Walt Humann likes the one from Aesop’s Fables about the farmer who, on his deathbed, left all his Hand to his three sons, telling them of great treasure buried within it. When the man died, the boys dug up every square inch of soil, searching in vain for hidden riches. It was only after they planted the ground and their harvest bore fruit that the sons came to understand the nature of their father’s legacy. The boys learned the virtues of hard work, of consistent, steady care, of patience. A fable for the modus operandi of Walt Humann.

Walter J. Humann, 48, is chairman and chief operating officer of Hunt Oil Co., an establishment figure who got there the old-fashioned way: through integrity and hard work. Born of a German-immigrant father who worked in the cotton trade, Humann moved from his native East Dallas to the tiny German-Czech village of Halletsville, Texas, during World War II, to escape the barbs of discrimination aimed at anyone with a Deutsch brogue. After the war, the Hu-manns returned to Dallas, sinking roots first in Oak Cliff and later in what was then the northern frontier of Preston Hollow.

Humann excelled at Hillcrest High School, where he was tabbed “Most Likely To Succeed.” He studied at M.I.T., where he “learned humility”; at Harvard Graduate School of Business, where he landed in the upper third of his class; and at SMU Evening Law School, where he received a Doctorate of Jurisprudence degree in 1967. After a brief stint at an electronics firm in Oklahoma, Humann joined Ling-Tempco-Vought, Inc., where he spent 11 years climbing the corporate ladder before joining Hunt Oil in January of 1975.

A turning point in Humann’s life came in 1966 when he saw a memo on an LTV bulletin board announcing a nationwide, nonpartisan competition for membership in an elite corps of White House Fellows drawn from the ranks of leaders in America’s private sector. Humann won one of the coveted spots and spent a memorable year in the capital during the Lyndon Johnson presidency.

Walt Humann’s contributions to Dallas go far beyond his involvement as a business executive. He has worked to resolve many crucial problems that plague our community, from equality in education to hiring the handicapped to unclogging the freeways. His recent efforts to solve the vexing problems of gridlock on North Central Expressway won him near-unanimous praise for an incredibly difficult job well done. It has been said of Walt Humann that if he were confronted with a scattered army of 50,000 Brazilian fire ants, within half an hour he would have them purposefully marching in the same direction. What follows is a discussion with one of Dallas’ rarest resources.

D: You are widely touted as a key player in Dallas’ “second generation” of leaders. Where do you see the city heading in terms of leadership?

Humann: Leadership is much more diverse and diffused than it was in the old days when a small group of very well-intentioned individuals decided what was best for Dallas. I think the change materialized with the election of Wes Wise as mayor. For the first time people came to realize that the establishment candidate wouldn’t be automatically elected. Leadership today requires a lot of time and patience and homework. There is the ability for a charismatic individual to seize the imagination of the electorate and prevail, but probably it can’t happen very often. The reason is that you have different groups of constituencies to deal with in the community. I think that this diversity requires an incredible amount of time in the “trenches.” Business groups have very diverse opinions as do neighborhood organizations. We have an incredible reservoir of talent in the community, and one of the strongest motivations for my getting into civic work was knowing that great people from all areas, races and economic levels want to help their community.

D: People who know you invariably comment on your patience and your willingness to listen to all sides of an issue. Do you think the discrimination your German-born father experienced during the war taught you tolerance?

Humann: My parents tried to teach me to be tolerant by their actions. We moved from Dallas to a tiny Czech-German town in south Texas during the war, moving into a very small house. We didn’t even realize how close we were living. It was a great experience for us kids. After the war, growing up in Oak Cliff and North Dallas and then attending college in Boston with people of many different races helped me form different perspectives. I made a speech in high school about the fact that a black man’s blood was just as red as a white man’s. I guess even in those days I felt very keenly aware of the need for fair treatment of everyone. And my Dad, who came from Germany and became an American citizen by choice, often told me that discrimination was one of the biggest problems we had in this country.

D: It’s been said that you are one of the few people in Dallas who truly grasps the big picture of Dallas’ transportation problems. What is the big picture? And where do we go from here?

