Civic chests fairly burst with pride here in 1985 when billionaire Ross Perot agreed to donate $8 million to beautify the huge park at White Rock Lake on the city's East Side.
Dallas would have its own version of Central Park, with thousands of trees, and beauty to rival Washington's cherry blossoms in springtime. But three years later, Perot largely reneged on his promise, saying the expansion was not going the way he wanted.
"Perot is a man who likes to get what he wants," said P. Michael Jung, a Dallas attorney and former city planning commissioner.
For years, Ross Perot has been a political heavyweight around Dallas, and not everyone is applauding. He is clearly popular and generous, but his actions here show that he is also capable of being uncompromising and heavy-handed when events do not go his way.
He has planted himself at the center of major controversies, and the fights have cast some shadows over his local image as a billionaire philanthropist with a common touch.
- He has been a strong supporter of the Dallas police--but he was quick to reprimand three officers when they stopped Perot's daughter-in-law for speeding and found a concealed weapon in her car.
- He is eager for publicity--but quick to call top newspaper executives if he does not like what he reads. Just last month, he became embroiled in a dispute with the publisher of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, who alleged that Perot tried to intimidate him after he published an unflattering story.
- Despite his just-plain-folks image, he has a strong penchant for security, and once tried to get city permission to build a helicopter pad on his property. Security was a major issue during the White Rock Lake dispute as well.
Attorney Ronald Kirk, former lobbyist for the city of Dallas, likens Perot to Bobby Knight, the legendary Indiana basketball coach, saying they both have a "my-way-or-the-highway" style.
"Perot is not for everyone," Kirk said, "but those who like him swear by him."
He is certainly revered in some circles here. The Dallas Times Herald, now defunct, described Perot in 1986 as a "man for all seasons" with a "rare blend of boldness, vision and compassion."
In fact, Perot is something of a loner who has kept his distance from the traditional Dallas business Establishment--or what's left of it after Texas' banking, real estate and oil industry collapses of the 1980s.
"He's not a socializer," says Tom Marquez, a family friend. "He's not your typical businessman who goes down to the Tuesday Chamber of Commerce lunch."
Part of Perot's local mystique derives from a simple style, even though he is said to be worth more than $3 billion, earned by--among other things--founding computer company Electronic Data Systems, then selling it to General Motors in 1984. Locals say they see him shopping at the local sporting goods store or driving to his Saturday haircut in an '87 Oldsmobile.
Perot's local image has long been nurtured through the Perot Foundation, run by his sister, Bette. He has pledged well over $100 million to varied causes, including $20 million to a local medical school and more than $10 million for a new concert hall.
Perot has also become a kind of medical healer to whom the desperate or needy--including Persian Gulf War burn victims--have turned for help.
He helped arrange special treatment for a Dallas police officer named J. J. Terrell, badly hurt in a Colorado skiing accident, and a neighbor named Bradley Urschel who nearly died in a West Texas car crash nearly a decade ago.
Terrell, a former SWAT team member and former security guard for the Perot family, and Urschel, a one-time Olympic hopeful in the decathlon, say Perot swooped in to help as they lay in comas far from home.
"I'm alive today because of Mr. Perot," said Urschel, a Princeton University grad who writes and illustrates children's books.
It is this side of Perot--kind, compassionate, action-oriented--that his supporters are eager to highlight. "He does that sort of thing all the time," Marquez said.
But Perot's role as benefactor has not always been smooth, as the White Rock Lake example suggests. Skeptics suggest that he makes his donations with strings attached.
He initially pledged to give the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society $8 million as part of a 10-year, $50-million expansion. He anted up $2 million as part of the expansion's first phase.
But after becoming disenchanted, he not only refused to donate the other $6 million, but sought a refund, plus interest, on what he had already given.
Those who followed the White Rock Lake affair say it showcased an unflattering side of Perot in that he spoke publicly before he had all the facts and became disenchanted when the public debate got heated and messy.
White Rock Lake is, by urban standards, a huge body of water--ringed by parkland and lovely homes. One problem was that many neighboring homeowners simply did not want so many trees--up to a million--cluttered around the lake.
Another controversy erupted over how the expanded park would handle security and combat violent crime, said Jung, the former city planning commissioner.
Perot reportedly suggested that all park visitors carry portable alarms to alert security guards in case they were about to be mugged.
"He acts before he thinks," Jung said. "He thought: 'If we have a crime problem, let's issue everyone these Buck Rogers beepers.' They were more like portable panic buttons."
In fact, the area's crime rate was relatively low and Perot's concerns only reflected the billionaire's obsession with security, some felt.
Perot says his only security proposal was to have park visitors "identify themselves and reserve spots" on a first-come, first-served basis.
In written remarks to the Los Angeles Times, Perot also indicated that he reneged on his park pledge because the expansion did not meet his expectations as "a safe place for people to have a picnic and enjoy a park-like atmosphere."
Security is clearly an important thread that runs through Perot's life. His estate in North Dallas, for example, is walled off from the road, giving it a fortress-like feel.
