First woman mayor was a ‘force of nature’
By Deb Silverthorn
Adlene Nathanson Harrison died on Feb. 19, 2022, at the age of 98. A Dallas native, born on Nov. 19, 1923, she would become this city’s first woman mayor and the first Jewish mayor in the nation.
Harrison is survived by her daughter Jane Harrison Fox and Ariel Fox; her husband Maurice “Maurie” Harrison’s children Amy Harrison (Martha Peatree, of blessed memory) and Scott (Sun) Harrison; and her nieces and nephews Carolyn (Jack) Stone, Nancy (Steve Robinson) Nathanson, Paul (Shari) Nathanson, Char (Bob) Sigman, Rob (Ellen) Stein, Louis (Sharon) Stein, David Stein and her beloved caretakers; Jean Kasolo, Maria Klaric and Digna Rojas.
Harrison was one of 23 first cousins on her branch of the family tree; five of them — Julius “Red” Coleman, Larry Golman, Martin Golman, Cecile Rosenzweig and Ida Ann Zweig — survive her. Coleman and the Golmans served as honorary pallbearers along with Roger Andres, George Kao, Kenneth Klein, Mike Rawlings, Doug Reader, Buddy Rosenthal, John Tatum, Thomas Taylor and Brian Zweig.
She was predeceased by her husband of 57 years, Maurie, her parents Hyman and Miriam Nathanson and her siblings David (Maxine) and Miriam (David) Feinberg.
Harrison was raised in South Dallas and her family was one of the earliest members of Temple Emanu-El, where she would ultimately know, study under and support a century’s worth of rabbis. Harrison, who graduated from Forest Avenue High School (now James Madison High School), studied political science and history at the University of Missouri. In college, she played tennis and golf and was president of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority. She left school after her third year at the beginning of World War II, returning to Dallas, where she worked for the Red Cross, driving transport vehicles and reuniting servicemen with their loved ones.
Harrison’s first foray into politics came when she served as her cousin Joseph Golman’s campaign manager; he ultimately served on the Dallas City Plan Commission, as a Dallas city councilman, deputy mayor pro-tem and state legislator.
Harrison’s mayoral term began in 1976 when she, a three-term city councilperson and then mayor pro-tem, succeeded Wes Wise after he resigned to run for the United States Congress. It was during Harrison’s mayoral term that Texas was undergoing desegregation, and she warned that civil disobedience against the decision would be punished; unlike other cities, Dallas remained peaceful. She served those positions with absolute dedication to her community, as well as her roles as regional administrator at EPA, first chairperson at DART, a sponsor of the first historical district ordinance in Dallas (Swiss Avenue and the West End) and her establishment of the Texas Office of Environmental Defense.
Harrison was remembered by many at her funeral on Tuesday, Feb. 22, attended by more than 200 in person and nearly that many online, also attracting a crowd at a shiva minyan online Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re here wishing someone had taught us how to mourn a giant. Adlene, absolutely of the Hall of Fame of this city, was like no other,” said Rabbi David Stern, who, with Cantor Vicki Glikin, officiated the service. “She was a giant leader, a giant friend, a giant irritant for justice, a giant presence in our lives.
“Anyone who met her was energized by a legacy that continues to prod and inspire. She didn’t curtsy through the halls of power, she owned them — but she always walked under a horizon of hope,” said Rabbi Stern.
Harrison was eulogized by several people including her daughter, former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, longtime friends Marsha Reader and John Tatum. Tatum is a developer and transit advocate who worked with Harrison in the founding of DART.
“Steady and true, sweet Adlene, she was a celebrity,” said Rawlings. “There was nothing performative about Adlene. She was always the real deal.” Rawlings was one of many to discuss Harrison’s love for Royal China, Cindi’s Deli and numerous other restaurants. While dining at these establishments, Harrison was known to return a meal, change her table or have issues with whatever bread was served, almost anywhere, no thanks to her being the daughter of a baker.
Rawlings said that he was Harrison’s “boyfriend,” but he wasn’t the only one, as Norm Jacobson, Phil Rowe and numerous others claim to have been her “boyfriend.”
Tatum recalled walking into Harrison’s EPA office excited about Dallas’ future. “She said ‘good, go do something.’ Adlene’s sensibilities took you as you were, but her foot was behind you pushing you,” he said. “She was strong of spirit and always forceful and forward thinking. Her life challenges us to speak truth, right wrongs and always respect everyone.”
For many years a resident of New York City, Jane Harrison Fox reflected on the many relationships her mother held dear — keeping her from ever feeling alone. Professional, social and familial, Harrison loved and knew she was loved.
“I’ve lost my greatest fan and best friend in the blink of an eye,” she said. “She told the truth whether you wanted to hear it or not.”
