Visionary leader Tom Vandergriff put Arlington on map

ARLINGTON -- Tom Vandergriff, the longtime Arlington mayor and Tarrant County judge whose more than 50 years in public life virtually defined growth in the western half of the Dallas-Fort Worth region, died Thursday.

He was 84.

The man once known as Arlington's "boy mayor" -- widely credited with luring the Texas Rangers baseball team and General Motors assembly plant to the city -- died about 3 p.m. Thursday at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. He had been ill for many months and had suffered a broken hip in October, the day after his beloved Rangers won their first American League pennant.

Still, his son Victor Vandergriff said, "We weren't expecting it today. We haven't had a watch on him. He just gave out."

Tom Vandergriff earned the nickname "boy mayor" in 1951 when he became the city's youngest mayor at age 25.

Mr. Vandergriff also secured land to build Lake Arlington, spearheaded the creation of Six Flags Over Texas and raised money for the city's first real hospital, Arlington Memorial.

Considered the father of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Mr. Vandergriff is also believed to be the first public official to use the word Metroplex, which today is a well-known nickname for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. With his trademark broadcaster's voice, Mr. Vandergriff was a tireless cheerleader for his city and the region.

"He was a tireless, aggressive promoter. There wasn't anything Arlington couldn't do," Victor Vandergriff said.

His 55 years in politics also included one term as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1980s and 16 years as a Republican while serving as Tarrant County judge until his retirement in 2006.

Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright and Vandergriff both came to public life in the mid-20th century as the "boy mayors" of their respective cities. Weatherford and Arlington both had populations of 8,500 in 1950.

"Whenever we saw each other in recent years, each of us reflected on how long it has been that anyone called us a 'boy' of anything," said Wright, 88, whose 60-year association with Vandergriff included two years as House colleagues.

"Arlington became one of the most rapidly growing cities in the United States because of the creativity and ingenuity of Tom Vandergriff. I don't know anybody who quite matches him during that span of time."

Mr. Vandergriff had been treated at a rehabilitation center since he fell and fractured his hip in late October.

"His last public appearance was seeing the Rangers beat the New York Yankees to win the pennant. What a way to go out," Victor Vandergriff said.

Luring General Motors

Mr. Vandergriff was born in Carrollton on Jan. 29, 1926, to W. T. "Hooker" and mother Charles Vandergriff. He was 12 when his family moved to Arlington, which at the time was only about 1 square mile with 3,500 residents, relatives said.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California in 1947 and married his high school sweetheart, Anna Waynette Smith, in 1949. He moved back to Arlington to work for his father's Vandergriff Chevrolet dealership downtown.

At age 23, Mr. Vandergriff became president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. Soon after being elected mayor, his father encouraged him to court General Motors, which was planning to open an assembly plant in the Southwest. So at age 26, Mr. Vandergriff stationed himself outside the office of the General Motors chairman in Detroit for a chance to sell the company on North Texas.

The pitch worked, and in 1954 the first car -- a Pontiac -- was assembled in Arlington.

"I was there when the first vehicle came off the line," Mr. Vandergriff told the Star-Telegram in 2006. "It was a miracle. ... Definitely the first car to come off that assembly line is the one that will have a place in my memory, always."

Mr. Vandergriff also oversaw the fundraising campaign to build Arlington Memorial Hospital, opened in 1958 on Randol Mill Road on land donated by the Vandergriff family. He served as chairman of the hospital board for 37 years until retiring in 2006.

Major league pitch

Mr. Vandergriff spearheaded the creation of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which was formed in 1966 to meet the common needs and planning activities of cities, counties and other political entities. Mr. Vandergriff was the council's first president and served as a board member for 15 years.

Mr. Vandergriff championed major road projects, including Texas 360 south of Texas 183 and Interstate 20 in southern Tarrant County. He also believed in and defended the idea of cities and counties working together.

"He was criticized in the early days of COG by people who said we were going to create a new layer of government, and local members would lose their identity," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the council. "But look what's happened. He put together a group of people that every day worried about the region and created a partnership."

For 13 years, Mr. Vandergriff worked to bring a Major League Baseball team to Arlington.

The first step was to build $1.9 million Turnpike Stadium, which opened in 1965, and was home to the minor league Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, which played in the Texas League. Then in 1971, he persuaded the Washington Senators to move to Arlington, overcoming pleas from President Richard Nixon, himself a baseball fan, to keep the team in the nation's capital.

The team became the Texas Rangers, and Turnpike was renamed Arlington Stadium, with Mr. Vandergriff declining attempts to have the stadium named after him. He threw out the first pitch at the Rangers' inaugural game on April 21, 1972, and this year saw the team advance to its first World Series.

Not everything Mr. Vandergriff supported was a success.

The taxpayer-financed Seven Seas park, which featured dolphins, killer whales and a life-size pirate ship, opened near Arlington Stadium in 1972. But the crowds didn't come. The park lost so much money that the city closed it after less than four years.

After stepping down as mayor in 1977, Mr. Vandergriff regretted that he did not get comprehensive mass transit in place or do more to preserve downtown Arlington, which lost some of its character to redevelopment, his family said. He was also unable to dissuade the University of Texas at Arlington from disbanding its football program.

