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Dallasite Of The Year J. Erik Jonson

By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

If you took each one of those popular catch phrases applied so often to Dallas and traced it to its origin, somewhere along the way you would find a connection to J. Erik Jonsson.

Dallas is a “can-do” city. And Jonsson was essential to the development of that attitude. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jonsson was serving as head of the powerful Dallas Citizens Council. With that service and a two-term tenure as Chamber of Commerce president (but no formal political experience), Jonsson then ran for and won the job of mayor of Dallas. It was 1964 and Dallas was known as the city of hate. But Jonsson went to work to put those feelings in the past. Looking instead to the future, he and others founded Goals for Dallas. By the time Jonsson left the mayor’s office in 1971, the can-do attitude was a part of this city.

Dallas has a diversified economy. As a founder of Geophysical Services Inc. and its successor. Texas Instruments Inc., Jonsson grounded Dallas in the high-tech future and helped to create that diversified economy. Then he led the way to further economic development as chairman of the airport board. He helped make D/FW Airport a reality in five years- half the time required by most cities to complete such a project.

Dallas leaders believe in repaying a civic debt. Together with the other leaders of TI, Jonsson prompted the creation of and fostered the growth of the University of Texas at Dallas. Born in Brooklyn, New York, the only son of Swedish immigrants, Jonsson put himself through Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by working odd jobs. Throughout his life, he has had an abiding interest in seeing that young people get the education they need to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace. Another of Jonsson’s greatest civic contributions was his vital role in raising $13 million in private contributions to build the downtown central library. The library was renamed this year for Jonsson in honor of his efforts in a ceremony that was particularly relevant: Jonsson and the library share an 85th birthday this year.

Erik Jonsson’s touch is evident in much of Dallas: the new City Hall, single-member council districts, the renovation of Fair Park. What follows is a discussion with one of Dallas’s true visionaries.

D: A recent article in Business Week suggested that Dallas doesn’t have either the quality or quantity of leadership it has enjoyed in the past. Do you agree?

Jonsson: I have not read the article, but I think that different people have different ways of being leaders. There has been a gap in firm, strongly established leadership for a few years and there are many reasons for that. Number one, the town has grown very rapidly. It has a lot of new citizens who haven’t yet had a way to acquire a feeling that they’re home. They don’t know who the candidates are to go and work for.

Second, the political system here is hard to assimilate for those who grew up in most other parts of the country. The other big cities, from which I think many of our new citizens come, have a ward system of government with mayors who are, if not highly paid, then well-paid and apt to have had some training in government.

Dallas is a different world. The practice of volunteering has been extended to government. In most public offices, people are given almost no salary for serving. Councilmen now get fifty dollars a week for coming to the meeting and fifty dollars if they attend a committee meeting. That’s a little more than what we were paid when I was mayor-twenty dollars a week for the council meetings and no salary for committee meetings.

I left a well-paid job for that twenty-dollar-a-week job because people came to me and asked me to do it. I was inexperienced in government and I had some doubt if it was the right thing for me to do, but I decided to attempt it. But now, nobody seems to want the job. That being the case, very often people get into government who have little or no background for it and don’t expect to stay in governmental affairs. It takes them quite a while to acclimate to making decisions of great future importance without prior experience in making major decisions.

For example, the mayor who succeeded me [Wes Wise] had been principally a sports announcer on KRLD. Well, I’m not about to say that this disqualifies him. But it certainly didn’t give him the management or the political training that a professional in most of the big cities would have.

Politicians are a rather strange lot in some ways. Yet, they’re like spouses. In some cases, you can’t live with them or without them, Politicians, though, have a special niche in governing that is seldom completely filled by an amateur.

D: Do you see Dallas moving toward the professional or so-called strong mayor system?

Jonsson: It already has moved, I think, most of the way. The difference lies in several things. Let me be specific.

First, the city manager-council type of government provides for the council to establish policies and the city manager to report to the council on execution of those policies. Administrators are supposed to keep out of policy making, just as administrators hope that the council won’t monkey with administration.

Actually, that doesn’t happen too often. People being what they are and knowing things in their own particular field think that they may have a special edge and they want to use it. But it’s improper, and the council is in a position to stop that immediately if there is meddling with policy setting. The city manager is the principal manager, and if he doesn’t see that he and his people stay out of policy making, then he is subject to replacement.

But when you look at the Dallas Charter you see something that is different from most other large cities. The charter doesn’t give really any power to the mayor except that which he can generate by helping to set policies and seeing that they are executed properly.

D: Do you think we ought to change that?

Jonsson: I think it’s about time. It will happen. There’s no doubt in my mind. In cities with other forms of government, the mayor has certain powers that differentiate him from the council members, aldermen, or whatever they’re called. But the only power the mayor has in Dallas is the communications power to tell the people and the press what’s going on. That’s the only privilege he has. He doesn’t have veto power. He does cast the last vote, giving him a sort of tiebreaker function, which often means that he is blamed when anything goes wrong.

