He was a born salesman.
If Bob Bolen wasn’t hawking toys, bikes or greeting cards to shoppers, he was busy selling economic development deals to business leaders to bring more companies or investments to Fort Worth.
Mr. Bolen was the city’s longest-serving mayor, known for working 60-hour weeks during his tenure in 1982-91. Alliance Airport, the American Airlines maintenance facility and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, among other major economic developments, became reality while he was mayor.
After leaving City Hall in 1991, saying he wanted to slow down, the tireless Mr. Bolen served on many advisory boards and committees and became a senior adviser to the chancellor at TCU.
Never miss a local story.
Mr. Bolen died early Monday at his Fort Worth home. He was 87.
“We were so blessed to have Bob for a long time,” Mayor Betsy Price said. “He was such a friend to many and such a mentor.
“He was one of those rare people who dedicated so much of his life to public service,” she said. “People need to realize what a true jewel he was, what a hero he was and how much he will be missed.”
‘Leave a place better than you found it’
Robert Eugene Bolen, born April 10, 1926, to Milford and Bee Bolen in Chicago, could call many places home.
His family moved more than 20 times as his father, nicknamed Bill, managed stores for the McCrory Stores five-and-dime chain, running each store for a year or so before moving on to a new assignment.
“It could have been a difficult life for kids, but Mom and Dad were always so positive it never seemed hard at all,” Mr. Bolen said in 2006. “In particular, Dad would tell my brother and me, ‘Always leave a place better than you found it.’ I guess you could say that became my philosophy.”
Moving around so much also taught Mr. Bolen not to waste time.
“You learned how to make friends fast,” he said. “You might as well try to see the best in other people.”
In his youth, Mr. Bolen decided to become an aeronautical engineer, so he chose Texas A&M University in College Station, which wasn’t far from Shreveport, where his parents lived then.
He headed off to college in the 1940s. But he soon joined the Navy and served as a gunnery officer “in the tail end” of Pacific combat. After 33 months, he returned to A&M and earned a degree in business administration by 1948.
That year, Mr. Bolen began his own career as a management trainee with McCrory’s. He traveled a lot, ultimately staying for a while at a McCrory’s in Syracuse, N.Y., where he met a young woman named Frances Ciborowski, who worked in the business office.
The two maintained a secret romance because of a company policy that prevented employees from dating each other. Ultimately, Fran was “nicely” told to find another job after the romance was discovered, she has said.
By the time Mr. Bolen was transferred to a McCrory’s in Hillsboro, the two had decided to get married.
‘A happy product’
Soon, Mr. Bolen was transferred a McCrory’s store in Fort Worth, where he had lived as a child when his father was transferred here.
Unlike his father, Mr. Bolen never left again.
“I just thought I’d rather my kids grew up in one place and Fort Worth was perfect,” Mr. Bolen said in 2006. He and his wife had six children, including a foster son.
Mr. Bolen decided it was time to open his own store and sell what he called “a happy product.” He chose to sell toys, first out of a small store named Bolen’s Toy Palace in Westcliff Shopping Center.
To be competitive, the store would wrap gifts in fancy paper. And Mr. Bolen offered free delivery.
“I was the deliveryman,” he once said. “I’d deliver everything on my way home after work.”
Business picked up after a few years when he added a line of bicycles and even more when he expanded with a card shop. Through the years, Mr. Bolen continued adding stores throughout Texas to his chain.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Bolen teamed with other businessmen and investors to create Cornerstone Investments, a mergers and acquisitions firm. He sold the chain of stores in 1990.
Mr. Bolen first ran for public office in 1979 and was elected to represent City Council District 6. One term later, he ran in a special election for mayor.
He held that job until he walked away from it in 1991.
During those years, many companies, including Burlington Northern and the University of Texas at Arlington Advanced Robotics Research Institute, moved to Fort Worth.
Downtown experienced a rebirth through a public-private partnership.
Alliance Airport and the American Airlines Maintenance Facility were developed inside the city limits. And Fort Worth was chosen as the one site outside Washington, D.C., where the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing would print money.
“Bob Bolen will always be known for his integrity and his courage,” said Ross Perot Jr., who worked closely with him in developing Alliance Airport and has been friends ever since. “He was a wonderful leader. He had the courage to always do the right thing.
