Adlene Harrison, the first woman to serve as Dallas mayor and a key figure in the formation of DART, died Saturday of natural causes in her North Dallas home, according to her family. She was 98.
A staunch environmental, mass transit and reproductive-rights advocate with a penchant for not mincing words, Harrison was elected three times to the Dallas City Council between 1973 and 1977.
She was the city’s mayor pro tem when she was appointed acting mayor in 1976 to complete the term of Wes Wise, who resigned to run for Congress. The appointment made her the first Jewish woman to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city.
She went on to be named a regional administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was the first-ever chair of the DART board. She also was on the boards of several local civic organizations, including the Dallas Jewish Coalition and the Dallas Arboretum.
“By and large, people respected, listened 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 while growing up and never making it far down the aisles before being stopped by a resident who recognized Harrison or wanted to talk.
“It was a painful experience for me,” Harrison Fox said, noting it would stretch the length of their trip. “But she would always stop and talk, whether they talked about how they liked what she did or not.”
A funeral is planned for Tuesday at Temple Emanu-El in North Dallas, where Harrison had been a member since she was a child. The time of the service has not been finalized.
‘Her name meant business’
Current and former city officials remembered Harrison as a no-nonsense 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 in rooms full of men and she fought hard for what she believed in.”
Rawlings said every few months he bought la mian noodles from Royal China in North Dallas, delivered them to Harrison and talked with her, mostly about life and family. She loved the restaurant and was treated like a celebrity whenever she could make it there, he said.
Former Mayor Laura Miller called Harrison a city icon.
“Adlene was sharp, funny, wily, and suffered no fools or foolishness,” Miller said. “All of us in public service were lucky to have her as a role model.”
Mayor Eric Johnson said Harrison had “an amazing impact on this city” and that there was plenty to celebrate about her life.
“As a loyal, smart and caring person, she made countless friends,” said Johnson, who proclaimed a day honoring Harrison on her birthday — Nov. 19 — in 2020. “And as a fearless and strong leader, she made Dallas better.”
Deputy City Manager Kimberly Bizor Tolbert said Harrison was passionate about her work and inspiring others.
“She was never afraid to take the lead and stand up at a time when it was far more difficult for women’s voices to be heard,” Bizor Tolbert said. “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 firsts
The daughter of Russian immigrants, Harrison was born in her parents’ Park Row house in South Dallas in 1923. She was raised 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.
She left college during World War II and joined the Red Cross, and later 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 on a date while she was working at a polling place for a bond proposition election. They married two years later.
Harrison was named to Dallas’ plan commission in 1963 and served in the position for eight years. She was the only woman on the board when she joined.
While on the Dallas City Council, she was also the first woman to be the city’s mayor pro tem.
Her time on the City Council included co-sponsoring an ordinance to create an environmental committee and advocating for protecting existing railroad right of way for future mass-transit use.
Harrison was the city’s top official in March 1976 when a federal judge ordered Dallas ISD to put in place a desegregation plan that called for busing 20,000 students and dividing the city into subdistricts for racial integration.
The order stemmed from a class-action lawsuit started 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 restricted to white children, despite segregation of public schools being found unconstitutional almost two decades earlier.
Harrison resigned from the City Council four months into her third term after being appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a regional administrator for the EPA.
She served on the Interim Regional Transportation Authority — the predecessor to DART — after stepping down from her federal post in 1981.
She was elected as chairwoman of the transportation authority the next year and elected as the first chairwoman of DART’s executive board after Dallas County voters approved the creation of the transit agency in 1983.
Harrison reflected on her political career and her history of firsts with The Dallas Morning News in 2018.
“I don’t know that that changed my life or anybody else’s. But it did say to other women, ‘Go out there and run for office and do the best you can,’” she said.
Harrison is survived her daughter and other relatives. She was preceded in death 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 reproductive-rights or environmental nonprofit group of their choice.
Staff writer Sharon Grigsby and former staff writer Joe Simnacher contributed to this report.