Humann: There aren’t any simple solutions, yet transportation is the glue that holds the fabric of our community together. We need a balanced transportation system in the community, not just for Dallas but for the region. That balance, in my view, should be composed of three major areas: first, highways and tollways-an adequate thoroughfare system; second, a quality, world class public transit system; and third, programs to get more efficient use from our existing facilities, like ridesharing.

North Central must be improved. It is the most congested freeway in the state and the fifth most dangerous in the country. Ours may be the oldest living freeway controversy in the United States, dating back to 1952 or 1953 when it started appearing on city council agendas. Central is inefficient by today’s standards.

We also need additional highways and tollways. Tollways can be built more quickly and users finance them, so they have an appeal. But you can’t just paper the community with ribbons of concrete. There are right-of-way, money and time limitations to building thoroughfares. In addition to that, you get caught up in this fetish of being married to the automobile. We are not going to change lifestyles overnight, but it seems to me that we don’t want the Dallas area to grow into more of a sprawling metropolitan area with wide freeways and highways and a lot of congestion and pollution.

And that’s where public transportation comes in. You can move people more efficiently by bus and by light rail. At the same time there are some people in our community who quite frankly can’t afford the luxury of a passenger automobile, and though their number is relatively small, any public transportation plan must take them into account. Additionally, there are a number of white-collar upper- and middle-income people who will use a quality rapid transit system. All you have to do is go to Toronto or London or some of the other European cities and you will find that transit is almost the only way to go. What DART plans is to develop a lower cost, light rail system and then, most importantly, expand a bus system that improves the transit system county-wide. Buses will serve as collectors so that when the light rail transit is put in place, you have convenient means of collecting people from their home site or their work site to bring them to a central terminal point.

Let’s talk about the third component. We can do so much more to make efficient use of what we already have. I took a lot of pride in organizing a program about five years ago through the Chamber of Commerce and other citizen groups called “Keep Dallas Moving.” The basis of the program was to encourage local employers to provide economic or personal incentives to employees to carpool, vanpool or use transit. We asked employers to consider staggering work hours or modifying the work week. And there are other methods of improving traffic flow, such as computer-controlled signalization and quick removal of stalled cars on freeways. We need to manage rush hour just as we would manage any other operation. In our firm, we provided an incentive to our employees, paying 100 percent of their bus fare. In a four-month time we saw a tripling of bus ridership. All of those potential cars were taken off the road.

D: Do you ever fear that the entire concept of rail is wrong for Dallas?

Humann: Certain types of rail would be wrong for Dallas: an investment in a heavy rail system, for instance, where you spend a lot of money getting track laid. A light rail system will work. But it’s one of those judgment calls, and like in business, you have to take some risks. It seems to me that rail is a very low-cost investment when you think of the future quality of the city. It’s like the chicken and the egg. If we have a quality transit system in place that gets you from point A to point B quickly, then I believe you’ll have a large number of people using it. But if the buses aren’t there and the rail system isn’t there, then we’ll never find out if transit works. And you do have that dedicated right-of-way. If in the future something should ever happen and DART abandons its light rail system, it seems to me you could still use the right-of-ways for bus guideways or vanpools or other high density type vehicles. So it’s flexible enough.

D: What most people really want to know is how long is it going to take until Central is fixed?

Humann: If we can keep our local support together and get state highway approval, then we estimate a maximum of three years to acquire the right-of-way and to do the final design work. I think it can be done faster than three years, but let’s assume three. Then it will take three to five years to construct each of the segments, so we’re looking at a total of six to eight years for the project. We are recommending strongly that if funds are available, the segments be built simultaneously. But first we must work to earn the confidence of the state in our solution.

D: What are the three segments?

Humann: Downtown to Mockingbird, that’s what we call the southern segment, Mockingbird to Northwest Highway is the middle segment, Northwest Highway to LBJ is the northern segment. I asked our North Central advisory committee what they would prefer, if funds were available: Would they like less pain for a longer period of time or more pain for a shorter period of time? And everyone said let’s get it on and over and done with.

D: How did you get the North Central Task Force off the ground?