“We wouldn't have an Alliance Airport without Mayor Bolen. He saw the vision and moved forward with the project in very difficult economic times.”
“North Texas lost an amazing leader,” said Mabrie Jackson, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, a regional development organization. “Bob Bolen is the true definition of a servant leader from serving the city of Fort Worth as Mayor to continuing to guide future leaders at TCU. He changed the face of North Texas for many generations to come.”
Mr. Bolen believed in regional strategies and worked to help set up the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Trade Resource Center and the Metroplex High Technology Education Task Force.
He led efforts to move the downtown Interstate 30 overhead and to buy the right of way between Fort Worth and Dallas that now is the major rail for the Trinity Railway Express. He played a key role in awarding the city’s first cable franchise and helped establish Fort Worth’s international Sister Cities program.
And while he consistently worked long hours, Mr. Bolen took on extra duties such as the presidency of the Texas Municipal League and the National League of Cities.
“What he did for Fort Worth really made things happen,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, who was elected mayor after Mr. Bolen retired. “Other cities watched Fort Worth and what he did.
“What this city is today is so much a part of what he put together,” she said. “He was an amazing leader and would do what he thought was the right thing for the city.”
And its residents.
“He helped so many people,” Granger said. “Particularly with young people, he went out of his way to encourage them and steer them either toward public service or toward appreciating it.”
Through the years, Mr. Bolen remained unflappable, not prone to grand displays or long speeches. Some even called him a Teflon politician, referring to the fact that local voters seemed to embrace him as a family member no matter what.
“Former Mayor Bob Bolen was a wonderful man,” former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Monday. “He was one of those rare people who was both a great leader and universally loved as well.”
While he had achievements, he also had disappointments.
He watched as the Pentagon canceled an A-12 contract at General Dynamics, sending thousands of workers to the unemployment lines, just days before he announced in 1991 that he wouldn’t run for re-election.
And he saw a multimillion-dollar bond package that he supported, which was intended to improve the Cultural District and the Will Rogers Auditorium, go down in flames.
Before he retired at age 64, he had health problems including a stay in the hospital for exhaustion after a trip to Hungary.
When he announced that he would not seek the mayor’s post again, Mr. Bolen said that was the “most difficult decision I’ve ever had to publicly make.” But he said he wasn’t exactly retiring.
“I’m going to slow down,” he said. “I am not going to disappear. I’m just going to meld into the background.”
True to his word, he didn’t disappear.
But he could never be just part of the background.
Mr. Bolen remained active, serving on boards and committees dedicated to causes including luring the Olympics to the Metroplex and determining whether a publicly funded convention center hotel was needed.
And he signed on as a senior adviser to TCU’s chancellor.
“Mayor Bolen was such an incredible man who lived a full life. He has positively impacted so many in the city of Fort Worth and here at TCU,” Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. said. “His vision for the area, and his advice have been invaluable. I think the world of him and will miss him dearly.”
A constant support
After leaving City Hall, Mr. Bolen remained a presence there, offering suggestions and encouragement.
Price recalled a controversial pension vote city leaders took last year and remembered that Mr. Bolen stopped by her office the next day to write her a note.
“You’re still my hero,” says the message, on a yellow Post-it note that is still on her computer.
“It meant a lot,” Price said. “That was a tough time for the council and the Police Department and he was always there.”
Mr. Bolen’s love for the city and its residents was clear, former Mayor Mike Moncrief said.
He was known for having “vision and courage” and for putting “the people of Fort Worth first and politics last,” said Moncrief, who served as mayor from 2003 to 2011. “He lived and he led by that example.”
Moncrief mentioned the statue of Mr. Bolen at Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport, where a life-size bronze version of the former mayor stands, with his hand outstretched.
“There’s no doubt he gave far more than he ever received,” Moncrief said.
Some say part of Mr. Bolen’s appeal was that few people saw him as just an elected official or a civic leader.
He was simply a friend.
Survivors include his wife, Fran Bolen; a daughter, Terrie Manning; two sons, Randy Bolen and Ron Bolen; a foster son, Don Cosby; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report, which includes material from Star-Telegram archives.