Still, Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck described Mr. Vandergriff as "Mr. Arlington."

"I don't think there has been a better mayor. Every big thing that has happened in Arlington has been because of his great leadership and vision."

Cluck said Mr. Vandergriff's accomplishments "built on one another and made us more visible and more attractive to businesses and entertainment venues."

Several places are named in Mr. Vandergriff's honor, including Vandergriff Park, the Vandergriff Building known as the Historic V, Vandergriff Town Center, Vandergriff Plaza at Rangers Ballpark, and Vandergriff Way adjacent to the General Motors plant off Abram Street in east Arlington.

"Every good thing that has happened in Arlington is connected to Tom Vandergriff," said former Mayor Richard Greene. "If people are excited about the Super Bowl, they need to realize more than anybody that Tom is responsible for that."

Seeing the big picture

After stepping down as mayor, Mr. Vandergriff didn't return to public life until he was elected to the U.S. House in 1982 as a Democrat. But he served for only one term, losing to Dick Armey, who became a leader of the Republican Party.

Using mostly his own money, Mr. Vandergriff was one of the nation's biggest spenders in the 1982 congressional races, shelling out nearly $1 million to beat Jim Bradshaw by 344 votes.

During his short stint, Mr. Vandergriff was criticized by some for not playing the partisan games of Washington. He often spoke well of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. Meanwhile, many of his Republican friends liked his voting record but couldn't get over the fact that he was a Democrat.

He didn't become a Republican until after his return to local politics in Arlington.

"History can turn on a dime. He would have been in Congress to this day if he had become a Republican earlier," said Allan Saxe, a University of Texas at Arlington associate professor and local philanthropist who knew him for 45 years. "But he wanted to be loyal to his party at the time."

After losing his seat in 1984, Mr. Vandergriff vowed to stay out of partisan politics.

"I think that I have found that I am a nonpartisan person. ... We had party loyalists on both sides that were uncomfortable with me," Mr. Vandergriff told the Star-Telegram at the time.

Mr. Vandergriff returned to private life. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Vandergriff family fortune was weakening under a mountain of debt created by his two congressional campaigns, a sluggish economy, mounting medical bills for his father and real estate deals gone bad. In 1997, Vandergriff Chevrolet was sold to VT Inc.

Last political office

Mr. Vandergriff returned to the political arena for the last time in 1990 to run as a Republican for Tarrant County judge. He served in that post until his retirement at the end of 2006 at age 80.

Under his leadership, the county built a family law center and sold its convention center to Fort Worth, said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who was a county commissioner at the time. Mr. Vandergriff was also a calming influence during a time of turmoil in the late 1990s, when then-Sheriff David Williams was criticized for several decisions, including department purchases, Whitley said.

"Even when we were going through the rigmarole with the sheriff, I remember one day he [Mr. Vandergriff] got very upset with David Williams," Whitley said. "I kept thinking, 'I wonder if David realizes he just got a lecture' -- because even when he [Mr. Vandergriff] was angry he handled his anger well."

Whitley also remembered his first meeting with Mr. Vandergriff decades earlier. Whitley was a self-described brash 20-year-old college student, and he held a position in a state organization requiring out-of-town travel. Whitley walked into the Vandergriff dealership and asked for free use of a car for a year.

Mr. Vandergriff declined to donate a car but smiled and made Whitley a counteroffer.

"He laughed and laughed, and he said he couldn't just give me a car, but he said if I could come see him once a month he'd see if he could line me up with a car for the weekend -- and he did, several times," Whitley remembered. "He was as nice to me then as he was 24 years later, when I came on the Commissioners Court and he swore me in."

Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said that as county judge Mr. Vandergriff played crucial roles in keeping the General Motors plant open when the company was contracting. He also may have played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing the Dallas Cowboys to Arlington.

But Mr. Vandergriff never sought accolades.

"There are many politicians in the world, but there are very few statesmen," Maenius said. "Tom Vandergriff was a true statesman. He never tried to generate credit for himself. He was very gracious in extending credit to other court members and elected officials in the county."

He also cared deeply about constituents. Several times, when Tarrant County was unable to help someone who had come for help, Mr. Vandergriff offered his personal assistance, he said.

"I saw him open up his own checkbook," Maenius said. "He was a true gentlemen."

Mr. Vandergriff is survived by his sister Virginia Deering of Arlington; daughter Vanessa Watters of Los Angeles; son Victor Vandergriff of Arlington; daughter Valerie Kelton of Mansfield; daughter Vivica Vandergriff of Mansfield; and grandchildren Katharine Vandergriff, Kendall Kelton, Rachel Kelton, Parker Vandergriff and Caroline Vandergriff.

"He was an amazing public servant, but more importantly he was the most loving grandfather. All of us carry the most wonderful memories of him and will hold those close to our hearts. He was our best friend, our No. 1 cheerleader and our precious Granddaddy," granddaughter Kendall Kelton said.

Funeral arrangements are pending, and the family said a public memorial service will be held.

Staff writers Eva Marie Ayala, Alex Branch, John Henry contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

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