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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Richard Connor: Bob Terrell was a quiet warrior and a much-needed leader

Bob Terrell died Sept. 22 at age 74 and his passing started me thinking about Fort Worth, and how city managers have helped guide the city’s enormous and rapid growth.

Terrell was a pioneer here, Fort Worth’s first African-American city manager, and he served in that job from 1992 until his retirement in 2000.

Bob Terrell was a strong but soft-spoken leader who had an easy and infectious laugh even in difficult situations, a quiet warrior whose leadership was needed in a city that often lagged behind others in race relations and other urban issues.

Terrell had the ability to build bridges – not massive structures like the new one spanning the Trinity River on West 7th street but human bridges that connect people of different races and cultures.

It was common in those years and those leading up to his tenure – he was assistant city manager from 1985 to 1992 – for people to say Fort Worth had no race problems.

It did, although they weren’t as publicly apparent as they were in other urban areas. I’m not sure why.

I was aware of them as were others on the staff of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram where I served as publisher during the time Terrell was city manager.

One day at noon time I looked out my office window toward the corner of West 7th and Taylor and saw a large group of protestors carrying signs and chanting. I walked up one floor to our newsroom and asked what was happening outside.

“Don’t know,” answered an editor whose job was supervising reporters. After suggesting it might be wise to send a reporter to find out what was happening right outside the newspaper’s doors, I realized I should go talk to the group myself.

The group was protesting lack of news coverage of the minority community in the Star-Telegram, and a small leadership group agreed to come inside for a discussion.

We listened and agreed we had problems that needed addressing. Following that impromptu meeting we set up community meetings to meet with folks in neighborhoods and listen.

We also met with leaders such as Terrell, Vernell Sturns, Devoyd Jennings of the Black Chamber of Commerce and Erma Johnson, who would become the first African-American chancellor of Tarrant County College. Star-Telegram associate editor Bob Ray Sanders helped us stay on top of the issues and intensify our news coverage of the minority community.

Erma Johnson was always vocal and forceful, which was needed. The others, Terrell among them, were more restrained but steadfast.

I’d like to think it all made a difference in making the Star-Telegram a better newspaper and the city a better place to live.

In recent years, I would occasionally sit with Terrell at lunch and we would reminisce – and sometimes laugh at ourselves – about the bumbling way we did things.

Terrell’s passing coincided with a Business Press breakfast seminar where we learned about the Walsh development, a planned community sprouting up on former ranch land on the west side of Fort Worth.

About 500 persons live there today. There is a new elementary school on the property. Estimates are that 30,000 to 50,000 people will live there someday. It’s an incredible story.

The two events caused me to dwell on the foresight of city managers who helped guide our growth and prepare for a future few could have imagined for Fort Worth.

Newspapers can often find themselves at odds with city managers. We had our share of disagreements with City Hall during my time at the Star-Telegram, but we almost always managed to stay friends with city managers. I had some hellacious brawls with David Ivory when he was city manager but I later hired him at the newspaper. He outlasted me there.

Doug Harmon and Ivory led the city through the creation of Alliance. Bob Herchert was city manager prior to my time at the newspaper but by all accounts he was a highly capable administrator. The current city manager, David Cooke, is deftly navigating the city’s march toward the future.

Good people in a tough job. All paved the way to enable the massive growth we’ve experienced and still are achieving. Bob Terrell added another dimension to the job that went far beyond bricks and mortar and tax abatements.

He taught us how to live together in a better way.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net

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