In December 1963, barely a month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a delegation of civic leaders rode in a caravan from downtown Dallas up Central Expressway to the headquarters of Texas Instruments. They were on a mission. Somehow they had to convince Erik Jonsson, TI’s chairman and one of the most brilliant men of his time, that he needed to become the new mayor of Dallas.

Their city was in trouble. Dallas had been labeled in the days after the assassination as The City of Hate, and the label was sticking. Article after article, news broadcast after news broadcast blamed the political climate in Dallas for the president’s murder. Dallas could survive the calumny only if a man as respected as Erik Jonsson took its helm.

The company Jonsson led—and, along with Cecil Green and Eugene McDermott, had founded—was among the most prestigious in America. TI had led the technological revolution. It invented sonar during World War II, infrared in the ’50s, the silicon transistor, and the integrated circuit. WhenFortune later launched its U.S. Business Hall of Fame, Erik Jonsson was among its first inductees.

In their meeting with Jonsson that day, the Dallas oligarchs (and these were the last of the fabled Dallas oligarchy) faced two obstacles. For one thing, Jonsson had never shown the slightest interest in civic matters. For another, Dallas already had a mayor, Earle Cabell, who had been elected only two years before. The solution to the second problem was easy. They had decided before climbing in their cars that Earle Cabell would make an excellent congressman. Coincidentally, there was a congressional election in 11 months.

The answer to the first problem was simply a heartfelt plea. They told Jonsson his city needed him, and they meant it. They told Jonsson he had no choice, and they meant that, too. They were tense and fraught and sincere. He couldn’t say no.

The timing was delicate, if urgent. The Cabell problem would have to be solved. He had to arrange succession at TI. They agreed on a February date (and, indeed, on February 3, 1964, Earle Cabell resigned and announced his run for Congress).

Jonsson was an engineer, and he ran a company full of scientists. One of the strengths that comes from that kind of background was that he knew what he didn’t know. He felt no embarrassment in that. He knew he didn’t know a thing about cities. So in the weeks before his installation, he decided to learn as much as he could. A worldwide search turned up a young man in Montreal by the name of Vincent Ponte who was at the forefront of the new profession of urban planning. Jonsson hired Ponte and told him to pack his bags. They embarked a few days later on a whirlwind tour of the major cities of the world. Jonsson wanted to understand what made cities great.

As he would later tell the story, he was standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Athens at the end of the tour, watching the ships out in the harbor, when he realized what every great city he and Ponte had visited had in common. They had a port. That’s when Erik Jonsson decided that to be a great city, Dallas would need a major new airport.

What Jonsson didn’t know as he stood on that balcony is that the administrator of the FAA, Najeeb Halaby, had been pressing Dallas for two years to build one. Halaby was the son of Syrian immigrants and a Texas native (his oldest daughter, Lisa, would become Queen Noor of Jordan). Halaby had argued that it made no sense for Fort Worth and Dallas to wrangle over aviation when both clearly needed a major new facility. His demands that the two cities join to build one had been roundly rejected by the entire Dallas leadership. Like their citizens, they saw no reason to tamper with Love Field. They pledged to fight to keep it.

On becoming mayor, Jonsson stunned the men who had recruited him. He announced that Dallas would gladly join Fort Worth in building the airport Halaby wanted. The resistance by both citizens and civic leaders was immediate and visceral. For decades, Dallas and Fort Worth had bickered and competed, and the antagonism between the two was mutual and deep. On top of that, Love Field was a success, while Fort Worth’s two airports barely had any flights at all.

Jonsson set about trying to convince Dallas that its parochialism was a chokehold around its own neck. He meant to compete with Chicago, not Fort Worth. Love Field was encased by the city it served, unable to grow, incapable of handling what exploding air traffic was about to bring to the cities that understood it and welcomed it. When his peers resisted, he gave them an ultimatum: if they wanted him to be mayor, they had better get used to his acting like one. A great city needed a port. The future of Dallas was in the air.  —Wick Allison

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In June 1967, Dallas and Fort Worth each held simultaneous elections to create the new airport authority. Fort Worth voters approved it. Dallas voters rejected it.

The day after the vote, Mayor Jonsson and I were scheduled to speak before the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce. We had assumed the airport authority would pass, and we’d be on a high going into the meeting. Instead, Jonsson lectured the chamber members. He told them that it had to be done.

The mayor forged ahead. Without an authority, we needed a bi-city agreement for the creation of the airport. Frank Hoke, mayor pro tem in Dallas and a lawyer, was instrumental in helping to get that agreement drafted. Our first airport committee contained three representatives from each city. There was a conscientious attention to self interests. Distrust was rampant.

Mayor Jonsson didn’t stop with the Oak Cliff Chamber. He let the city know that this airport would be built, no matter what. When the bonds came up for a vote, they were approved. The two cities ultimately bought 18,000 acres of land for the airport.

We believed that if we were to build the airport, we could create an enormous economic engine. I’m not surprised, but I’m most satisfied that people put into it what was necessary for it to be what it is. — George Schrader


George Schrader was assistant city manager during the planning phase of  DFW Airport. Schrader now works at Schrader & Cline LLC.