George Toomer: Dallas’ ‘Buffalo George’ was a social critic, top adman

06:56 AM CDT on Friday, July 17, 2009

By JOE SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News
George Toomer was born in Dallas, but he didn’t grow up, and his admirers are delighted he didn’t.
George Toomer  had a knack for turning a complex observation into a delightful morsel.

He was known internationally as Buffalo George, an award-winning adman, illustrator and social critic of everything from fast food to the city of Dallas. The origin of his nickname was obvious – wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts, he resembled a bison.

A working-class philosopher, he was a fast thinker who encouraged people to slow down; a deep thinker known for his instantaneous one-line quips.

Mr. Toomer, 66, died in his sleep Monday at his Dallas home.

Or, as he predicted the cause of his death in the advance obituary he wrote, knowing the day would one day come: “due to complications of doing all the wrong things, living too well and the addictive results of good cigars, pepperoni and sausage pizza and Häagen-Dazs Butter Pecan ice cream.”

An orphan, Mr. Toomer was raised by foster parents in Dallas, where he attended parochial school and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1961, “after a long battle” and “within 6th place of the bottom of the class.”

Mr. Toomer attended Allen Military Academy in Bryan, Texas, “which had little effect other than to give him a false sense of superiority that cost him eleven jobs between 1961 and 1968 (thinking weakens the team),” he wrote in his obit.

He possessed many gifts, including the ability to distill a complex observation into a delightful morsel.

His summary of his visit to the Soviet Union: “It’s just like Beverly Hills – no unemployment, clean, friendly.”

Mr. Toomer called himself “a minor celebrity in Dallas in the 1970s and ’80s” who appeared on 20/20, Real People, CBS’s morning news and five times on the Today show. He had his own segment show on Baltimore’s Channel 13 for three years and appeared in Dallas on WFAA-TV’s PM Magazine as a social critic and restaurant specialist.

Early in his career, Mr. Toomer was an organizer for the junior chamber of commerce and a vice president with an advertising firm by the time he was 26, but couldn’t quite figure out the authority thing – he was fired 11 times in seven years.

As an adman, Mr. Toomer created the Frito Bandito character.

“I never got the straight story on that,” said his son, George Toomer Jr. of Dallas.

Mr. Toomer liked to say that he had told the Frito Bandito story so many times “he had forgotten the truth,” his son said.

Mr. Toomer later contributed to restaurant marketing and/or theme concepts for Dick’s Last Resort, Joey Tomato’s, Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe and Bone Daddy’s.

In the draft of his obituary, he noted that he also packaged and marketed notable clients from rock stars to wrestlers “and endless crap that became popular.”

Longtime friend Alex Burton said Mr. Toomer once rejected an advertising project that one of his employees had sold to a potential client because it wouldn’t be fun.

“George said, ‘Yeah, we’ll make money on this, but it won’t be any fun,’ ” Mr. Burton said.

On another occasion, Mr. Toomer fired a client, turning away business.

“The guy said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and George said, ‘I just did,’ ” Mr. Burton said.

In 1968, he turned entrepreneur and founded Image Group Studios, a Dallas marketing-advertising-design firm, where he was “owner and janitor.”

He received more than 200 advertising awards, including the coveted Addy and the Lifetime Achievement Golden Egg Award from the Dallas Society of Visual Communications.

He authored three books and wrote columns, articles and opinion pieces for publications including The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald, The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and People magazine.

In the 1990s, he focused on drawing illustrations, which graced the issues of the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Time, to name a few.

In a 1984 column for The News, Mr. Toomer wrote that he often drove a 1940 Cadillac “to slow me down so I can get in touch with what’s going on around me.”

“There is no way I can agree to be on the other side of town in 15 minutes, something that is easy with my newer car,” he wrote. “I can’t race to beat the signal light; I can’t whip in and out of freeway traffic.”

While Mr. Toomer was known for his public persona as tough and cynical, he was a kind man, said longtime friend Judith Garrett Segura of Dallas.

“He was a very generous person, never wealthy, but had a tender spot for a sob story,” Ms. Garrett Segura said. “There were a great many people who would turn to George for advice, or counseling or help. He would help them get by, whatever it took.”

Mr. Toomer was cremated, but had he chosen to be buried, he wanted his tombstone to read, “I finally found a diet that works!”

Friends are planning a celebration of his life but have yet to set a date.

In addition to his son, Mr. Toomer is survived by a sister, Renee Barnett of Ravenna, Texas.


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