After unidentified threats on his life in 1980, Perot tried to get special permission to build a helicopter pad at his home. He abandoned the attempt after his well-heeled neighbors--including former Texas Instruments chief J. Fred Bucy--objected.
In 1988, when he was on jury duty, Perot was interviewed by lawyers seeking a panel for a murder case. Perot cited a murder in his neighborhood, then said: "I'm in a very unique position here, because I have high security problems personally. . . . And so, you know, it is not something that I look at objectively at a great distance. It is something I live with every day of my life."
The judge, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle, encouraged Perot not to lose faith in the judicial system.
"No, no, I haven't. Lots of faith," Perot replied. "But on the other hand, when you've got (the) security problems I have. . . . When you are dead, you're dead."
Perot was not picked for the jury.
Security concerns also marked at least one of his disputes with the press.
Kenneth P. Johnson, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald, remembers the time in 1979 when the paper published a story saying that two employees of EDS had escaped from prison in Tehran during the Iranian revolution.
Perot, who had engineered the escape, tried to kill the story because he was worried about the safety of EDS employees still in Iran--the ones who helped pull off the escape--at the time the article was published.
In an interview, Johnson said he decided to publish the story because he felt no one in Iran was going to read it. Perot was particularly angry about that incident, Johnson said--but hearing from Perot after a story was nothing new.
"He'd call you at night at home and raise hell, then see you the next day and be pleasant and friendly," said Johnson, who remembers receiving many such calls.
Perot's local press relations turned ugly last month when the publisher of the nearby Ft. Worth Star-Telegram accused him of trying to intimidate the paper three years ago after it ran an article about a Perot business development.
According to a column by Richard L. Connor, Perot suggested that he had a lever over the paper because he had "compromising photographs" of a Star-Telegram employee and a City Hall official. Perot has denied making any such remarks.
Connor said that Perot was upset because the article detailed tensions between the Perot family and City Hall over a contract to manage a proposed industrial airport. The Perots had donated the land for the airport and wanted to run it.
Though Connor says he told senior editors about the remarks at the time, he only recently went public with his account because, he said, he wanted the voters to know what Perot is capable of. "It's such a contrast to the image that he has manufactured of himself," Connor said in an interview.
Replied Perot spokesman Jim Squires: "Mr. Perot has no idea, and cannot understand, why such an attempt at intimidation was not reported the next day."
Perot has had stormy times as well because of his deep involvement with the Dallas Police Department.
He stepped into the middle of a heated controversy in early 1988 after several policemen had been killed and the atmosphere in Dallas was tense and racially charged. One focus of the controversy was the city's police review board.
The review board had been in existence for several years, but a fight erupted over the kind of powers the agency would have. In the end, Perot helped push through local legislation that stripped the board of much of its authority.
Though Perot's efforts were controversial, particularly in minority communities, the local police loved him for it. "He has been very good to us," said Monica M. Smith, a burglary detective and president of the 2,300-member Dallas Police Assn.
But around the same time, Perot found himself on the other side of the law when a member of his family was involved. Critics say the incident typifies the special treatment the Perot family receives from Dallas police.
When three officers stopped his daughter-in-law for speeding and one of them supposedly mistreated her, Perot was not bashful about venting his anger. Nor did he go through channels to do it.
Even for tony North Dallas, where police officers are not surprised by imperious treatment from wealthy residents, Perot's behavior was considered unusual. According to interviews, Perot's written remarks and sketchy media accounts of the incident, here is what happened:
Sarah Perot--wife of Ross Perot Jr. and 25 years old at the time--was pulled over for going 56 m.p.h. in a 35 m.p.h. zone on a busy street not far from her home.
As she reached for her proof of insurance, she told the officers that she had a loaded handgun in the glove compartment. She was then ordered out of the car.
Police ticketed her for speeding but did not press illegal weapons charges--a serious misdemeanor--because they were anxious to avoid a confrontation with Perot. Sarah Perot had also claimed--incorrectly, as it turned out--that the family had special permission to carry the weapon.
She also told her husband and father-in-law that one of the police officers had mocked her attire--she was wearing a short tennis dress--and threatened to throw her into jail. Whereupon Perot summoned the officers to his office in North Dallas and chewed them out.
Perot vowed legal action unless the officers came to his office. "I gave them a choice to come and see me," he said. "I didn't want to file legal action against the department I had been defending."
Perot confirmed that his daughter-in-law had no special permit to carry the pistol, but added that his family has special security needs that "were known to the Dallas Police Department for many years." He did not elaborate.
Even some supporters thought Perot should have used more conventional channels to make his case. "What he should have done is make a complaint through Internal Affairs," Detective Smith said.
William Powell, the officer who supposedly mistreated Sarah Perot, did not return phone calls.
Steven Solaja, another of the arresting officers, called the incident an "unfortunate situation that got out of hand."
Whatever the controversies in his life say about Perot, his patience and ability to compromise remain question marks. Few have known him longer than boyhood chum Hayes C. McClerkin, former speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives and now an attorney in Texarkana, the border town where they both grew up.
"Ross is going to have to learn the fine art of compromise if he is going to get the job done," McClerkin said. "He can't walk away from this one."