Saturday, August 20, 2022 Aug 20, 2022
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By Lee Cullum |

Our choice for the 1984 Dallasite of the Year is a man whose civic contributions long predate his recent role as chairman of the non-partisan Welcoming committee for the Republican National Convention. But it was his deft leadership in that role that made him our choice.

For someone whose fortune has been made mostly in the suburbs, Dave Fox devotes surprising amounts of his time to downtown. In fact, that’s where you’ll find him many mornings-meeting at City Hall (to discuss the aftermath of the Republican National Convention), at the Chamber of Commerce (where he was chairman and still exerts considerable influence) or at St. Jude’s Chapel on Sundays. Fox is a mainstay of the downtown business community. He’s one of those pivotal people whose opinion is sought out and heeded.

On weekdays, Fox tries to leave downtown in time to get to his office at Fox & Jacobs, his homebuilding company, in Carrollton by at least 10:30. A steady stream of visitors wait patiently for him in a reception area where the walls are adorned with plaques.

Fox usually sees people in the big conference room adjoining his office. The private Dave Fox is off-limits most of the time, but the public man is accessible and generous with his attention. The handsome brown conference table tells you that this is a very successful company, but there are few reports lying around to be read. “Dave doesn’t go home and spend hours poring over reports to make a decision,” observes Peter Kaplan, a Washington lawyer and former lobbyist who’s worked closely with Fox through the years. “He knows who he is. He relies on his instincts. [But] he’ll read a memorandum if he has to read a memorandum.”

Fox’s intuitive insight has stood him in good stead. Riding on his wits, he’s managed to stay 10 years ahead of the pack. He took Fox & Jacobs into Bryan Place with the backup support of city government a decade before downtown housing and public-private collaboration became a part of our common vision. The project looked so iffy during the mid-Seventies that the city agreed to buy back the land at $2.25 a square foot if it didn’t go. Today, that land is worth well over $15 a square foot, and it stands in the vanguard of the Near East Side redevelopment, with the elegant Wilson Block not far behind. Today, it’s the place to be. That was far from the case when Dave Fox moved in and turned intuition into reality.

“Dave is not a seat-of-the-pants person,” says Kaplan. “He doesn’t make quick decisions, and he doesn’t shoot from the hip.”

But he does shoot straight.

“I want those cars out of my neighborhood,” Fox told the City Council in 1978, sounding for all the world like an East Dallas activist. At his insistence, certain streets were closed and others were narrowed. Fox didn’t set out to be a harbinger of the future agenda in that section of the city, but he foretold it nonetheless.

“He can be very stubborn,” Kaplan, 40, says of Fox, who’s 60. “He’s been known to leave the room. But he’ll come back. I learned more from him than anybody- about life, business, people. [I learned that] you’ve got to trust your own judgment and your own instincts. Don’t be afraid to tell the emperor he’s not wearing clothes.”

Fox followed his instincts to South Dallas way ahead of the crowd when he developed a major tract of land in Duncanville 10 years ago. Zoning lawyers howled to the City Council that the schools could never keep up with the newcomers Fox would bring to town, but it all worked out. Fox’s projects usually do.

That success may be the reason for his optimism, or optimism may be the reason for his success. “Don’t say [business is] bad, say slow,” is his credo in less than optimum situations, according to his daughter, Laura Fox. Laura and her four siblings grew up in a Fox & Jacobs neighborhood. Every weekend, they’d go out to a new crop of model homes and climb around the framework, while their father, a one-man band in the early days, courted potential customers.

Dave’s son, Kevin, who remodels houses in Bluff View for resale, recalls how it felt when “your dad built your whole neighborhood. Our parents were concerned about our keeping perspective,” he says. “They were concerned that the kids not believe their own [Fox & Jacobs’] P.R.” The company did so well, though, that in 1969 Fox moved his family to a big house in Highland Park.

FOX WAS born in Wyoming and has a Westerner’s appreciation for the open “frontier society” (his phrase) that he found in Dallas when he moved here from Chicago and enrolled at Highland Park High School. (He excelled in drama and even landed a role in the school play opposite Dorothy Malone.) Fox’s father had accepted a job in Dallas, and that precipitated the move. It was also his father who started Fox & Jacobs (with partner Ike Jacobs) just after World War II.

No sooner was the company launched than the elder Fox died. It fell to Dave, then a young man in his 20s to step in and save the situation. But by 1960, things were wearing thin between Fox and his father’s friend, Ike Jacobs. So Jacobs agreed to buy out Fox over five years.

But Ike Jacobs died in 1965-almost at the end of the buy-out-and once again an unexpected death thrust Dave Fox into a leadership role in Fox & Jacobs. He’s been there ever since.

According to Martin Mayer, writing in his 1978 book The Builders, Fox “does not have a competitor [with only one exception] for the champion’s belt among homebuilders for lower-middle-income families.” Mayer explains how Fox & Jacobs works: “Each Fox & Jacobs tract, serviced by a crew of workers that may run to 300 men, is an assembly line on a piece of land, different from the usual assembly line only in that it’s the people and the materials rather than the product that moves. The delivery of parts to the work station is as precisely organized, the schedule is as exact and the economies derived are as substantial as anything in conventional industry.”