In reality, the power to communicate isn’t there either. When I was mayor, I liked to say that the mayor can talk to the press only if he can sprint faster than the other members of the council. The press loves to uncover a rift between the mayor and a council member. So the real issues tend to be ignored while the trivia plays on and on. And I think something in that circuit ought to be changed.

D: If the task were yours, what kind of city manager would you look for?

Jonsson: I would look at one whose educational background and training were in management. Not specifically city management; the fundamentals of management are there, you can learn them, then if you apply them well, you will do well.

I think that somebody who comes out of a tough industry or business would be just as good or maybe even better for the job than someone from city management who had no formal background in the art and science of management. The man who was president of the American Management Association defined management this way: “Management is the art of getting things done through people.”

D: What kind of mayor does Dallas need to elect next spring?

Jonsson: It’s more a question of whom you can get. You ask a man for almost no compensation to take a very responsible job. And within that job are some conditions that wouldn’t be there in business or industry: for instance, the business of protecting public health; a city has legal problems untold, and the same with public safety.

D: What issues do you see challenging Dallas in the near future?

Jonsson: Looking back on my own experience, I realize that I was pretty green. Chances are the next fellow will be just as I was, and just as Starke Taylor was. Because it’s not a paid job. And it shouldn’t be in the hands of a person who doesn’t have money enough of his own-or access to it-to be comfortable in office without worrying about his daily bread. Believe me, you have worries enough handed to you. My principal worry was that the large cities of the U.S. in that time [the mid-Sixties] were burning.

Racial tensions were tremendous. For me, coming into office as a greenhorn, my first priority was to see that we didn’t have riots and burning here. I do have a little pride in the fact that we didn’t have any, And 350 cities found that they couldn’t hold things in check.

D: What was your strategy to prevent racial outbreaks?

Jonsson: Number one, we had to talk to people, to communicate with them. And we had to say to them only that which was the literal truth. We were being asked to accommodate some changes in social behavior that were pretty drastic. And when you have drastic social change, you usually don’t have time to adjust people’s minds to a new procedure that is radically different. Therefore, the communication function is an important one. And having a line to the truth is crucial. It is easy to promise things that can’t be done. But it’s better to take your licking beforehand by saying, “I can’t do this. It’s politically impossible, it’s monetarily impossible, or it’s some other way impossible. But this is what I can do and I will do.” And you try to perform then as well as a human being can.

So it’s important that whoever runs for office-and the times are a little uneasy again now because of the economy-be honest and open about what can be done. I hope it doesn’t happen, but we could, to a degree at least, see a repeat of the Great Unlamented Depression. The next mayor in office must be thinking about ways to cement the business community and the industrial community together in ways that will help mount whatever defenses they can against that possibility.

Sometimes it is easier to do that than other times. But a characteristic of the American people and very much a characteristic of Dallas people is that they respond well to crisis.

D: You mentioned racial tensions when you came to City Hall. You are credited with playing a leadership role in ameliorating those festering wounds . . .

Jonsson: I don’t want to take that credit. It really belongs to the so-called “establishment” of that time. The credit must fall to a group of men who, through the foresight of Mayor Bob Thornton, had formed the Dallas Citizens Council. That was a group of men who took hold of problems that were no one’s specific responsibility and thus might have been neglected. The Citizens Council too has had its failings. But in the time of those racial problems, they were in their prime-and they behaved supremely well.

D: Do you see racial tensions straining again in Dallas today? Jonsson: I would call it unease, because you can’t take people from a position in which they’re unhappy, where they feel their rights have been denied or their economic position is not good, to heaven in just a moment or two, even a decade or two. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. You can’t change the social behavior of people overnight. It’s not physically or mentally possible to rush that massive kind of change. It takes time and unlimited patience among people on both sides of the problem. It takes reasonable compromise and a sincere desire to get it done.

D: Do you think we’ve done a reasonable job of bringing those who were excluded-minorities and others-into the Dallas power structure?

Jonsson: Well, that, too, is a slow thing to accomplish. In the end, what you’re asking for is the exercise of wisdom on the part of those charged with decision making. And wisdom doesn’t come easily. But 1 think the people who are unhappy now are not the same as the people who were unhappy twenty years ago. There are remnants of the problem that continue to trouble them. Some of those remnants can be fairly large. But a lot of work has been done, a lot of effort has been expended, and there has been a large amount of social improvement, in my view. Many blacks, for example, who were the principal element of the minority twenty years ago, are now possessed of enough money to live much better. Many, for the first time, have bought homes.

As a measure of people’s discomfort and unease, you can almost construct an index that has, at its base, economic as well as social considerations. I’d say the economic considerations are dominant. When people have enough money, they can get along. When they have none, it’s well-nigh impossible.

But let me add that there now are different minorities in numbers and kinds, with different social orders. We have Latin Americans, we have Vietnamese and people from the Far East countries. Those people came here primarily for safety. And they had to find a living without knowing the language. Our social agencies, I think, took good care of that set of problems. And many of them have jobs that could have belonged to those minorities who were in need earlier. But that’s the way America was built.

