Partners to Corporate Giants: Three wives of powerful movers and shakers tell how they supported their husbands

A leader in her own right

She may be a friend of presidents and a big-league philanthropist, but Peggy Mays in person comes across as a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact kind of woman — a true Texas gal who loves the land and the outdoors. When we meet to talk about her life, one of the first things she does is show us picture albums from a recent safari in Africa. She and her husband, Lowry, the chairman of Clear Channel Communications, enjoy hunting, she explains, but this particular safari was special because three of their grandsons took the trip with them. “This time we were observers,” she notes. “The boys did the hunting.”

Back in 2003, however, Peggy shot a leopard, and Lowry got a black-mane lion, which now sits in all its leonine glory in their living room. You can’t help being startled when you first walk in — he looks so real and alive. As we leaf through the albums, Peggy comments on the criticism leveled at hunters by people who, in her opinion, do not understand the broader picture. “A lot of people feel like you are being cruel to the animals,” she says. “They don’t realize that the hunter is really a conservationist. Hunters are the foremost advocates for the protection of the habitat of endangered species. And they are very selective when they shoot. They wouldn’t think of shooting a mother with her young, for instance. CAIt’s mostly older animals, with which nature would have taken its course anyway.”

When they can’t get to exotic locales, the Mays family enjoys the outdoors at their two ranches, one south and one north of San Antonio, where the grandchildren give names to deer and feed them favorite foods. Ranch life reminds Peggy of the way she grew up, tending animals and riding horses on a small family farm that has long since fallen victim to urban sprawl. “I really enjoy all of it, from planting flowers to hunting,” she says as I admire her lushly green and flower-bedecked atrium. In fact, the love of nature and outdoor sports brought her and Lowry together back in 1959 when friends arranged for them to meet during a waterskiing outing. At the time, Peggy was a teacher at her alma mater, Saint Mary’s Hall, while Lowry worked as a petroleum engineer for the Air Force. Three months later, he asked for her hand, but the marriage didn’t take place until more than a year later, partly because he had been transferred to Taiwan and partly because she wanted to enjoy her time in the limelight as the 1959 Fiesta Queen. (Married women could not be crowned.) Though the newlyweds were financially comfortable enough, they never dreamed back then that they would become one of the wealthiest and most influential Texas families. Over the years, however, while Peggy devoted herself to home and hearth, Lowry followed a career trajectory that took him from engineer and later investment banker to radio station owner and CEO of a media conglomerate.

The move that changed the Mays’ life was Lowry’s 1972 decision to borrow funds to purchase KEEZ-FM radio with the help of his business partner, Red McCombs. It had seemed like a reasonable investment. Thirty-five years later, Clear Channel owns more than 1,100 radio stations, 40 TV stations and hundreds of thousands of outdoor advertising displays. Under Lowry Mays’ leadership, the company has established a presence in 65 countries, employing some 30,000 people. Today, though Lowry, who suffered a stroke three years ago, remains as chairman of the board, the daily operations of the business are overseen by the Mays’ sons, Mark and Randall.

Peggy is quick to affirm that she has had nothing to do with the success of the company.

“I worked in the PTA or in other community work related to children, such as Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts,” she says. “Because of my love for the arts, I’ve been involved with the McNay for a long time. I established the docent program there in the ’60s, which brought a lot of children to the museum. That was the teacher in me. I was always thinking of the children.” As her own four kids grew up, her activities expanded. Today she serves on the boards of both the McNay and the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), where she recently spent five years overseeing the building of the Asian Art Wing, one of the most significant developments not only for San Antonio but for Texas as a whole. It required tremendous commitment on her part, working hand-in-hand with the then-newly hired curator, Martha Blackwelder. “Peggy put enormous amounts of energy into it,” says SAMA’s director, Marion Oettinger. “She worked closely with the curator and the development staff and became an advocate for the project. And for the opening, she really took that on as a challenge and made it one of the great events in San Antonio. Peggy knows what she wants and how to put together all the parts to achieve the goals that she sets.”

