Bud Kennedy

January 11, 2014

Leading Fort Worth wasn’t easy — Bolen just made it look that way

The 1980s Fort Worth mayor took over a bickering city with a dicey economy and restored confidence.

What nobody has explained about Bob Bolen is how tough the mayor’s job was in 1980s Fort Worth.

At the height of cocaine addiction and the baby boomer crime wave, police were overwhelmed with robberies, car thefts and in one year, 200 murders.

The oil bust hit with the savings-and-loan bust. A plan for southwestward growth and expansion only produced more debt.

Sundance Square was off to a slow start. Billy Bob’s Texas went broke.

Tandy Corp. was making computers, but Fort Worth still depended on defense jobs from a Cold War that was all but over.

When Bolen was sworn in as mayor Feb. 2, 1982, he succeeded a plumber. Woodie Woods was a populist and a much-loved conservative, but he represented the city’s old, rough-and-tumble ways.

Council discussions broke down into acrimonious debate and 5-4 splits. In the streets and the pages of the Star-Telegram, voters bickered over whether the zoo should grow, and whether the city should grow, and even whether to go along with the Bass family building a Cultural District arts hall.

Bolen put his bicycle-shop salesmanship to work, combining fatherly charm with can-do resolve, and turned Fort Worth away from doubt.

Without Bolen’s ability to sell a deal, city voters never would have bought the idea of building an airport with the Perot family on the Denton County line. Council members would have balked at extending roads and water lines across horse pastures 20 miles from downtown.

He taught us not to fear deals, or development, or debt.

Always a staunch Republican, he also taught us not to fear federal money.

“I am against waste in any government programs,” he told The Dallas Morning News when he was elected in 1982, just when the Reagan administration began its New Federalism grant cutbacks.

“But I have no apologizes whatsoever for our efforts to get back the federal tax dollars which we sent to Washington. We are entitled to our share.”

By 1989, Fort Worth was listed as one of Newsweek magazine’s “Hot Cities.”

The city’s partnerships in Japan, Italy and Germany were helping major retailers of the day such as Tandy Corp. and Pier 1 Imports make new friends around the world.

Everywhere Bolen went, he gladhanded and cajoled and pitched Fort Worth, just the same way he sold greeting cards and bikes at the old Bolen’s Toy World in Westcliff Center.

When the Morning News devoted an entire Sunday High Profile section to Bolen, he explained his vision to Dallas readers.

“I don't want to be the biggest city in the world,” he said.

“I don't want to have unbridled growth and be New York City and Tokyo rolled into one. But I do want to be the best at what we do.”

He went on:

“I want to have a terrific city, [where] people will be as proud of living, and saying they came from, and having a job, and enjoying their neighbors, as any city in the world.”


Related content



Editor's Choice Videos