D: You are also credited with almost single-handedly bringing about the D/FW Airport. Some have said that the airport is the key to Dallas’s future. Do you agree with that?

Jonsson: No, I do not. I think that the airport has been the principal ingredient in achieving the rapid growth that we have so far enjoyed. But that is not always good. Too rapid growth takes time away from those who have to plan ahead, and when you neglect the long range, you have to pay for it sometime. I’m talking about bad zoning, bad laws, bad ordinances, decisions made because you think there’s nothing else you can do and you need more tax money to operate. And here’s somebody who wants to put a big building in the wrong place, but it’ll increase the city’s income. And it looks like a good opportunity when it’s actually a potentially destructive opportunity. In other words, we don’t think to widen the streets until they are lined with skyscrapers.

D: Did you envision the airport as a global contact point for Dallas?

Jonsson: I did. but by no means was it a principal consideration. Obviously I couldn’t have been in office from 1964 to 1971 without noticing that we had rapid growth already. Bob Thornton coined a phrase that I stored away for remembering: “Nothing was ever built large enough in Dallas. Texas.” But what was basic was that airplanes were getting larger and wider; maneuvering them in a small space, and handling more and more of them, was impossible without making basic changes in airport design. Thinking about the future almost hit one over the head.

D: What happened with the airport board and its recent scandals? How did that occur in a town with notably clean government?

Jonsson: I don’t know. It’s what happens sometimes in a government of any kind and at any level. In hindsight, in these instances, you can look back and see the deficiencies of the original organization plan. And here you have, with airlines, tremendous numbers of unions, for example, and sometimes they exist in harmony, and sometimes in direct conflict . An airport manager has to deal not only with the airlines, but with their people and their management. It’s a complex and difficult problem, and it’s perhaps a little easier to corrupt.

D: How do you think history will judge your tenure as mayor?

Jonsson: If you asked me what, fifty years from now, people would think of the particular time when I was politically active, one of the things they would find most interesting to speculate on is what was the most important political atmosphere.

One was the Kennedy incident, and people were coming in from countries all over the world and calling us “the city of hate,” when we definitely weren’t.

I was tapped as someone who maybe could change that perception. I made one decision on it, which was that it wasn’t a thing that would be cured by hiring public relations counsel. I said, performance is what counts here. We’ll show them what kind of city we really are. We’ll put our heads down, and we’ll work hard and we’ll work intelligently and we’ll do things that people will look at as solid and sound. They’ll see what kind of city Dallas really is. And I think, to a large degree, that happened.

Today the political climate is all for putting your energy and resources into higher education. That is something we have to do.

D: Your contributions to the Dallas library system have been widely heralded. When did you acquire your love for reading?

Jonsson: I’ve always read, and all kinds of things, ever since I could read. Even before. It goes back to my boyhood, when my mother used to read me to sleep every night. When I was a boy. there was a branch library about three blocks from our apartment in Brooklyn. I trudged down there, and the librarians were very nice women who tolerated a small boy who sought information. They made me a library member, and they let me take home books, before I really knew how to read them, because I told them I was going to bring them home to Mama.

Mother had her problems finding the time to read to me. She and my father ran a store that was called a cigar store but was really more of a general store. Kind of like today’s drug stores that sell hardware. The two of them shared the work, and the stone was open from 6:30 in the morning to some l0 o’clock at night. That being the case, I took what |time] I could get and I was glad to get it.

D: What were some of the books you liked?

Jonsson: The Horatio Alger books, and another fellow like Alger named Henty. There were several others who wrote good books for boys about sports. One was Burt L. Standish, and he had college heroes, usually pitchers who could throw unbelievable curve balls against the strongest hitters in the ninth inning with two out and three men on base. I read quite a few of those books, and they were ail idealistic. From Alger to Standish, they all wound up with our hero winning the game and really becoming successful in whatever he attempted because he was so smart and so strong. This of course, for small boys, is now replaced with television shows-some of them just not what you’d ask for.

My next introduction to a new kind of literature was the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, which I still remember as high moments in my own life. Trying to live as Tom Sawyer. In Brooklyn.

But because of those kind people at the library, I really learned to read by myself. Because I had to. When Mama didn’t have time to read to me, I had to find out how these tales turned out.

D: What do you read yourself to sleep with now?

Jonsson: In fiction, I like to read spy stories, detective stories, mostly. It’s fun to try to untangle a plot before you get to the end. It’s a bit of good mental exercise, too. Much like the rest of life, you’re always trying to untangle something that looks like it might come to disaster if you don’t.

And that brings me back to another ques tion you asked me. What kind of mayor are we looking for? I think one who looks ahead, who has some vision, and one who, I hope, has some experience at solving prob lems. Hopefully he’s really good at solving problems. Because he’s going to have plen ty of them,

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