Humann: Before the Task Force came into being, many conceptual designs for improving Central had been done unilaterally by one single governmental entity. The highway department came up with the double-decking alternative, with the best of intentions to get the job done. Later, the City of Dallas hired a consultant and he had come up with some ideas, unilaterally. So what I suggested in lieu of another “study” was that we set up a special Task Force. Starke Taylor gave his support. Then I went to the governor on two occasions, had excellent visits and he put me in contact with Bob Lanier, the chairman of the Texas State Highway Commission. I visited with the mayors of other Dallas-area communities and some community organizations trying to sell them on the concept of creating a Task Force with three major groups: policymakers, community advisors and technical staff. Without all of those three groups, you’re going to fail, even with the attention and involvement of the mayor and the top city council people who all agreed to stay involved. Those council members whose districts are most affected by Central urged me to take the job. Their wives sent my wife condolence flowers.

The idea was to secure involvement by the key policymakers. To get the staffs of the city and the state highway department together in one room. Then to hire a project director, which we did, a very talented man, Steve Lockwood. Then, at the same time, to hire an outside design firm that had actually built and designed transit systems and highways. To get all those technical people together so we’re not making just a political decision but developing something sound in technical and economic terms.

I said at the outset, and this caused a lot of concern, that I didn’t want to take any votes. What we’ve tried to do is operate on a consensus. Hopefully an overwhelming majority of us would all move down the same path together and agree on a solution. We’d wake up one morning and say, hey, we all agree. And we would avoid having to go through the confrontation that voting brings. With such a diverse group voting, votes, especially premature votes, could have been terribly counterproductive.

D: Is the consensus-building process workable in Dallas?

Humann: Yes. Most people think basically the same way when you scrape away all the excess baggage. The biggest problem we have in solving problems is that I may have a misconception about your attitudes, and you toward mine. So we have to spend half the time wiping the slate clean. At one meeting, we heard a man from the Automobile Association of America make a comment that what we need is an effective rapid transit system to get these cars off the road. Now before he said that, others may have thought that all this guy would want to do is pave the county with concrete.

D: What thorny problems lie ahead?

Humann: Getting all parties to agree to a single solution. Then, the maintenance of traffic during construction is absolutely crucial. We’re going to suggest some pretty unique things there to speed construction and ease disruption. For example, we hope that The Dallas Morning News and the Times Herald will run full page maps showing, say, that this week the Lovers Lane bridge will be closed and here’s the way you can get around it. We will have to divert traffic and carpool, vanpool and do a lot of other things. But it’s going to take superior communications.

Another final problem is the cost: $400 million for the highway and $500 million for the transit. The longer we wait, the greater the cost. The costs have more than doubled while we debated but didn’t act.

D: Do we have the money?

Humann: Yes, I believe DART has the money, certainly to build our Central line from downtown and some of the bus collecting systems. The question is how much money they have to do the rest of the system. My point is that North Central is the most congested area and the most dense. If rapid transit will work anywhere in the state, it will work on North Central. So we certainly want to build that as one of our first lines. The solution we worked out that crucial night of the DART workshop, is that two-thirds of the DART board must vote in favor of the financial plan before a contractor can start building the North Central tunnel.

As a business person and a taxpayer, I wouldn’t want anyone to begin on a major development program without knowing that we have a good financial plan. Going back to the consensus thing I was talking about, if you just squeak by with a vote of 51 to 49 percent on a financial plan, you’re not going to convince the public that DART has its act together. You get two-thirds of the vote, then you’ll know the financial plan is really sound.

D: What was the lowest point you experienced in your Central Task Force effort?

Humann: I’d rather talk about the high points, but it had to be convincing people that we could get a consensus solution and to try the Task Force concept. I felt that I had to burn a lot of bridges first, some with close friends. There was just tremendous skepticism and you could see it just by looking into people’s eyes. They said, number one, you’re naive and number two, you’re way off base. To their credit, even the skeptics rolled the dice and really put their trust in the Task Force. It’s easy to understand how they felt because we’ve had years of studies and we’ve had no action for at least 15 years. Another difficulty was always appearing optimistic when sometimes I felt bad, pretty down. And a final low point was hit when, 30 minutes before DART was to vote on the plan on August 27, it appeared that all was lost.

D: What have been the high points?

