The Trinity River came up time and again Saturday afternoon as people recalled urban planner James Toal.
It was appropriate that a memorial gathering for a man who helped conceive a plan to turn a debris-choked and neglected Trinity River into a vision-with-a-capital-V was in a glass-walled room overlooking the river at the north end of downtown.
In the second-floor space at Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus, a crowd gathered to honor Toal, who was instrumental in many of the largest development projects in the area in past decades.
Trinity River Vision, the ongoing $910 million flood-control and economic development project on Fort Worth’s near north side, was the last project he consulted on.
Toal died Dec. 22 at his Fort Worth home. He was 66.
Toal was director of planning and growth management for the city of Fort Worth from 1979 to 1985, leaving in 1986 to start his own firm, James Toal Co., which he ran until 1993. In 1993, he joined Randy Gideon to form architecture and planning firm Gideon Toal as a principal and co-chairman, retiring in 2010.
At the Saturday memorial, Gideon said, “This facility and the river bend are symbols of James’ dedication to the city and a small sampling of the output of his life’s work.”
Toal loved his work so much that his staff had to hound him to bill clients for his time, Gideon said.
“That was not James’ primary concern,” Gideon said. “Time after time, James and I would discuss taking on projects not for the fee but because it was the right thing to do for the community.”
J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, said Toal was successful because he respected people and listened to what they wanted.
“He said, ‘Create a place where people want to raise their kids,’ ” Granger said. “He said, ‘Create a place where kids want to play and also create a place where kids will want to stay and live forever.’ ”
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and state Sen. Wendy Davis, both former Fort Worth councilwomen, recalled a man whose dedication to developing communities was matched by his sense of humor.
In one breath, Davis called Toal her most important mentor during her first year on the council, and in the next she described his habit of dropping a tee on the ground after she flubbed a golf swing on the fairway.
Granger, a former mayor and J.D. Granger’s mother, described being Toal’s friend as “kind of like being on the Seinfield show and part of the cast and working with Kramer.”