluation was warranted and to provide information. Two days later, Dr. Harvill was subpoenaed to testify in Probate Court in regard to the guardianship request of Gloria Akin.

The thought of taking legal action against Dahl was certainly not appealing to the Akins. But what else could they do? It was time, they reasoned, to put George Dahl in the hands of the law. The law would return him to the hands of the Akins. And all would be solved.

• • •

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