Humann: One was getting the task force launched, the concept developed. I just felt as if we were on the right track, as if I’d solved the problem on the test even though I hadn’t gotten the test back yet. Meeting with the governor, that was one of the high points. Another was getting by the first month’s meetings and not coming unglued. We had strong double-decking supporters; we had strong “no-improvement” folks. Another peak came when Bob Lanier, the chairman of the highway commission, came to Dallas on April 4 and said he was very impressed. Bob’s reaction at that meeting just went way beyond my expectations. I picked him up at the airport and decided to drive down Northwest Highway from Love Field and get on Central up there instead of coming the more direct route. As fete would have it, two major traffic jams, five or six accidents right at the time had the expressway virtually at a standstill. And this was 10 o’clock in the morning. And a real thrill came at that August 27 meeting when Dallas and the suburbs united to approve a “win-win” solution.

D: You were involved in authoring the DISD desegregation plan that was eventually adopted by Judge Barefoot Sanders. Could you talk about that?

Humann: I was the vice-chairman and a founder of the Dallas Alliance. Under the leadership of Jack Lowe Sr., we put together a desegregation plan. For five months we had worked on it and we just had so many ideas that were bouncing off the wall. My former secretary and I got together and tried to pull all these ideas together into a discussion paper. But even before the Dallas Alliance I had tried to get the DISD and the plaintiffs together in a secret meeting to try and resolve the differences and get the whole situation out of federal court. We had Rene’ Martinez from the brown community, Zan Holmes from the black community, and I tried to pull it off. But it didn’t come to anything. I felt strongly that the way to go was by voluntary intermixing of the races where you have quality education at the end of the bus rides.

D: What do you mean by voluntary intermixing of races?

Humann: I believe in the magnet school concept. I was involved in the first attempt by the DISD to work with the business community, and we got 300 professional business volunteers to provide advice, counsel, teaching and recruiting in each of the 15 career clusters that were formed in Skyline High School. Reader’s Digest wrote it up as the most substantive business involvement in the nation. It’s still going strong. Skyline serves as a positive model that magnet schools can attract people of all races and provide quality education.

D: How do you view busing now, a decade later?

Humann: I think that we need to concentrate on improving the quality of education in the classroom. I do not feel that busing has been successful. But the black and brown communities had a very legitimate concern in that there wasn’t quality of education in the classroom. We did have separate but unequal education, and to some extent that prevails today. But I believe in the great work that Ross Perot and his committee did. We now have a chance to upgrade the standards, but until that happens, we’ll continue to have problems in the schools. What we don’t want to do is create alienated groups of people in our community. Many people not even involved in busing have a bad feeling toward it, and this is in the black, white and brown communities. We visited with a lot of faculty and students and parents, and I believe very strongly that what they want most of all is a quality neighborhood school where they don’t have to get their son or daughter up at 5:30 in the morning to put them on the bus.

Unfortunately, and this is a big problem, some of the politicians denounce any statement criticizing forced busing as being racist. That’s very bad because it deters other people from really speaking their minds. It’s almost as if it’s sort of a macho thing. You can’t say that busing is not effective because that’s interpreted as “I’m not in favor of mixing black, white and brown,” and that’s just not the case. The Dallas Alliance and its educational task force received the national Volunteer of the Year Award for developing a plan that tried to improve education while it provided for voluntary desegregation. The courts can still say: “They came up with a plan that provided for quality mixed education and we will suspend forced busing for the time being and see if the other alternatives really work.” I think there would be an outpouring of support.

D: You spent a year in Washington during the Lyndon Johnson years as a White House Fellow. How did you get to be a part of that program?

Humann: The White House Fellows program had been formed a year earlier by John Gardner who, as the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, was a Republican in Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet. His concept was that in the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, our country really had a reservoir of strong, capable leaders, and that certainly today we had that many and more. So the Fellows program was established to provide a non-political way of identifying potential leaders and involving them for one year at the highest levels of the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Anyone can apply for the White House Fellows program, and between 2,000 and 10,000 people do each year. The applications are whittled down to a smaller number in regional panels. Each applicant has an interview, and if you get by there, you go to Washington to be interviewed by the President’s Commission. In the year I applied, the commission was headed by David Rockefeller. We spent three days at a retreat outside of Washington, where we were interviewed extensively. At the conclusion, each of the national finalists was handed an envelope indicating whether or not we had been selected. I lucked out.

D: What did you learn during your year in Washington?

