Rich Man, Poor Man

As Tom Stanley lay dying, his heart worn down by time, Lillian Stanley searched for ways to console her husband. Each day he spent at Presbyterian Hospital in January, she would gather family and friends around him--those who had loved him and those who had wronged him--so Stanley, 83, could make his peace. Many nights she would refuse to leave his side, sleeping lightly in the chair by his bed, stirring with his every moan.

Theirs had been a grand life, for most of it anyway. Tom had risen from penniless farm boy to master architect, his signature skyscrapers, hotels and high-rise apartments dotting the cityscapes of downtowns across the country; Lillian had dedicated her life to her husband, schmoozing the wives of property owners and developers, serving as goodwill ambassador for her husband's concern.

At one time in the late '60s, Time magazine recognized Tom Stanley's Dallas practice as one of the largest architectural firms in the country. Hard-driving, work-obsessed, unerringly ethical, Stanley won commissions most architects only dream about: First National Bank in Dallas, the Gulf & Western building in New York City, 30 North LaSalle in Chicago. His smaller local projects were some of his best: Lovers Lane United Methodist Church, the Atlantic Richfield campus, the American Airlines Flight Academy. Developers couldn't resist his buildings, which were designed to make them money but were splashed with enough classical elements to give them the feel of art. After all, Stanley was an artist, a sculptor, a piece of work himself. Remembered less for his architectural drawings than his architectural drawing power, he presented himself as an odd oxymoron of folksy humility and flamboyant hubris, Southern gentility and urban hustle.

"More than good architecture and design," says his former employee and Dallas architect Dennis Axberg, "Tom Stanley sold Tom Stanley."

His wife worshipped him, his four children were in awe of him, and for 30 years he seemed invincible, but for the three open-heart surgeries from which he recovered with Dick Cheney-like speed. In the mid-'80s, however, he stumbled hard, investing in his own project, squeezed mercilessly by the real estate crunch and the savings and loan debacle. He fought off his creditors until 1990, when he had little choice but to file bankruptcy.

The story of Tom Stanley is the story of the Texas rich, those can-do entrepreneurs who have so much confidence in their own abilities that they think they are above the laws of supply and demand. It's the story of a Dallas society that allows entry based on merit as well as name, where new money can buy the same access to privilege as old. It's the story of the bitter dysfunction in the family of a man as he completes the circle of his life from rags to riches to rags again.

The way Lillian tells it, she and her husband had downsized their lives so completely by 1994 that their eldest daughter, Jill, stored most of her parents' possessions--furniture, antiques, paintings--in a warehouse maintained by her husband, Larry Meletio, a businessman and sometime musician. Along with other items removed from their home, this property, allegedly worth more than $1 million and constituting her most precious memories, somehow found its way into the Meletios' North Dallas home.

When Jill came to visit her ailing father at the hospital, Lillian says she noticed her daughter wearing the diamond wedding ring Lillian had inherited from her mother. "When this is over, I'm going to get our things back," she told Jill, though not nearly as firmly as the demand she would make in the lawsuit she filed after her husband's death.

Through their lawyer, Jill and Larry Meletio have declined to comment for this story because of the pending litigation, believing that it would be "extremely unfair and harmful" to their "due process rights" if the Dallas Observer published an article prior to a judge or jury reaching a decision. In court records and depositions, however, both have adamantly denied Lillian's allegations, claiming among other things that Jill purchased the property from her sister Mamie Stanley, a recovering heroin addict who lived with her parents when she wasn't in prison.

Gracious to a fault, Lillian was never one to make a scene, and certainly not at a hospital. With Tom so weak, her only concern was to make his final moments as comfortable as possible. To that end, she asked Jill if she would bring to the hospital the model of the Napoleonic coach Tom had built as a boy. It was the first prize he had ever won, the first time anyone had publicly acknowledged him as an artist and part of the property Jill had allegedly moved into her home.

"I said, 'Do me a favor,'" claims Lillian. "'Bring Daddy's coach so he can see it one more time.'" But Jill insisted it was too fragile and instead brought a photograph of it, which was buried with Tom Stanley when he died January 23.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald