ARLINGTON — North Texas is mourning the passing of a political icon.
Former Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff died Thursday at age 84.
He was an "old school" politician from the days when that was a good thing.
Vandergriff, "Mr. Arlington," was the driving force that brought Six Flags Over Texas, General Motors and the Texas Rangers to the city.
When he was first elected in 1951, they called Tommy Vandergriff Arlington's "boy mayor." He was only 25 years old. At the time, the city's population was just 7,500.
Vandergriff's Arlington-first approach helped to bring industry, entertainment and a major league baseball club to the city that sits between Dallas and Fort Worth.
But after 13 terms as mayor, the auto dealer and Rangers baseball announcer walked away from politics.
It was five years before he got back in the game to run for Congress.
The 1982 election was close in the 26th Congressional District. New residents — primarily in Collin and Denton counties — had never heard of "Mr. Arlington."
"I'm going to be a congressman for this whole district regardless of how they voted in yesterday's election," Vandergriff said at the time.
Despite non-partisan efforts in the House of Representatives, Vandergriff — then a Democrat — lost his re-election bid in 1984. Denton economics professor Dick Armey made the most of President Reagan's wide coattails.
But Arlington residents still revered Vandergriff as a founding father figure. At the municipal building in 1987, they erected a bronze statue to the longtime former mayor.
"Obviously, I liked the job so much I almost tried to make it a lifetime appointment," he joked.
By 1987, Arlington's population — doubling each decade — had reached 250,000. Vandergriff strongly missed public service, but the next time he ran for office it was as a Republican.
In 1990, he won a spot on Tarrant County Commissioners Court, where "Mr. Arlington's" name value was priceless — regardless of political party.
The new Tarrant County Judge said winning the election was a homecoming. "It feels like I'm home again," he said. "I'm so excited. I've loved public service always."
Vandergriff vowed to do for the county what he had tried to do for his city."The goal would be to try and deliver the necessary services to the public, but at the least possible cost," he said.
It's a balancing act that all politicians would love to accomplish. But voters approved of the "old fashioned" way Vandergriff went about it.
He was re-elected without opposition in 1994.
Arlington erected its second bronze statue to Tom Vandergriff at the Ballpark in 1997, the 25th anniversary of the Texas Rangers.
It was a fitting tribute to the life-long baseball fan and former "Boy Mayor" who worked for 13 years to bring a big league team to Arlington... and who turned a bedroom community into a successful, sprawling, and spirited city to rival both Dallas and Fort Worth.
Vandergriff, who was 84, had been staying at an assisted living center.
His wife Anna died last year at age 82. The couple had been married for 60 years.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley issued this tribute:
"Today, our county lost a great man and I lost a great friend. In 1997, I was honored to be sworn into the Tarrant County Commissioners Court by Judge Tom Vandergriff. For the next 10 years, I had the privilege to work under his leadership and learn from him. And while I admired his tireless work to expand economic growth and opportunity for Tarrant County, what I came to admire most was the man himself. He was a unique leader who saw opportunities where others saw obstacles and who could find solutions when others found problems. He served in public office not because he wanted to be something, but because he wanted to do something. We have lost a great leader, but his impact will never be lost on this county or on the people who knew him. May God bless the memory of Judge Tom Vandergriff."
Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief also had words of praise for his predecessor.
"Tom Vandergriff was a dear friend of mine. He was an honest and respected business man, mayor, congressman and county judge, and both Rosie and I will miss him greatly. The passing of our friend and colleague closes an important and prosperous chapter in Tarrant County's history. Although Tom will undoubtedly be remembered for putting Arlington on the map with the GM plant, Six Flags and the Texas Rangers, it will be those personal experiences working alongside Tom that Rosie and I will never forget. No matter where he was or what time it was, Tom was always working hard on behalf of the people he served. Not a day passed that he didn't make a decision or win a small victory that ultimately improved the lives of those fortunate enough to call North Texas home. Tom was a champion for Tarrant County and he was a respected statesman who lived a full, complete and meaningful life. It was a life dedicated to making our quality of life the best it could be. He certainly succeeded in that. It's fitting that he lived long enough to see his beloved Texas Rangers in the World Series. The people of Fort Worth are grateful for Tom Vandergriff's service, and we take pride in the fact that his celebrated legacy will be tightly woven into the fabric of our community for generations to come."