Adlene Harrison, first woman to serve as mayor of Dallas, dies at 98

Adlene Harrison, the first woman to serve as mayor of Dallas and a key figure in the formation of the DART, died Saturday of natural causes at her north Dallas home, according to her family. She was 98 years old.

A fervent advocate for the environment, public transit and reproductive rights with a penchant for not mincing his words, Harrison was elected to the Dallas City Council three times between 1973 and 1977.

She was acting mayor of the city when she was named acting mayor in 1976 to complete the term of Wes Wise, who resigned to run for Congress. This appointment makes her the first Jewish woman to serve as mayor of a major American city.

She was later appointed Regional Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and served as the first-ever Chair of the DART Board of Directors. She has also served on the boards of several local civic organizations, including the Dallas Jewish Coalition and the Dallas Arboretum.

A photo at Adlene Harrison’s home showed her being sworn in as EPA regional administrator.(Rose Baca / Staff Photographer)

“Overall, people respected her, listened to her and trusted her,” said Jane Harrison Fox, Harrison’s daughter. “Maybe they didn’t always agree with her, but I think they liked her because she didn’t beat around the bush. She had a moral compass and she always did what she thought was right.

She said she remembers going to the grocery store with her mother growing up and never going far down the aisles until she was stopped by a resident who recognized Harrison or wanted to talk.

“It was a painful experience for me,” Harrison Fox said, noting that it would lengthen their trip. “But she would always stop and talk whether they said how much they liked what she was doing or not.”

A funeral is scheduled for Tuesday at Temple Emanu-El in North Dallas, where Harrison had been a member since childhood. Service time has not been finalized.

“His name meant business”

Current and former city officials remembered Harrison as a thoughtful leader who cared deeply about making Dallas a better place.

“She was full of grace but tough as nails, and that’s what made her special,” former mayor Mike Rawlings said. “She often had to navigate rooms full of men and she fought for what she believed in.”

Rawlings said that every few months he would buy la mian noodles at Royal China in North Dallas, deliver them to Harrison and talk with her, mostly about life and family. She loved the restaurant and was treated like a celebrity whenever she could get there, he said.

Former Mayor Laura Miller called Harrison a city icon.

“Adlene was lively, funny, cunning and suffered neither fools nor follies,” Miller said. “All of us in the public service were lucky to have her as a role model.”

Mayor Eric Johnson said Harrison had an “incredible impact on this city” and there was cause to celebrate his life.

“As a loyal, intelligent and caring person, she made countless friends,” said Johnson, who proclaimed a day in Harrison’s honor on his birthday — Nov. 19 — in 2020. “And as a fearless and strong leader, she made Dallas better. ”

Deputy City Manager Kimberly Bizor Tolbert said Harrison is passionate about her work and inspiring others.

“She was never afraid to take the lead and stand up at a time when it was much harder for women to be heard,” said Bizor Tolbert. “Everyone knew her name meant business and she was going to get the job done. Mayor Harrison was a game changer for the city of Dallas, and she will be missed.

career of the first

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Harrison was born in her parents’ Park Row home in South Dallas in 1923. She grew up in the city, graduating from what is now James Madison High School before attending the University of Missouri.

She was a member of the tennis team, played golf, and was president of the school’s Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority.

Dallas City Council members and staff surprised Pro Tem Mayor Adlene Harrison with a...
Dallas City Council members and staff surprised Pro Tem Mayor Adlene Harrison with a “6-Star General’s Helmet” in recognition of her 91-day term as Dallas’ first female mayor in 1976.(Randy Eli Grothe / staff photographer)

She left college during World War II and joined the Red Cross, then worked in retail – including at Neiman Marcus – before getting involved in politics.

She met her husband, Maurice, in 1951. Harrison Fox said her father asked her mother out on a date when she was working at a polling station for a bond proposition election. They married two years later.

Harrison was appointed to the Dallas Plan Commission in 1963 and served in that position for eight years. She was the only woman on the board when she joined.

While serving on the Dallas City Council, she was also the first woman to serve as the city’s acting mayor.

His tenure on city council included co-sponsoring an ordinance to establish an environmental committee and advocating for the protection of the existing rail right-of-way for future transit use.

Harrison was the city’s top official in March 1976 when a federal judge ordered Dallas ISD to implement a desegregation plan this included busing 20,000 students and dividing the city into sub-districts for racial integration.

The ordinance stems from a class action lawsuit brought by a black parent who sued the district in 1970 for the right to have his sons attend a school near their home that was then for white children only, although school segregation were ruled unconstitutional almost two decades earlier.

Harrison resigned from the city council four months into her third term after being nominated by President Jimmy Carter as regional EPA administrator.

She served on the Interim Regional Transportation Authority – DART’s predecessor – after leaving her federal post in 1981.

She was elected chair of the transportation authority the following year and elected the first chair of the DART board of directors after Dallas County voters approved the creation of the transportation agency in 1983.

Adlene Harrison showed off a miniature version of one of DART's new express buses in 1984.
Adlene Harrison showed off a miniature version of one of DART’s new express buses in 1984.(John Rhodes / staff photographer)

Harrison reflected on his political career and his history of firsts with The Dallas Morning News in 2018.

“I don’t know if it changed my life or anyone else’s. But he told the other women, “Go ahead and run for office and do your best,” she said.

Harrison is survived by his daughter and other relatives. She was predeceased by her husband, who died in 2012.

Harrison’s family said donations can be made in her name to Temple Emanu-El, Planned Parenthood or another nonprofit reproductive or environmental advocacy group of their choosing.

Writer Sharon Grigsby and former writer Joe Simnacher contributed to this report.

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