Humann: The Fellows is an on-the-job type program. You either work as an assistant to the president, an assistant to the vice-president or an assistant to one of the Cabinet officers. I was assistant to Larry O’Brien, who was chief political advisor and Congressional liaison to the president. Later on through my year, Larry O’Brien was also appointed Postmaster General, a position he held on sort of a part-time basis. It was more of a political appointment. I was there only a week and a half when Larry O’Brien sent me out to the West Coast to help advance the president’s campaign trip for then-governor of California Pat Brown. I had no political prowess, and so now you know the real reason why Ronald Reagan was successful in beating Pat Brown.

It was a program that absolutely changed my life. One day I will never forget: I was on a trip, and I got a call on a Saturday to come to the Situation Room in the White House. Present were the president, the vice-president, military officers, the secretaries of Defense and State and others. The White House Fellows were all invited to attend this special briefing on an area that I wasn’t very familiar with called the Middle East. The briefers talked about how grave the situation was. There was a ticker tape running in the next room. It was making a lot of noise, and it was disconcerting. Anyway, we heard about Israel and Egypt. On Sunday, the Seven Day War broke out. We tracked it through the entire time period it was occurring. On Friday we had lunch with Secretary of State Dean Rusk. We just absolutely bracketed that war. Later, I learned that that ticker tape in the back room was the first direct communication between the White House and Moscow, and that that was credited with keeping the superpowers out of the conflict.

The president frequently invited us down to have sandwiches with him in the evening. He wrung his hands over the Vietnam war. I came out of my Washington experience with a changed attitude. There are so many great people working in this country, and the federal government is not composed of a bunch of dunderheads. Most are really dedicated and hard-working people. Sure, there are cadres of people who want to work 9-to-5. But there are a lot of dedicated people, and there are a lot of problems, and every problem has a lot of facets. The key thing is to try to work through the organization and change it.

That’s where I developed some of what I guess you could call my conservatism, although that may be a misnomer. My strong feeling is that the knee-jerk reaction of many individuals who see something wrong is to either write their congressman or call up the mayor and complain. Instead, the first thing that we should say is, what can we do, what can I personally do to help solve the problem? And then try to marshal some people and define the objective. Motivate, and create, and let a lot of people do their own thing. And don’t try to run off and grab the limelight.

D: You have said that the concept of public/private initiatives is close to your heart. Is that a bias you developed while in Washington?

Humann: My view is that we should not rely on the governmental bodies to solve all our problems. Some we shouldn’t even ask them to solve. We should pick up the charge and try to solve them ourselves. But there are certain sets of problems where the government is involved, and I believe strongly in private/public partnerships.

It really started right there in Washington, and maybe it was latent even before, but I had had no civic involvement before the White House Fellows program. I had been working full time, going to law school five nights a week.

The private/public issue really came into focus for me when four of us who were working with Larry O’Brien recommended pulling the Post Office Department out of politics and running it like a business. Politics were so pervasive in that organization that the number two man in the Post Office, a man who directed a labor force of about 350,000 people, had to spend a considerable amount of time worrying over political matters. We discovered at one point that he was walking around with a file folder under his arm, as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that a nephew of one of the congressmen was a rural postmaster, and he was an alcoholic. He said that the employee was causing them great grief and they wanted to fire him, but they were being called on the carpet by the congressman and threatened with “appropriations problems.” The Post Office wasn’t managed, it was administered by Congress and the bureaucracy. It’s a miracle that we were able to get billions of pieces of mail delivered back then.

What we recommended was that the postal service be taken out of the political process and set up as a public corporation. To our delight Larry O’Brien said it was a great idea. And he had the skills and the confidence of President Johnson, who also liked the idea. He said we should set up a blue-ribbon presidential commission composed of corporate heavyweights along with labor representatives, minorities and so forth. The last couple of months I was up there, I served as a liaison between the blue-ribbon committee and Larry O’Brien or, in effect, the government.

After my White House Fellows’ year was up, we moved back to Dallas. I was out mowing the lawn one of those hot August days, when I just got the idea that what they really needed was to have an outside organization pushing for the postal corporation. So I called Larry O’Brien, who by that time had left the government to become head of the Democratic National Committee. I asked him, and later asked the head of the Republican Party, to co-chair an organization we called CIPCO-Citizens for a Postal Corporation. I touched base in California and other places with Republicans, Democrats, business, labor, minorities. With a Republican and a Democrat as co-chairs, the organization was non-partisan. We received contributions nationwide, and started an education campaign. After a year or so, Larry O’Brien and his Republican counterpart took over the day-to-day operations in Washington. They got a bill passed through Congress and now we have the Postal Service, a public corporation. It didn’t end up as business-oriented as we originally hoped, but it was significantly better than what we had.

