We’re extremely blessed to have an active philanthropic community in San Antonio. Many of the institutions and partnerships we almost take for granted — the Southwest School of Art & Craft, strong Asian and Hispanic business and cultural relationships, the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Latin American Art Center, the Witte Museum Game Dinner and others — would not be possible without innovative, visionary and hard-working women who have given decades of time, money, effort and expertise to their causes.
Many of San Antonio’s greatest contributors still remain vital forces for change well into their 80s and 90s. Four of these women sat down with SAN ANTONIO WOMAN recently to discuss their accomplishments and offer advice and wisdom to the next generation.
Rosemary Kowalski, chairman emeritus of The RK Group catering and event empire, began her career in 1946 running Uncle Ben’s BBQ on North Zarzamora Street. The RK Group now employs more than 400 staff and oversees more than a dozen specialized businesses. Catering is a hard life, she says: “I tell people you need to be able to work 24/7. You might not actually work 24/7, but you need to be able to. If you want a 9 to 5, don’t go into the food business!”
She also feels that even over the past 60 years, the culinary world is still very much dominated by men. Times may have changed since Kowalski received sidelong glances for delivering food to events in a Chevy truck named Geronimo, but when she was awarded the prestigious Texas Business Hall of Fame award in 2004, she joined a roster primarily filled with men. Over her career she has served luminaries such as Pope John Paul II, Prince Charles, Billy Graham, Willie Nelson, Grace Kelly and endless politicians, movers and shakers. Kowalski has been named Entrepreneur of the Year and Restaurateur of the Year and been designated a Legend of Texas. Although it is difficult to choose, she feels her most significant professional accomplishment was being named a Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier — “I am so proud of that. I am the only Grande Dame in the state of Texas. I explain to people that Julia Child was also a Grande Dame.”
A San Antonio native, Kowalski has seen many changes to our city. Where once locals had simple tastes, their appetites have changed. Kowalski attributes a greater understanding and sense of adventure in food these days to cultural fusion, television food shows and cooking schools like the Culinary Institute of America. Kowalski has also witnessed the city’s growing diversity and integration. Now, Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and Anglos all work, play and live together. It wasn’t like that when she was growing up in San Antonio and attending Blessed Sacrament Academy. This suits a woman who has actively served in both Asian-American and Hispanic organizations just fine. Kowalski’s interest in Asian culture sprang from the Kumamoto sister city trip sponsored by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 1988. As a member of the trade delegation, she became close friends with several prominent San Antonians of Japanese descent and joined JASSA (the Japanese-American Society of San Antonio) because she was so impressed with the culture and the city’s growing relationships. Kowalski eventually served as JASSA’s president for four years and is currently vice president.
“JASSA is very diverse — it includes many non-Asians who just love Asian culture. It is very integrated,” Kowalski remarks. “JASSA has grown to encompass many young people who recognize the importance of Asian-American relations and become involved and learn new languages.” Kowalski is also deeply involved in the cause of Hispanic art. Her favorite local artist is Jesse Treviño. She founded the Amigos del Museo del Arte, served on the advisory board of the Centro Alameda Theatre Project and is currently involved with the Hispanic Heritage Center. Throughout the year she serves on an average of 12 or so art, business and education boards. “It gives me real enjoyment,” she says.
How does a woman her age find the energy? Kowalski says she stays young by working out three times a week with a personal trainer (coincidentally, she also gets her magnificent hair done three times a week, on opposite days). For the past seven years she has practiced oscogue, a type of training that involves a lot of stretching.
“I don’t drink wine, but I love tequila — the best quality,” she adds. She prefers it straight up, in a martini glass.
For all of us who love the calm, serene downtown space of the Southwest School of Art & Craft — who have eaten a sublime meal at Club Giraud, taken a life-changing art class, seen world-class exhibitions or attended a wedding in the Gothic chapel or historic gazebo — we have many thanks to give to Edith McAllister, one of the founding trustees. The school is clearly close to her heart but for a greater reason than locals may always see. “It has a double purpose,” she says. “It’s a very fine art school, but it is also the best-preserved intact evidence of the French influence in the state of Texas.” The Ursuline convent buildings are nationally important pieces of our architectural history and a beacon representing one of the six flags — French — that originally flew over Texas. “It’s vital we maintain this green space along the river, in the center of downtown,” she comments. McAllister has lived 82 of her 92 years in San Antonio but downplays the changes she’s seen compared to those who came before, particularly her father-in-law, former Mayor Walter McAllister: “When he was born in 1889, he was already a third-generation San Antonian. Imagine the changes HE saw in nearly 100 years!” She concedes that the population growth to the north has been amazing. “When we built UTSA on the north side, we received a lot of criticism for locating it ‘so far away.’ Now it is another heart of the city,” she says.
She spent 13 years co-chairing the development committee for UTSA and credits the university with changing the city’s demographics. “We wouldn’t have the college-educated population we have today without it,” she points out. She was also instrumental in developing the UT Health Science Center to provide world-class medical care for San Antonio’s citizens. In her early 90s, McAllister has swum laps for an hour every morning for the last 42 years. “It started out as vanity,” she laughs, “but I doubt I’d be able to walk if I hadn’t done it.” She doesn’t let anything interfere with her morning commitment, despite serving on roughly 20 boards throughout the city and running a household. “You have to exercise every day; otherwise you get too stiff,” she says.
Hopefully not too stiff to water ski, another of McAllister’s loves. Her family has spent summers in Port Aransas since after World War II, and she has decades of memories of water skiing, fishing and cooking out. Then, last October, a fire burned the family’s vacation home to the ground, and McAllister has been finding the time and energy to slowly rebuild it. “You have to ignore the fact that you’ve lost everything,” she remarks. “Remember, it’s just stuff.”
