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NOSTALGIA A LEGAL LEGEND

Henry Kucera, Dallas’ premier city attorney.
By Chris Tucker |

FORMER CITY Attorney Alex Bickley calls him “a landmark character” and “a part of the undergirding of this city for many years.”

Norman Register, Dallas’ tax assessor and collector for more than 30 years, says “He practically ran the city – the city managers, mayors, everyone. If any one man was in charge of the city during those years, it was – “Bob Thornton, you think. Or maybe John Stemmons. Neither one. It’s Henry Kucera.

Yes, Henry Kucera. And the years in question? A bunch of them -from 1935, when Kucera became city attorney of Dallas, to 1965, when he retired. If you include the 10 years (1925-1935) he spent as an assistant city attorney, Henry Kucera served under 14 mayors and served with (not under) seven city managers.

Actually, Kucera was around before Dallas had a city manager. He recalls Mayors Louis Blaylock (1923-27), R.E. Burt (1927-29) and J. Waddy Tate (1929-31), who presided over Dallas under the old commissioner form of government. The council-manager system came to Dallas in 1930, when Kucera had already earned his first 5-year pin from the city.

At 84, Henry Kucera can look back on four decades of service to Dallas. When he signed on with the city, Calvin Coolidge was new in the White House and Rudy Vallee was crooning his way into Americans’ hearts. When he retired, LBJ was hearing the first protesters’ catcalls and the Beatles were on top of the charts.

Henry Kucera, who helped build the Dallas we know today, is a crusty, opinionated man with a thick Czech accent (a mystery to many, since he was born in Texas). Kucera laid the legal groundwork for Central Expressway and helped solve the water crisis of the Forties and Fifties. He successfully defended the first zoning ordinance ever upheld in Texas. He was part of the making of the municipal law in Texas for many years, often dictating legislation for Dallas over the phone to State Sen. George Parkhouse, the dean of the Dallas delegation in Austin for many years. Not that Henry liked the Legislature. A man of the law, he deeply distrusted lawmakers and became famous for saying “Nobody’s life, liberty or property is safe while the Legislature is in session.”It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely advocate for this city than Kucera. Born October 16, 1896, on a farm 13 miles from La Grange, Texas, Henry Peyton Kucera was the seventh of 12 children -six boys and six girls. His father and mother came from what is now Czechoslovakia. John Kucera spoke Czech around the house, worked as a farmer and a tailor, and lived into his 90s. Veronika Kucera died of typhoid fever when Henry was 12.

When Henry was very young, he recalls, his father took a dim – no – a dark view of the legal profession. Two lawyers, representing different gravel companies, had involved the elder Kucera in a bitter squabble over an oral agreement Kucera had supposedly made, promising to lease some of his land to one of the competitors. Company A claimed that the agreement was binding for 10 years.

“He knew damn well that under the law, an oral lease for property is no good for longer than one year. They finally gave up, but my father got the idea that all lawyers were good-for-nothing ,” Kucera says.

But the prejudice didn’t stick. Though his education was interrupted by service in World War I and a lengthy bout with typhoid, he graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1923 and came to Dallas looking for work. After a brief stint in private practice, he was hired as an assistant city attorney in 1925. He’s candid about the decision:

It was a matter of survival.

“I probably could have made more money in private practice,” he says, “but people just didn’t make the charges then like they do now.” In those days, he says, courts and lawyers were a last resort, not a first choice for redressing every grievance. So Kucera came to work for the city at $150 a month.

While still an assistant city attorney, Kucera won the landmark Lombardo case, which upheld the constitutional right of Texas cities to enforce zoning ordinances. Opponents of zoning held that the measures were an infringement on property rights; the Texas Supreme Court, at Kucera’s urging, held otherwise.

Kucera became city attorney in 1935, which Dallas trivia buffs know as the Year of the Catfish in Dallas politics. The Catfish Club -so called, according to one wag, because they hid out of sight and did their work in the mud -was made up largely of ex-city employees discharged during the administration of John N. Edy, Dallas’ first city manager. Kucera calls Edy “a wonderful organizer, but with no public relations at all. He argued with everybody.” Under Edy, Dallas had instituted the civil service system, which made it much harder for officeholders to reward the faithful with city jobs.

