Clueless

For city Councilman Al Lipscomb, taking handouts from power brokers has become a way of life. Is there a problem?

Shortly after that, the bank's Dallas office arranged a meeting with Lipscomb, Hoffman, Lipscomb's daughter Lavette, and two NationsBank officers. Since it was clear to the bank--and Bob Lane--that Lipscomb and Hoffman didn't have any money, Lane agreed that if Lipscomb and Hoffman would comply with a generous, bank-structured payment plan starting in September 1996, the bank would halve the amount of the debt.

"It was half, wasn't it, Lavette?" Lipscomb asked one recent evening, sitting at his daughter's home, boxes of Lipscomb Industries papers stacked up around the living room. "Yes, they're excusing half the money. You know, Lavette, we ought to get something in writing, baby."

Al Lipscomb was once a hellraiser.
When World War II ended and a barely 21-year-old Lipscomb was discharged from the Army in California, he decided to stay out west and wander up and down the coast, where he wandered in and out of trouble. "I just got to run around," he says. "Got involved in drugs, fooling all around--you know, just slick."

Not slick enough, apparently, because in 1952, he was arrested twice for selling heroin. He spent 10 months in the Alameda County Jail--a low point in his travels that he took as a sign to head for home.

Back in Dallas, he worked for years as a waiter at various country clubs and executive dining rooms. Then, in the mid-'60s, he landed a job with the War on Poverty and got political. By the mid-'70s, he had opened a grass-roots, barely funded operation called the South Dallas Information Center, which became a citywide clearinghouse for black people's complaints about everything from police brutality to potholes.

He developed a reputation as a lean, angry black man in bell bottoms and a big Afro who would storm up into your face and tell you, in no uncertain terms, what you were doing wrong and what you'd better do to fix it. He protested, he picketed, he marched. He fought segregation, police brutality, at-large political districts. He got thrown out of public meetings--"I was the very first in the city of Dallas to get thrown out and arrested at Dallas City Hall," he says proudly.

He ran for mayor in 1971--the first time a black had ever run. He was a yeller and a drinker, and the whole thing got so out of hand that by 1974 his wife Lovie had thrown her hands up and filed for divorce.

"I was, well, you know--you know him. He was drinking back then and me not always knowing his whereabouts, and I had the sole responsibility for the children and their schools," says his wife Lovie. She had met her husband in the mid-'50s at the Adolphus Hotel where he waited tables and she cleared them. Married four years later, they'd had four children--adding to the four Lovie already had.

"There were riots back then and busing, and I had to leave my job all the time to go deal with all these things at the schools. I had to try and get to the meetings, and a lot of times you'd--you know--he'd not be a part of that. And no money but mine coming in at the time."

If Lipscomb's own wife, who loved him, was tired of his antics--"and I was, oh yes I was," she says--you can imagine what the people who didn't know him felt about him. Especially when he had a gripe against them.

Which is how he met Schepps Dairy CEO Pete Schenkel one day in the early '70s. "I'd seen him, but I didn't know him," Lipscomb told me. "Mr. [Harmon] Schepps was still running the dairy himself, and Mr. Schenkel was his right-hand man. Well, there was a problem with some of their black employees. I was going to picket. I had a big Afro and blue jeans, and I went up there, and I talked to Mr. Schenkel."

To Lipscomb's surprise, it was a very productive meeting. Schenkel wasn't defensive or dismissive. He addressed Lipscomb's questions directly.

"Mr. Schepps would have said, 'Oh hell, Al,' but Mr. Schenkel is more diplomatic," Lipscomb recalled. "Harmon Schepps was a challenger--you got to it. But not Mr. Schenkel. He completely disarmed me. I couldn't get a rise from him. I cried racism--"Look here!" Lipscomb added, playfully slapping his big hand on the desktop like he did then.

"He said, 'Let me talk. You have a point here.' But this company is in the community, and he'd call them in one by one--to show me. And I'd know these people. They lived in the community--walked to work. And they were mad at me: 'What you doin' Lip?' And you know what? Those two employees who had come to me? They had stolen some stuff."

On that day, Schenkel and Lipscomb bonded--destined to become one of the most dysfunctional political teams this city has ever seen.

Schenkel is an unassuming, 61-year-old Dallas native who, like a lot of other self-appointed power brokers in this town, wants to have a strong hand in shaping the issues of the day, but works hard to make sure his fingerprints don't appear on them.

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