Bob Bolen, 1926-2014: Saying goodbye to a city father

Former Mayor Bob Bolen, a small businessman who helped shape the birth of modern day Fort Worth, died at his home on Jan. 6 at the age of 87. Bolen was mayor of Fort Worth from 1982 to 1991, participating in the renaissance of downtown, the birth of the Alliance development, landing the currency plant and helped set the stage for a variety of transportation projects. After he left office in 1991, he remained active in civic affairs, tirelessly attending meetings, and also served as a senior adviser to the chancellor at Texas Christian University.

“Bob Bolen really helped make good things happen in Fort Worth time and again, and he understood it took a team to do so,” said Ed Bass, who spearheaded the redevelopment of downtown Fort Worth that took shape during Bolen’s time as mayor. “I remember first going to see him as mayor in 1982 at the advice of my brother Sid, who had our Sundance Square development just coming on line. I had this idea called the Caravan of Dreams. The mayor gathered several City Council colleagues in his office with some key city staff, and got everyone working together to make sure the city was a team player.”

Five years later, Bass was working to build Sundance West, the first new downtown residential development in three decades. “Mayor Bolen led the way in putting in place a downtown residential tax incentive program. Those 59 initial apartments have now become 10,000 downtown residents. Downtown Fort Worth would not be what it is today if it weren’t for the leadership of Bob Bolen,” said Bass. Robert Eugene Bolen was born on April 10, 1926 in Chicago and his family moved several times. A World War II Navy veteran who left Texas A&M University to serve as a gunnery officer on the USS Iowa, Bolen returned to College Station to complete his business administration degree in 1948. He later received honorary doctorates in public service from the University of North Texas and TCU, as well as an honorary doctorate of humanities from Texas Wesleyan University. Bolen opened a toy store and bike shop in Fort Worth and 20 Hallmark card shops around the Metroplex and in San Antonio. He sold the businesses in 1990. Among his customers was Jean Roach. “Such a huge loss to Fort Worth,” Roach said. “I was one of those who bought bicycles from him when my sister and I were growing up.”  

John Roach, who was to work with Bolen on many projects central to Fort Worth, said Bolen enjoyed his work at TCU and with the students there.  

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“He loved visiting with students and those seeking fatherly advice for the important steps in their lives,” said Roach. And Bolen was more than willing to take a hands-on approach, according to Rep. Kay Granger, who succeeded Bolen as mayor, holding the office from 1991 until 1995. “I worked with a congresswoman from Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who said her son was graduating from high school and was interested in TCU. She asked if I knew anyone who could give him a campus tour. I called Bob to ask him who I should call. Bob replied, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ “I thought he had agreed to call the appropriate person,” continued Granger. “It wasn’t until the next month that Mary told me Bob himself had given the tour, taken them to lunch and sold them on the wonders of attending TCU!” For Mike Berry, president of Hillwood Properties, Bolen was on the “leading edge” in forming public/private partnerships. “In 1987 and 1988, in the face of a lot of skepticism, he led a massive program to bring all of this land into Fort Worth and commit public services in order to make the Alliance Airport happen. He convinced everyone that it was for the great good of Fort Worth and sure enough, it worked out. He had a private partner in the Perot Group.

“He knew that leveraging the private sector and bringing the public sector with him could make great things happen for Fort Worth,” Berry said.

Public service Bolen was elected to the Fort Worth City Council in 1979, and won a special election in 1982 to complete the second term of Mayor Woodie Woods, who had resigned to run for the state Senate. Bolen also served as president of the Texas Municipal League in 1987, was elected to the National League of Cities board in 1985 and served as that body’s president in 1990. Current Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price was among many area leaders and residents to sing Bolen’s praises: “We have heavy hearts today as we learned of the passing of our dear friend and Fort Worth hero, Mayor Bob Bolen…Our hearts go out to his family. Mayor Bolen was the true ‘People’s Mayor’ and he lived by his motto of leaving this city better than he found it. I will remember him for his passion for young people and his desire to closely involve citizens in the future of their city. We will also remember Mayor Bolen as a visionary who took risks that ultimately changed our city for the better, including Alliance Airport, the introduction of public transportation and the redevelopment of downtown. Bob was an inspiration to us all. What a world of difference Bob’s vision made in our city.” Price remembered finding a yellow sticky note posted to her office computer. The note was from Bolen and arrived shortly after she and the City Council made a long-awaited and controversial decision on police pensions in October 2012. “It said, ‘You are still a hero. Thanks.’” Price said. “His commitment to the city never waned after he left office. He cared deeply about the city. He cared deeply about everybody.”

Other area leaders “North Texas lost an amazing leader,” said Mabrie Jackson, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission. “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.” Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Thornton agreed. When he crossed paths with Bolen for the first time in 1983, Thornton said, the mayor found time to chat with athletes being interviewed as potential Texas Christian University varsity football players. Seeing Bolen take one or two hours from his busy schedule to aid the effort left quite an impression on Thornton, who was former TCU coach Jim Wacker’s offensive coordinator at the time. “We had just arrived at TCU and I was on Wacker’s staff and Bolen greeted all of us and worked on recruiting weekends – just a genuinely optimistic, energetic guy,” Thornton said. Thornton and Bolen were neighbors for 14 years, building a lasting friendship. “His father said, ‘You want to leave a place better than you found it,’ and he surely followed that,” Thornton said. “His genuine passion for the community was undeniable.” TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini praised Bolen’s contributions to the city and to the university. “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,” he said. “His vision for the area, and his advice have been invaluable. I think the world of him and will miss him dearly.” Bolen’s list of accomplishments as mayor is extensive and impressive. Some highlights: •Led the efforts to create the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) and served on the Regional Transportation Authority. •Partnered with Charles Tandy, the Bass family, and the Hunt family of Dallas to redevelop downtown Fort Worth, promoting projects that included the Tandy Center, Sundance Square and the refurbishing of General Worth Square and the Hotel Texas. •Led the effort that enabled Fort Worth to prevail in a nationwide competition for the U.S. Treasury’s printing and engraving facility – the first currency plant outside Washington, D.C., in the history of the country and now the plant that prints the vast majority of U.S. currency. •Helped establish the first Public Improvement District (PID) downtown and Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. •Engineered the partnership in which the city, the Perot family and the Federal Aviation Administration combined to create Alliance Airport, which, in turn, sparked the AllianceTexas center and explosive growth in far north Fort Worth. •Led efforts to purchase the 30-plus mile Rock Island rail line right of way between Fort Worth and Dallas, which now serves as the major rail for the Trinity Railway Express. •Led efforts to relocate the downtown I-30 overhead. • Helped establish the first Fort Worth Sister Cities partnership with Reggio Emilia, Italy, followed two years later by sister city relations with Trier, Germany and Nagaoka, Japan. During his tenure, Fort Worth’s sister city program earned accolades as the best in the country. •Led efforts to award the first city cable franchise to Sammons Cable and was a key member of the National League of Cities special task force that resulted in the first cable legislation enacted by Congress.

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A. Lee Graham, Robert Francis, Bill Thompson and Gail Bennison contributed to this report.