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Vandergriff closes a legendary career: Mayor, congressman, county judge at helm of region's growth
[December 29, 2006]

Vandergriff closes a legendary career: Mayor, congressman, county judge at helm of region's growth


(Dallas Morning News, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Dec. 29--ARLINGTON -- Tom Vandergriff entered politics in 1951 as the ambitious "Boy Mayor" of Arlington. Friday, he leaves the county judge's office in Fort Worth as a legend who says he's nearing the end of his life.



The 80-year-old former car dealer spent 44 years as mayor, U.S. representative and Tarrant County judge. He ushered in Arlington's great boom, briefly served in Washington, suffered his only political defeat thanks to the "Reagan Revolution," switched political parties and presided over a rapidly growing county.

For the second half of the 20th century, Mr. Vandergriff's life was intertwined with the history of North Texas. He helped bring General Motors, Six Flags Over Texas and the Texas Rangers to Arlington.


He pushed for construction of Lake Arlington, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the Tarrant County College district and Interstate 30, and he was the first president of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, once dubbed Weatherford's "Boy Mayor," said that Mr. Vandergriff is a giant.

"If we were required to name five humans who in the last century contributed to the healthy growth and development of the region, Tom Vandergriff would have to be on the list," Mr. Wright said.

After a hospitalization for pneumonia about a year ago, Mr. Vandergriff announced it was time to retire. County Commissioner Glen Whitley will be sworn in to the office Monday.

"At my age, I don't have all that many years ahead," Mr. Vandergriff said this week. He said he wants to devote more time to his wife of 57 years and their children and grandchildren.

The story of one of Tarrant County's most famous politicians actually started in Carrollton, where Mr. Vandergriff was born. His father was a prominent car dealer who moved to Arlington in the 1930s.

By his mid-20s, Mr. Vandergriff was already the Chamber of Commerce president in Arlington, a town of about 7,500 residents and 4 square miles at the time. In 1951, Arlington voters turned out in record number -- 999 went to the polls -- to choose a new mayor, and it was a landslide.

Arlington's modern era had begun.

General Motors

Mr. Vandergriff said he first thought about running for mayor after hearing rumors from Detroit. His father's car dealer contacts said that GM planned to build a new assembly plant in the South or Southwest.

He reasoned that having someone with "GM blood" at City Hall could only help.

"This might not be the best intentions for why someone should run for office," Mr. Vandergriff admitted, chuckling.

But he won and started wooing GM from his new office.

Two months later, the city began annexing six square miles near the Grand Prairie border. Two months after that, GM bought 255 acres of the newly annexed property and announced it would build a plant that would employ 6,000 to 10,000 people -- a workforce the size of Arlington's entire population.

"I'm not really sure that proved to be a deciding factor," Mr. Vandergriff said about whether his new position affected GM's move. Still, he couldn't argue with the results.

The legend of Mr. Vandergriff -- whom friends call both gentlemanly and shrewd -- was growing just months after his first election.

Landing the plant meant more than just good-paying jobs, Mr. Vandergriff said. There also was a cachet to having the auto giant in town.

"If GM thought it was a good location, then it has to be for me, too," he said, explaining the conventional wisdom.

Within two decades, Arlington had grown to more than 90,000 residents, and today it has a population of 363,050 spread over nearly 100 square miles.

S.J. Stovall, who followed Mr. Vandergriff as mayor, said that the city's history could be split into two parts: before and after GM.

"I think that was the thing that really kicked off the growth of Arlington, more so than any other thing in the past," Mr. Stovall said.

Six Flags Over Texas

GM made Arlington an industrial town. Southern California made Arlington a tourist destination.

Mr. Vandergriff graduated from the University of Southern California in the 1940s with plans to be a broadcaster but instead became fascinated with the astonishing post-war growth around Los Angeles.

In the 1950s, he visited the newly opened Disneyland.

"I became a fan myself," Mr. Vandergriff said of the amusement park, "so much so that I convinced the Great Southwest Corporation this was worth exploring."

The company was planning a large industrial park in Arlington and Grand Prairie, but Mr. Vandergriff told developer Angus Wynne Jr. that he should also go look at Disneyland.

"You only had to see it once back in those days to know you would like to have it in your hometown," Mr. Vandergriff said.

He met with Walt Disney and tried to convince him that his next theme park should be in Arlington, and Mr. Wynne offered land for the project.

That effort went nowhere, but Mr. Wynne decided to build his own park called Texas Under Six Flags.

Several years, $10 million and one name change later, Six Flags Over Texas opened in August 1961.