D: How do you see public/private initiatives working in Dallas?

Humann: The private sector, working in concert with the government, can do a great deal. In some areas, private citizens can solve problems without government help. DART has a unique opportunity to contract out certain operations. This can help quality subcontractors that are owned and controlled by minorities. There’s talent out there. There are ways to provide a financial base for some of the responsible and committed minorities and give them a chance.

D: Do you believe in hiring quotas?

Humann: No. I’d say that you pull together the people that are required to do the job. On the Education Task Force of the Dallas Alliance, for example, we had seven whites, seven blacks, seven browns and one other woman who was an American Indian. Had we thought of quotas we would have had 62.5 percent whites and something. If we can’t sell our ideas with just seven, then we don’t deserve to be on an operation like that. Conversely, one black person who is articulate, constructive and committed, can do just as much as many. So I would say it’s the quality of the people.

D: What do you see in this city that makes it unique?

Humann: Dallas has nothing going for it except the people. But there is a spirit down here that’s more of an entrepreneurial free spirit, a “can-do” climate. Many people without wealth have come to Dallas and have been able to break in and get involved. In many cases, these are the people who take the initiative and start something.

The Dallas area does have many factions. We do have groups suspicious of one another. We do have misconceptions in the community. But we’re so much better off than other cities, which have hardened attitudes that have been frozen over decades.

D: Do you see politics coming into play more now than in the past?

Humann: Yes. More people are posturing themselves politically, making statements that are for media consumption, rather than trying to get the job done. While pontificating can make you look better in the short run, in the long run, it’s counterproductive. I’m talking north, east, south and west Dallas, and not only the city of Dallas, but the suburbs as well. We have got some great people, but we also have some people who basically have their own political best interests at heart, and that’s unfortunate. I hope we don’t become partisan here. I consider myself an independent. I receive as much literature from the Democratic party as I do the Republican party. I have not made any party affiliation, and I am both a homeowner and a businessman.

D: Would you ever consider running for a political office?

Humann: No.

D:Do you ever ponder the road not taken?

Humann: I regret not spending more time with the family, during the earlier years with the kids. There has been sacrifice there. And I regret that I have not taken more time to develop closer ties with friends. I regret that my dad and mom weren’t alive to see some of the fruits of their labors. My dad was 43 when I was born, and I always had this fear in high school that he wouldn’t be around after I grew up. I wanted to do things to make him proud. He never raised his voice, or said why don’t you do this, or do that. Maybe because he was so solid and never criticized my grades or anything, that made me try harder.

D: What does motivate you?

Humann: A lot of things. To try and improve myself, I guess. To make my family, friends and associates proud. To have them respect me. Also to try to do things that have lasting value.

D: Where will your next cause come from?

Humann: I think that the problem-solving process is important, and that’s why we formed the Dallas Alliance. How do you bring to bear all of the resources to help get a job done? You can study it to death, but how do you translate study to action, and to quality action? Our community has become more diverse, with single-member districts and now the growth of suburbs, which are going to have more population than the city of Dallas. We must pull together and continue to solve problems as a team.

I read this quote once: “Our cities are cluttered, our poor numerous, we have homeless and our youth are unruly.” It sounds like America today, but it was written centuries ago. By Aristotle. The point is that we’re always going to have problems. Those communities and civilizations that survive are the ones that can handle the problem-solving process best. They know how to collect information, work together and get things resolved in a meaningful way.

Another top priority is crime. We have apartment houses, housing projects, businesses that are almost fortressed by security systems, dogs, what not. We used to be able to walk through the city at night with confidence. The recent violence at Fair Park is a bad omen.

I think race relations are very, very important, and this is a subject that needs addressing. We have wonderful people out there in the community and when you take the TV cameras away, even the people who sound off are, down deep, really fine individuals. But you’ve got to create a climate where people can work constructively together.


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