Bob Lanier is often described as the quintessential Texas millionaire and good ole boy who had a vision for Houston. But that’s the image of Lanier in his later years. Growing up in the tiny town of Pelle, which later merged into Baytown, Lanier was poor and lived among folks whose greatest aspiration was to work at the refinery. It was a job Lanier never wanted for himself.
Lanier tells his story as part of the Houston Public Library’s Oral History Project in 2008.
“I didn’t think I could keep a job there. I thought you had to do routine work and keep your mind on it and I was kind of a dreamer.”
So Lanier sent off to the Labor Department for an aptitude test.
“The careers that they said I was fitted for would either be a writer or a lawyer. And that made sense to me because I liked both the way people thought about the law, and I loved literature.”
Lanier became both. He got a job as a cub reporter and office boy at the Baytown Sun. It paid $9 a week. Then he served in the Navy during WWII, killed roaches for a pest control company, graduated from law school and eventually got into real estate development.
“I made enough money where I bought me my brick house and joined the country club and got 50-yard-line seats and T-bone steaks and thought well life is good.”
Houston Developer Ed Wulfe knew Lanier well.
“Well he is, was a bold, imaginative and very astute businessman, politician and leader,” Wulfe says.
Lanier served as mayor from 1992 to 1998. During that time, one of Lanier’s major accomplishments was the creation of tax-increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZ’s. Wulfe says the idea transformed Houston’s landscape and turned parts of town that were considered eyesores into some of today’s most popular and expensive neighborhoods.
“Midtown, Uptown and all of the improvements all over the city came about because of his foresight and imaginative creation and formulation of these TIRZ’s,” Wulfe says.
Houston Public Media’s Paul Pendergraft was a reporter covering city hall during the Lanier Administration. He says Mayor Bob, as he was affectionately known, was a voracious reader, a brilliant numbers man and usually the smartest guy in the room.
“When you left a meeting with him, you realized you had just encountered a force of nature, an intellect that very few mayors ever brought to that office,” Pendergraft says.
Lanier is also credited with the transformation of the Houston Police Department. Houston Councilmember and former Police Chief Brad Bradford says when Lanier took office there were just 3,900 officers on the force.
“We had a serious gang problem in our city, we had a homicide level that was almost unconscionable and the resources were pretty much depleted in the police department,” Bradford says.
After six years in office, Lanier had more than 5,000 officers in HPD and the number of major crimes was down by 40,000 a year. Bradford says Lanier encouraged his staff to plan for the future of the city.
“Are we doing things today that would lead to the type of Houston that we would want to live in tomorrow. And we are reaping the benefits of that type of thinking today.”
Bradford says it was a great honor to work for Lanier and calls his passing the end of an era for Houston.
Lanier is survived by his wife, Elyse, seven children and eleven grandchildren.