Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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At year’s end, we honor a visionary from another era - and contemplate a future fraught with change.
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

I’m pretty sure that the modern world can be divided into two types of people: those who fasten their seat belts before starting the engine in their cars, and those who remember after a few blocks and buckle on the run. The Pre-Bucklers are generally possessed of patience, foresight, and a healthy distaste for risk. In-flight Fasteners, adroit at driving with one elbow, see little sense in spending valuable launching time attending to a safety detail. They tend to be goal-oriented, task-driven, and geared toward tangible achievements that may or may not be the result of belabored consideration. President Reagan, doubtless, is an In-flight Fastener. So is Trammell Crow. Former President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, probably carefully weighs the inherent dangers in driving-before he ever turns the key.

It is rare to find an individual who seems to embody the best characteristics in both groups. J. Erik Jonsson, former mayor of Dallas, civic guardian of literacy, visionary planner, naturalized Texan whose commitment to Dallas is enshrined in its monuments and emblazoned on its soul, is such a person.

At a recent luncheon to honor Mayor Jonsson, he was described (to his evident delight) by longtime family friend Richard Marcus, as both a “realist and a dreamer.” a tough manager with compassion, a seeming contradiction of activity and reticence. Jonsson’s tenure as mayor, which began in the stressful year of 1964, came when Dallas was reeling from the aftershock of President Kennedy’s assassination. He helped us regain our composure and our self-respect, and in so doing, charted the course that Dallas would follow for the next twenty years. For his immeasurable contributions, we honor Erik Jonsson as our Dallasite of the Year, on page 90.

We came to choose Erik Jonsson both for what he is and what he represents in Dallas’s past, its present, and, most importantly, its future. In previous years, our choice for Dallasite of the year hinged on an issue-a single labor, achievement, or event that either produced, or was produced by, an exemplary leader. Nineteen eighty-six was that odd-lot year in which no issue leaped forth. There was no House Bill 72, no Central Expressway, no Republican National Convention, to which we could point with certainty and say, “This is what 1986 will be remembered for, at least around here.”

That made the choice more complex and opened the door to a wide array of worthy candidates. We considered entire “classes” of people, in the manner of Time magazine’s naming of the “computer” or the “graduates” as Man of the Year. The Volunteer. The Policeman. The Fundamentalist. The Criminal.

We grappled with our criteria. Would we judge by sheer impact (the crime rate, after all, is at an all-time high)? Or would the designation be purely laudatory? Should we take into account a history of service, or consider only stellar achievement within a given calendar year? Could a baseball manager’s success make him a candidate? Or must the individual have some pivotal function that fuels the civic machine?

Finally, the candidates were narrowed to four: Ruth Collins Sharp, Bobby Valentine. Erik Jonsson, and the Volunteer. In a close victory, Erik Jonsson won. But so, in a sense, did the Volunteer. To sing the praises of the unsung, Associate Editor Richard West prepared portraits of seven men and women who toil year-round in relative anonymity for the benefit of the less fortunate (see page 94). These people, and countless others like them, represent the seven ancient Christian virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Prudence. Temperance, and Justice. We salute them too.

There is more than is self-evident in reflecting on the year past. And it has little to do with looking back. Contemplating an , Erik Jonsson and the era he reflects sharpens our focus on today. Dallas, again, is on the precipice of enormous change. We are not the City of Hate, but we are the City of Diminishing Returns. We are not forced to examine our hearts for the seeds of an unconscionable killing, but we are forced to tax our minds for the keys to tomorrow.

Next year we will choose a new superintendent of schools, initiate a new city manager, appoint a handful of new staff deputies, and, possibly, elect a new mayor. DART will either forge ahead or bury itself in its own incompetence. We will face the issue of redrawing the city council districts to ensure equitable distribution of power, or face the probability of costly court battles. And unless a miracle is delivered upon us, we will continue to grapple with the negative consequences of the downturn in the economy.

At this crossroads in our history, one truth stands above others: our leadership structure ! has been both strengthened and weakened by ! a broadening at its base. In an effort to reflect fairly the needs of all elements of the community, we have-quite properly-brought more people to the table. Consensus management is a social and political reality. But it is no substitute for leadership. We must nurture and encourage a new generation of leaders. Men and women without prejudice. Men and women who can see beyond their own self-interests. Men and women with enlightened views on contemporary urban society. Men and women with temperaments both decisive and reflective.

In other words, men and women much like J. Erik Jonsson.

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