The Catfish Club hoped to turn back the clock in the city election of 1935 and made the abrasive Edy the main issue of the campaign against the slate of candidates put up by the Citizens’ Charter Association. The strategy worked, as the Catfish candidates defeated the CCA by wide _ margins. A general purge at City Hall was feared, but according to Carolyn Barta, a Dallas Morning News editor and a student of the period, the Catfish administration turned out to be “composed of men of principle who disappointed those seeking favor at City Hall.” One of those men was Henry Kucera, who would serve as city attorney until the Catfish Club was only a footnote to Dallas history. “Check it with Henry” became a watchword around City Hall.

As the years went by, Kucera built a reputation as a formidable legal mind who took particular umbrage, according to Alex Bickley, a former city attorney who once worked for Kucera, at “individuals who were attacking the basic tenets of city administration and city structure.” One old-time Dallas politico put it less generously: “What the city wanted, Kucera got. He read and wrote municipal law to suit the oligarchy. Even the attorneys on the council were intimidated by him because municipal law was not their specialty.”

So the son of immigrants became the staunch defender of the establishment. Henry Graeser, director of the City Water Department from 1955 to 1976, says that Kucera was so highly respected in the legal profession that his stature alone saved the city countless thousands of dollars in harassment suits. “They just didn’t go up against Henry unless they were in pretty good shape,” Graeser says. “He was that knowledgeable. And he could track down things that happened so long ago most people had forgotten about them.”

Case in point. In the early Forties, the city had begun negotiations with several railroads to acquire the right of way for Central Expressway, a plan that -believe it or not -was then considered inspired. Kucera returned from military service in the fall of 1945 and a few months later learned that, in his absence, the city manager had made a deal with the Rock Island Railroad, a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific and one of the last impediments to progress on Central development. The agreement: The City would provide two underpasses for the Rock Island Line at a cost of approximately $40,000.

But they forgot to check it with Henry. When Kucera received a memo from the city manager asking him to write up a contract for the deal with the railroad, Kucera balked. The track, he remembered, was in the middle of the street. “This struck me as kind of funny,” he says. “1 knew good and well that a railroad couldn’t lay track in the middle of a street without the permission of the city.”

So Kucera asked the city engineer to answer a question: How did the railroad get in the middle of the street? Two days later came the answer: Nobody knew. Kucera then persuaded an old friend in the city Engineering Department to have another look down in the musty basement of the old City Hall. A few days later, Kucera remembers, the friend called him. “Judge, I think I found what you want.”

Indeed he had. The document showed that the City of Dallas had granted a franchise to the Rock Island line for 50 years – beginning in 1895. The franchise had expired in early 1945, before the city manager made the agreement with the railroad. “They were trespassers,” Kucera says. “We had the right to kick them out. I went down to the city manager’s office and I told him that I wasn’t going to write that contract. We didn’t owe them anything.”

Stunned, the embarrassed city manager asked the judge what he planned to do. “I’m going to catch a train,” Kucera replied. The train took him to Houston, to the offices of the Southern Pacific Railroad and R.W. Barnes, the vice president of the line.

Kucera explained his discovery, expecting trouble, but Barnes just laughed. “I thought somebody would stumble on to that,” he said. Barnes and Kucera were able to work out a joint trackage agreement that cost Dallas only $25,000. Such maneuvers soon earned Kucera the nickname “watchdog of the treasury.”

“I think his first love was really the tax office,” says Norman Register. “He’d come by every morning to see how collection was doing. I used to tell him, ’Henry, it’s damn near impossible to work with you, but I know I couldn’t work without you.’ “

But a man who handles the legal affairs of a large city will make some enemies. Kucera had his share. He was bitterly opposed to unions and still likes to quote Calvin Coolidge: “There is no place for unions in government.” One of his finest moments, he says, is a case from the early Fifties involving a law that would have set a minimum wage for policemen and firemen, to vary according to the size of the city. Dallas refused to pay the wage. The police and firefighters sued, and Henry Kucera took up the cudgel for the city.

According to Kucera, the judge in the hearing was clearly on the side of the plaintiffs from the start, interjecting comments painting the city as cold and unconcerned about its employees’ welfare. The courtroom was packed with an equally partisan crowd largely made up of the plaintiffs’ relatives and friends. After the judge dropped one too many sneering references to the heartless city bosses, Kucera asked to speak on a point of personal privilege.

“Your Honor,” Kucera said. “I’ve tried many a case, but this is the first time I ever tried a case before a mob encouraged by the court.”

