The course of Arlington’s history
was forever transformed by a phone call that didn’t get returned.
It was that same moment in time that gave us a “boy mayor” named Tommy Vandergriff.
Vandergriff once described the occasion to me when we were talking about how he first became interested in pursuing a political career.
“Actually”, he explained, “I never really intended to be a politician when I entered that first mayoral race.”
The year was 1950 and Tom was the 24-year-old president of the fledgling chamber of commerce in the town with fewer than 7,700 residents.
He and his father, who owned a General Motors dealership, had learned that the big car company was looking around north Texas for a possible location to build a new automobile assembly plant.
The company’s expansion plans were part of the economic boom that had developed following World War II. Returning soldiers, sailors, and airmen were forming families, buying houses, and lots of cars.
Where better than Arlington, the Vandergriffs reasoned, should GM locate such a facility?
So, the young chamber president looked up the phone number of GM’s board chairman and gave him a call to pitch the advantages of an Arlington location.
The man Tom wanted to talk to was the CEO of the largest corporation on earth. He rightfully took his place among the leading industrialists in the world.
It is a matter of my own speculation, but it is doubtful that the country’s leading capitalist was ever told of the call. He likely had many things on his mind in those days. Things like developing new concepts and designs on fulfilling the growing love affair between Americans and their automobiles.
He probably simply didn’t have the time to be bothered by somebody from some place he had never heard of.
The next thing that happened set into motion a series of events that continues to resonate through our community to this very day.
“I figured that I simply must not be important enough to get my phone call returned,” Tom went on to explain to me.
“Maybe if I was the mayor of our town, the chairman would talk to me. It was, at least, worth a try.”
Whether it was youthful exuberance born of a logical, practical solution to the challenge of getting in touch with the GM brass, or something else, it was the course he chose to pursue.
Arlington’s mayor at the time, B. C. Barnes,
was well liked as evidenced by his 14 years in office. There was really not much reason for replacing him with an upstart youngster who was fanaticizing about a future for the town that seemed quite unlikely to most.
Moreover, Fort Worth’s patriarch Amon Carter, already legendary in his tireless pursuit of making his town a national symbol of economic and cultural success, had the inside track on landing the GM plant.
What chance, some would ask, would the Arlington youngster have up against such a powerhouse figure in the big city to the west? But a majority of the voters on that fateful April day in 1951 chose young Tommy as their new mayor.
The strategy worked. With the now more impressive title, Vandergriff got his phone call returned.
In a mere four months after election day, giant headlines spread across the top of the front page of The Arlington Journal – “General Motors Buys East Arlington Site”.
Just a little more than two years later,
the same newspaper displayed a big front-page picture of the young mayor inside the new plant shaking hands with a proud Pontiac dealer who had come to town to pick up the first car built in Arlington.
As everybody now knows, the boy mayor had quickly come to love the role as the city’s top elected official and the remarkable, yet unintentional, lifetime career as the consummate public servant had been launched.
The GM plant’s role in putting Arlington into the limelight would continue to evolve and help shape the future. Building great cars and trucks became a local bragging right. But, when Chairman Sloan didn’t return Tom’s phone call that gave us the boy mayor and was the best outcome of all.