Saturday, February 4, 2023 Feb 4, 2023
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Old Man Dallas

To John Stemmons, Dallas was "the village." In his own words, he hasn’t been buried, he’s been "planted." He changed the course of the Trinity and affected countless lives, including mine.
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John Stemmons was liberal with his time, but he was conservative with his money. He once joked to me that he could have been rich “like Trammell Crow.” “Trammell wanted me to go into the warehouse business with him,” he said. “But the bank wanted 6 percent interest. I just couldn’t stand the idea of paying 6 percent interest.” He arched his eyebrows as if 6 percent was the most outrageous figure he’d ever heard. Of course, outside his window stretched a sea of warehouses built on Stemmons land. On another occasion, when I told him about my idea for a magazine about Dallas, he worried aloud that anyone would ever pay $1 for a magazine. The notion seemed preposterous. For a year after we launched, he would call me every month or so to check on sales. Of course, Mr. Stemmons never asked about the magazine: to him it was “that damned fool thing,” as in “Is anybody buying that damned fool thing of yours?”

His language was his own. Dallas wasn’t a city; it was “the village.” People weren’t buried; they were “planted.” Anybody he’d known longer than a year was “cousin.” I was too young, I suppose, to earn cousin rank; I was “son.” We had lunch twice a year until I got an impulse to move out of town—shocking to Mr. Stemmons—and he was the first person I went to see when I moved back.

The days of the fabled Dallas oligarchy were passing as this magazine was starting. Sometime in the late ’70s I wrote an editorial that seemed to hit a raw nerve downtown. The executive director of the Dallas Citizens Council telephoned to advise that I let the matter drop. That riled me up, so the next month I blasted away with a new editorial. The phone rang, and this time it was my largest advertiser wondering if it would be more sensible to write about something else. The next month we published a longer editorial. This time it was Mr. Stemmons on the line. Sighing to myself, I picked up the phone.

“Son”—the booming voice was cheerful and seductive—”would you ever consider dropping by an old man’s office to share a glass of bourbon?”

That afternoon, I took the elevator up to the top floor of the Stemmons Towers on Stemmons Freeway. I steeled myself before being escorted into Mr. Stemmons’ office. As I walked in, he punched a button under his desk and from the four corners of the huge room, speakers blared forth the theme song from Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition. Tra-di-tion. Tra-di-tion!” I doubled over laughing. At his desk Mr. Stemmons was guffawing at my reaction and at his own ingenuity.

It was the end of an era, and he knew it as well as I did. We didn’t publish any more editorials on that issue because I knew we didn’t need to. Two months later it was settled when a public figure quietly resigned. That was the Dallas way. It was how things had worked for decades, and it deserved a final graceful act.

John Stemmons was the last of our city fathers. He would have been honored to be called that because of the respect he felt for the fathers who had come before him. Then with a wink, he might wonder aloud why anyone would pay a nickel to read a word about him.

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