That struck a blow. The judge reddened and soon located his lost objectivity. Finally, the sides agreed to $35 damages for each of the officers, with Kucera insisting that all the officers be given the settlement, not only those who had brought the suit. “1 always felt proud of that case,” Kucera says. “Houston, Wichita Falls, Fort Worth and San Antonio all lost similar cases. It cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

As Kucera’s legal reputation grew, so did his image as a City Hall “character,” a blunt, crotchety old gentleman with an unpredictable temper and a manner most politely described as brusque. He could be downright intimidating to young assistant city attorneys, whom he often addressed as “Whatchamacallit.” “That habit used to bother me,” says a former Kucera assistant. “Then one day I heard him call Mayor [Earle] Cabell the same thing.”

John Boyle, an assistant city attorney in the last years of Kucera’s reign, recalls that it was customary for the assistant with least seniority to take the judge for his biweekly haircut at a shop in the Republic Bank, at the height of the noontime traffic. The junior partner would then take a solitary lunch or just circle around until a neatly trimmed Kucera emerged from the shop. “My greatest fear during two and a half years was that I would have a wreck in that city car,” Boyle says. “I could just see Henry coming up to the car.”

Fledgling assistants to Kucera also learned to take cover whenever “the old man” learned that his staff had lost a case. Once, a young assistant happened to be walking through the courthouse when the news spread that a decision had gone against the city. He fled back to Kucera’s office bearing the bad tidings, only to hear the instant verdict-“We’re gonna appeal it” -and to find himself named, on the spot, as the attorney to handle the appeal.

Bickley, who became city attorney upon Kucera’s retirement in 1965, says Kucera probably knew that younger staff members held him in awe. “I don’t think he intended to scare anyone,” Bickley says. “He did want to impress them that excellence was what it takes.” Was Kucera a popular man around the office? “I think that depends on what you mean by popularity,” Bickley says. “Some people are popular because they’re hail-fellow-well-met types. Others are popular because they stand at the top of their profession. In that sense, he was very popular. His people knew he was well-read in the law and knew what he was talking about.”

Kucera, who worked with 14 mayors, lists Charles E. Turner (1932-35), Woodall Rodgers (1939-47), J.B. Adoue Jr. (1951-53) and R.L. Thornton (1953-61) as the most effective of the group. Kucera has particularly fond memories of Rodgers, an old hunting and fishing companion. A former assistant to Kucera recalls the day when the judge told him to “drop everything” and start acquiring land for an “emergency project.” The emergency? A freeway named after Kucera’s old friend, Woodall Rodgers. “We got to have it by 1965,” Kucera said.

These days, Henry Kucera seldom goes out into the city he helped to build. His eyes are not what they once were. He reads the papers (“as far as that goes”) with a magnifying lamp, but he reads little else. When he leaves home, it’s usually to see a doctor. “As far as law is concerned, I’m out of circulation,” he says. But he still gets calls for advice on legal matters and he’s glad to help, if the work can be done over the phone. His memory is still keen.

Kucera doesn’t envy the city attorneys that have followed him. He thinks it’s much harder to be a city attorney now than it was when he ran an office of eight attorneys in the Fifties. “We had much closer cooperation between the council and the city attorney than they have now. The council and city manager would seek advice from the city attorney. Now it seems that everyone’s on his own, making statements to the newspapers and whatnot.” He doesn’t regret leaving office before the Seventies brought waves of black and brown demands for quota hiring and numerous discrimination suits.

But it would be a mistake to paint Henry Kucera as a bitter man. He was a gruff but happy warrior for Dallas; today he remains quick to laugh, especially when reliving the many cases he won for his longtime client. Yes, he has a few regrets-even Kucera couldn’t win ’em all. And that reminds him of one more story, this one from the early Thirties, when he was still an assistant city attorney.

The city had contracted with a developer who wanted to build a plant to manufacture livestock feed out of wet garbage. The plant was never allowed to begin operations though, because the council balked at passing the ordinance that would have required citizens to put their wet garbage in one trash can and their dry garbage in another. The developer sued for breach of contract and collected $50,000 in federal court.

“It was a bad contract to start out with,” says Kucera, wincing at the thought of the debacle a half-century ago. “I didn’t make the contract. I just inherited the mess. They weren’t listening to me then.”

They learned to listen, though. And during the next 40 years, they learned to check it with Henry.