As Fox explained to Mayer, “We decided we could style ourselves as housing manufacturers rather than contractors. The theory is continuous production.” It’s all in the schedule, which, Mayer writes, “shows the house and its contents essentially complete 17 days after the first piece of framing is nailed to the slab; 35 days after the stakes are driven to tell the back-hoe operator where the trench will be. Four more days are given to touching up and cleaning up, final inspections and the installation of water and electric meters.”

Fox’s instincts have served him well not only in business but in civic affairs, where he was among the first to understand that the Dallas business community was going to have to adopt a modus operandi of negotiation, conciliation and consensus-building, where once it had run the city almost by fiat.

Fox has kept the common touch, and it made a difference during the school desegregation hearings of 1976. Federal Judge William Mac Taylor had upbraided the business community for washing its hands of DISD. In response, the Dallas Alliance was formed to help negotiate a new plan for public schools. With Dave Fox deeply involved, the Alliance hammered out an agreement among blacks, Hispanics and Anglos that brought about the birth of magnet schools and diminished the impact of busing.

Fox won the trust of all sides in those meetings, and the reason was simple: “It’s the respect he gives you,” says one colleague, a woman who worked with him on a later project. And, Kaplan adds, Fox “deals with the minority community the same way he’d deal with anybody on the other side of an issue. He treats people with respect.

“He probably won’t give you the satisfaction of agreeing with you then and there,” Kaplan says, “but his course of action will show you that you made some points.”

Sister Carla, president of Ursuline Academy, where Fox is currently chairman of a $6.5 million capital and endowment program, says, “This is the way I experience Dave Fox: Somehow or other within his person, there is a vast richness and the need to love. The significance of his achievement is in his motivation. A lot of people know a lot of things, but Dave Fox is wise.”

This ease in relationships with all kinds of people stems, perhaps, from Fox’s family experience. As the father of five children, he’s learned how to deal with differences within his own household. Daughter Laura, who lives in Bryan Place, has been described by someone who worked with her on the Dallas Welcoming Committee as a strong individual who thinks for herself. A son, Michael, is pursuing a career in TV commercial voice-overs and in music. (He sang bass in the Dallas Civic Opera’s Carmen and La Forza del Destino last year and has a walk-on role in two upcoming episodes of Dallas. ) House restorer Kevin occasionally covers arts for the Downtown News. Daughter Amy is a travel agent in Little Rock. And son Dave is moving from Oregon to Connecticut to work on the restoration of 17th- and 18th-century houses.

Diversity close to home has bred humanity in Dave Fox. That’s what made him the perfect choice to pull the city together into a giant, non-partisan Welcoming Committee for the Republican Convention last summer. It was not an easy concept to sell. The notion of non-Republicans working on the convention made little sense in a lot of quarters. “First, we had to define it and define it well,” says Fox of his early efforts with the committee. “It took some time for the Democrats as well as the Republicans to understand that we wanted to be nonpartisan, that we were representing the mayor’s office in a totally non-partisan way.”

There was friction all along. Some Republicans feared that Democratic volunteers were really trying to infiltrate the Grand Old Party and steal political mailing lists, strategies and secrets. Some Democrats scoffed at the convention and vowed to stay aloof. But when former Democratic County Chairman Ron Kessler agreed to join the original steering committee, the deal was sealed, and the Republican Convention was stamped as a Dallas event that would draw upon the energies of all.

The response was fantastic. With Phil Vaccaro at the helm, 18 restaurants prepared and served 40,000 free meals to the visiting press. Mike Waterman of Semiflight mustered 1,000 volunteers to welcome guests at D/FW airport. Richard Fisher oversaw the entertaining of 70 ambassadors and numerous other foreign dignitaries.

As for the man in charge, Fox is described by Meg Read, who helped organize volunteers for the Welcoming Committee, as someone who is “able to surround himself with people who have great follow-through. He can make his project your project. He has a marvelous style. He gives you the overall view, then he doesn’t nit-pick. You feel a part of the team with Dave.”

And how does Fox feel about the convention? “The reviews, letters and comments have been more than we could have hoped,” he says. “One national columnist, being critical, compared Dallas to Rome. Well, that’s quite a compliment, being compared to a centuries-old city.”

Rome, as the saying goes, wasn’t built in a day; neither will Dallas come into its own overnight. But when it does, much of the credit will belong to people such as Dave Fox who have assembled all sorts of antithetical people of widely differing views and shown them what they can accomplish by working together.

“It took some time for the Democrats as well as the Republicans to understand that we wanted to be non-partisan, that we were representing the mayor’s office in a totally nonpartisan way.”

Dave Fox

“I learned from Dave Fox that you’ve got to trust your own judgment and your own instincts. Don’t be afraid to tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes”

Peter Kaplan

Washington attorney