Naoko Shirane is best known for her instrumental role in bringing the Toyota plant to San Antonio, but her inspired connection of two very different cultures —Japanese and Hispanic — goes back much further. As early as 1985, then-Mayor Henry Cisneros wanted to build cultural and economic relations with Japan for future growth opportunities. Shirane and her late husband were living in Texas and, using her extensive contacts and diplomatic skills, helped a delegation from the San Antonio-Austin corridor plan a trip to Japan. During this important meeting, Shirane arranged introductions with Japan’s business and political leaders, including Mr. Toyoda, a relationship that has endured for decades. Shirane was also instrumental in developing the city’s sister city program with Kumamoto, Japan. In researching possibilities, she discovered that Kumamoto and San Antonio had a lot in common: Kumamoto was originally the most important city in the Kushu region, a position San Antonio held in Texas before the growth of Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Both cities had a strong military base but needed to diversify their economies.
“And we’re both dependent on aquifers,” she laughs. The Kumamoto prefecture already had a relationship with Montana, but, she adds drily, “they wanted a bit more exposure.” Handily, Shirane knew the governor of the region (who would later become prime minister of Japan) and was able to arrange an introduction for Mayor Cisneros at the end of 1987. “The end of the year in Japan is a time to clean, pay off debts, get ready for the new year,” she smiles, recalling the trip. When Cisneros arrived, everything was closed — there was nothing to see. What might have put a damper on the momentous occasion instead helped cement the budding relationship, and in the spring of 1988, the mayor of Kumamoto came to San Antonio to sign the sister city agreement. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” she suggests. Cisneros felt the relationship needed a solid basis of meaning, so he developed 14 points of discussion. The mayor of Kumamoto expanded until there were 23 distinct opportunities outlined for the two cultures to share and learn from each other. Since then, Shirane is proud to say San Antonio and Kumamoto have exchanged everything from zoo animals to streetcar names, from students to baseball teams.
The most significant change Shirane has witnessed in San Antonio over the past 20 years has been the city’s development as a truly international crossroads. Days before our interview she had led another group of Japanese business and cultural leaders through the city, including a Spurs game and a visit to the Missions. “The Japanese love coming here — San Antonio is a very friendly city,” she says. Shirane travels frequently between San Antonio, Houston and Japan. She’s used to it after spending years on the road living out of suitcases, originally with Up with People and then in her capacity with San Antonio. “It’s easy. Unless you have a lot of bags,” she laughs. When asked where she gets all of her energy, she replies, “I’m a workaholic!” She plays golf (often as part of business relationships), and while she has no children, is godmother to several children from her husband’s family in Japan.
Her role in shaping San Antonio’s diversity reflects a crucial philosophy for our future. She ends, “It is important to have a vision outside of yourself. The more San Antonio reaches out to the world, the more it will develop and grow.”
Deeply modest, Patsy Steves charmingly admits she would rather “be shot by a firing squad than a photographer, and take the witness stand than give an interview.” But she is ready to talk about the many causes that have inspired passion and enthusiasm for her over the years. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ve done everything — unless you’ve been a slugabed,” she laughs. Steves has been involved with many projects, yet insists her favorite is always the one right in front of her. Given the beautiful spring weather, her role as a founding trustee of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is top of mind. “This will be the best year for wildflowers in 30 years,” she says. “More than two years of drought have been hard to handle, but this year it will really pay off!”
Steves is much beloved in the local art community for her dedication to Latin American art and especially the Nelson Rockefeller Latin American Art Center at the San Antonio Museum of Art. She and her late husband were among those who gave the Urrutia Arch to the Museum.
Steves is the force to be reckoned with behind the Museum’s annual fund-raising holiday fair, Bazar Sábado. She spends the year traveling across the globe with friends choosing folk art and artifacts for later sale to help support the Latin American collection at SAMA. The Bazar is such an institution that it has outgrown its old space and will be held near the Museum’s lush new riverfront grounds this year. At her age, Steves is thinking more globally than ever. She was named International Citizen of the Year by the San Antonio World Affairs Council in 2001, an honor previously awarded to Naoko Shirane, Ed Whitacre, Governor Dolph Briscoe, Charles Butt and Lowry Mays. It rewards a mindset that is always reaching for a more perfect understanding and diversity. “I saw a bumper sticker that said ‘Visualize peace.’ That’s so difficult, to truly visualize what world peace would be like, even here in Texas,” she muses.
But her most important honor, personally, is maintaining an active role in the family business, Steves and Sons, a millwork company that has been in the family since 1866. After her husband died, her sons replaced his name on his office door with hers and asked her to come work for them. While she questioned at first if she could truly contribute, they insisted. She now works four full days a week at the office on Humble Avenue (a fitting address for Steves) with her children and grandchildren. At the plant, Steves loves the camaraderie and was initially surprised by the amount of knowledge she had picked up through sheer osmosis over the decades. Talking with her sons and husband about the business meant she knew all of their customers and products by heart before she began. A passionate spokesperson, she credits hard work and a low-cost product with keeping the business going even in the face of a recession and construction slowdowns.
Her volunteer work has probably helped her business acumen, especially at the Junior League: “I’ve done everything from selling shoes at the rummage sale to funding our first arts council. I’m proud to be a member of an organization known for its responsible, dependable young women.”
Steves keeps her longevity and energy secrets to herself, but they involve gracious humility, a healthy appreciation for life and a deep gratitude for all she has.