Mr. Vandergriff's not-so-small town was suddenly in the tourism business.

On its first day, nearly 8,400 visitors paid about $3 each to play at the petting zoo, listen to Dixieland band performances and experience the handful of rides, according to ParkTimes.com and the Six Flags Over Texas Web site.

Since then, Arlington has become a tourist destination, and Six Flags -- which draws 3 million visitors to the Arlington park each year -- became a national brand.

Texas Rangers

Before Six Flags opened, Mr. Vandergriff -- known as the area's "get-it-done man" -- already had his eye on his next big project. It would take him 13 years to complete.

As a child, Mr. Vandergriff was a fan of the Texas League's Dallas Steers and Fort Worth Cats baseball teams. While in college, he worked on broadcasts of the minor league Los Angeles Angels.

In 1958, Mr. Vandergriff created a committee to bring professional baseball to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Every time the major leagues expanded or a team was rumored to move, Arlington was in the mix.

"We came close a time or two, but we just couldn't get the votes we needed," Mr. Vandergriff said.

Tarrant County spent $1.5 million to build Turnpike Stadium on what is now I-30, and Arlington landed the minor league Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs. At the same time, Mr. Vandergriff courted Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley before he moved the team to Oakland, and Arlington was mentioned when Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh owners considered moving.

The persistence paid off in 1971 when Mr. Vandergriff successfully courted the Washington Senators to move to town, where they became the Texas Rangers. His years of lobbying and behind-the-scenes wrangling overcame opposition from the baseball commissioner and President Richard Nixon.

"That was one of the most exciting experiences in my life," he said. "We all worked together as a single region to get a major league club to come our way."

Baseball continued to play a big part in Mr. Vandergriff's life. He lent his authoritative and measured voice to the Rangers broadcasts during the 1970s, and his latest office in Fort Worth provided him a daily reminder of his childhood. The office faces north, with a clear view of LaGrave Field, where the Fort Worth Cats play.

Life after mayor

Although Mr. Vandergriff had been mayor for 26 years, his decision in 1977 to retire before the end of his last term came as a shock to many.

He explained that he wanted to spend more time with his family, but rumors circulated that the city's financial troubles were a factor. Upgrades to the renamed Arlington Stadium were expensive, a city-funded Seven Seas aquatic theme park was a financial fiasco, and the city's bond rating dropped to one of the lowest in the state.

Mr. Vandergriff said those weren't factors. But he remained a private citizen for only a few years before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 in one of the closest and most expensive races in the nation. Two years later, the Republican tide swept the Democrat out of office, replacing him with future congressional leader Dick Armey.

Again, Mr. Vandergriff was out of office, having suffered his only loss at the polls.

But a few years later, at age 63, the conservative Democrat re-emerged as a Republican and ran for Tarrant County judge. He won easily in 1990 and has remained in office ever since.

He said he's not sure how he'll handle retirement.

"That worries me, and that worries my wife," he said with a laugh, his broadcaster's voice still intact. Previous retirements have been only breaks until the next opportunity came along.

If presented an offer to serve on a board or be an adviser, Mr. Vandergriff said he would probably say yes.

"If I can lend a helping hand from my new position in life, I'll want to do it for this region," he said. "I love it that much."

E-mail jmosier@dallasnews.com

TOMMY JOE VANDERGRIFF

Born: Jan. 29, 1926, in Carrollton

Graduated: University of Southern California, 1947

Career: Arlington mayor, 1951-77; U.S. House, 1983-85; Tarrant County judge, 1991-2006

CAREER OF A POLITICAL LEGEND

1951 -- Tom Vandergriff is elected Arlington mayor at age 25; General Motors announces plans to build an assembly plant in Arlington.

1954 -- GM's new plant opens.

1957 -- The Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike opens, running through Arlington.

1958 -- Mr. Vandergriff forms a committee to pursue a major league baseball franchise.

1961 -- Six Flags Over Texas opens.

1965 -- The Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs minor league baseball team plays its first game in Arlington's Turnpike Stadium.

1971 -- Washington Senators owner Bob Short announces he's moving his team to Arlington and renaming it the Texas Rangers.

1972 -- Seven Seas, a city-owned aquatic theme park, opens. It's a financial failure and closes after three years.

1977 -- Mr. Vandergriff resigns as mayor.

1982 -- Mr. Vandergriff runs for the U.S. House as a Democrat and wins. He loses two years later to political novice Dick Armey.

1990 -- Mr. Vandergriff runs for Tarrant County judge as a Republican and wins.

2005 -- Mr. Vandergriff announces he'll retire after his current term is over.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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