Harrison Fox spoke of her parents meeting when her mother was a poll watcher and her father walked in, with minutes to spare. Before her political career, Harrison Fox remembers her mother as a stay-at-home mother for many years, but always involved. She laid the groundwork for a new wing at Temple Emanu-El and was a devoted member of the Dallas Arboretum, the Dallas Summit, the Friends of Fair Park, the National Council of Jewish Women — always one to support the underdog.
“There was never anyone better to have on your side than my mother. She respected, and she was loved by, those of different genders, religions, races and socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Harrison Fox. “She held everyone accountable.”
Harrison and her late husband used to enjoy traveling with friends and cousins to New Orleans and to Colorado. She was a fiercely proud Jew; she loved to garden, a hobby that came from her own mother; and she loved a good family picnic — so much family, so much love and friendship for one another.
Family friend Kenneth Klein said he grew up thinking all of Dallas was run by strong Jewish women and that Harrison was the “chair” of them all. “She never stopped thinking, loving or caring,” he said. “She had the courage to leave nothing undone.”
“There’s gonna be so much to miss about Adlene from our time years ago on the baseball field — her husband was the best player we ever had — to our family picnics, the big ones and the ones we’d still hold together even if it was just the two of us with some chicken salad and bread,” said Martin Golman, his eyes rolling at the thought — and fear — of the responsibility of choosing bread for Harrison.
“We all come from the six sons and two daughters of Maier [Golman] and Anna Channa [Schepps], who were born in Zabalin, Russia,” said Larry Golman, recounting the generations which followed after his grandparents first settled here. “It’s incredible the memories we have and the friendships among us — we really care so much for one another.”
“Dignity defines her,” said Ariel Fox. “To her last days she lived with a dignity of thought and action, a life truly well-lived.”
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, who proclaimed a day in Harrison’s honor on her birthday in 2020, did so again, extending special recognition, in memoriam, of Adlene Harrison dated Feb. 22. “As the first woman that this city called its mayor, she made history,” said Johnson. “As a loyal, smart, and caring person, she made countless friends. And as a fearless and strong leader, she made Dallas better.”
Harrison inspired the next generation’s leaders in Laura Miller, Cara Mendelsohn and her niece Nancy Nathanson, Jaynie Schultz and Allison Silberberg; she also impacted Annette Strauss, of blessed memory, who served as Dallas mayor from 1987 to 1991.
“She was a reporter’s dream because she always said exactly what she felt, had a heart of gold and harbored no political agenda other than helping Dallas be a better place to live for all people, not just the wealthy and powerful,” said Miller, Dallas’ mayor from 2002 to 2007 and Dallas City Council member from 1998 to 2001 but whose first experiences with Harrison were in the 1980s as a Dallas Morning News reporter. “I was completely in awe of her experience, her swagger and her mouth. That’s what I will remember most about Adlene — she had absolutely no fear of anybody, and that was a rare and precious commodity in Dallas in those days.”
Making their mark on the city now, both Mendelsohn and Schultz do so with Harrison’s imprint on their intentions.
“Many thanks to Mayor Harrison for stepping up to be the first, serving with a bold voice and compassionate heart and paving the way for women and Jews in civic leadership; she wasn’t just a first though, she was an original,” said Mendelsohn, who has been serving District 12 since 2019. She first met Harrison at a Jewish Family Service event more than a decade ago. “Smart, bold, ready to stand up for the people most marginalized and ready to fight for the issues she believed most important to improving our city.”
Elected to District 11 last year, Schultz added that “our city lost one of the greatest leaders in history this weekend, our Jewish community lost one of our rare gems, a Jewish woman who dedicated her life and service to making Dallas and the region better through political leadership. I’ve lost a role model and guide since I was a child.
“Adlene, at the tip of the spear of progress who broke through so many walls that held women back for generations, was absolutely a spark of my interest in local government and, from my early days of civic leadership, I turned to her for inspiration and strength,” said Schultz. “She knew everyone and everything about Dallas.”
Nathanson, who served on the city planning commission and city council in Eugene, Oregon, now serves in the Oregon State Legislature. She said her aunt guided many of her political experiences. “I’ve lost an anchor,” she said.
Silberberg and her sisters Dana and Susan recall sitting around the kitchen table, folding flyers and stuffing and stamping envelopes for Harrison’s campaign. Their parents, Al and Barbara Silberberg, of blessed memory, were decades-long dear friends of the Harrisons.
“I’ve known Adlene, who was a force of nature, since I was 5 years old. Whatever she and my Mom were talking about I’d listen in and soak it up like a sponge,” said Silberberg, mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, from 2016 to 2018 and vice mayor from 2013 to 2015. “Adlene’s integrity wouldn’t allow anyone to twist history or the truth. She cared so deeply and she made an incalculable difference in the quality of life for so many.” Regardless of a busy calendar, when Silberberg would return to visit Dallas, seeing Harrison was always a priority, always an opportunity to glean from her advice.
A difference in the lives of all those she met, and in the lives of millions she never knew. “I’ve heard all my life how amazing my mother is and it’s so true,” said Harrison Fox. “That’s who she was.”