Now that the beautiful 15,000-square-foot Asian Wing is up and running, SAMA is setting its sights on new horizons, such as the San Antonio River Improvement Project, which by 2009 is projected to reach SAMA’s riverside property. In her new position as chair of strategic planning, Peggy is excited about the future. “It’s a magnificent development. It will bring a lot of people our way, and we need to be ready,” she says. It’s clear that she takes her board responsibilities very seriously and she confirms it by referring to her volunteer work for the museum as “almost like a job for me.” Besides “her job,” Peggy’s been active on many other fronts, as well. In 2003, the Junior League named her Volunteer Extraordinaire, and she has also served over the years on the boards of the San Antonio Botanical Center, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, the Southwest Foundation Forum and the Charity Ball Association. In addition, she held a number of challenging positions on the Cancer Therapy and Research Center’s Board of Governors, where she launched several new initiatives.CABoth she and her husband have had brushes with cancer — he with lymphoma, she with endometrial cancer — so helping CTRC was deeply meaningful to her.

Peggy works with an assistant out of an upstairs office in her house. Though she has an interior design degree, she claims no credit for the d8Ecor of her home of 10 years. She used her skills, however, to decorate the Clear Channel offices and has done some work at the Wildflower Center in Austin. The house is spacious and comfortable but not nearly as grand as you might expect. Wallowing in luxury is clearly not her style. Yet she is in the position to help whichever cause or project she chooses. How did she feel the day she realized she had become, well, rich? “I still don’t feel that way,” she says. “My father always gave me an allowance, and I had to account for every dollar. That shaped my attitude toward money. When Lowry bought his first station, he had to borrow money to do it and he needed a partner, too. We are very conservative (with money). But we have established the Mays Family Foundation as a vehicle through which we can share our good fortune with the rest of Bexar County. And I am the foundation’s chair.” She also credits those early life teachings for the success of her enduring marriage: “In the seventh grade we had a Bible class. Every morning in my (Episcopal) school we had a church service for 15 minutes. This religious underpinning certainly helped. Most of us in our day took marriage commitment seriously. But we also have a lot in common. We complemented each other in raising our children, and now we take a great deal of interest in our 16 grandchildren. And we have both been involved in the community.”

When we meet the second time, there’s a lot of new stuff to talk about and new pictures to look at. Saint Mary’s Hall had just named Peggy the Distinguished Alumna of the Year, so we spend a little time looking at photos from the ceremony. Fellow alumna Molly Zachry, her friend of 50 years, provided the introduction. The day before, Peggy had also successfully conducted a strategic planning retreat for SAMA board members. The girl who once was the student council president at Saint Mary’s has clearly established herself as a grown-up leader in her own right. SAMA’s new slogan is “Ready for the River!” she tells us. Peggy Mays certainly appears to be ready “for the river” and whatever new challenges the future may bring.

Generous and involved

“My husband and I are both collectors,” explains Charline McCombs when we compliment her on the décor of her home. “It’s a matter of finding space for everything.”

Though parts of B. J. “Red” McCombs’ famed Americana collection are now located in his office building and also at Southwestern University in Georgetown, the McCombs’ house is nevertheless almost a mini-museum of artifacts, from Japanese antique ivory sculptures to old silver and Western-themed paintings. The small-scale ivory sculptures are especially enchanting, with their graceful lines and delicate, chiseled carvings. Charline draws my attention to an unusual one featuring multiple figures, an exquisite little gazebo and, on one side, a man holding a horse. The sculpture tells a story, explains the mistress of the house. In the center we see a young warrior saying goodbye to his fianc8Ee just after asking her parents for her hand. From inside the gazebo, two small parental figures observe the emotional parting, while the young man’s horse stands ready on the other side to take him into battle — an old-fashioned love story preserved for eternity in smooth, elegant ivory. Charline’s own love story started after her “warrior” returned home from the Army to spend some time in Corpus Christi, where his family had relocated from Spur years before. As fate would have it, she and Red met one day in 1948 while waiting in the registration line at the Del Mar Junior College in Corpus. It was not love at first sight, though. Not for her, anyway. “It took a while. We became friends first,” she says. “But by the end of that year we were seeing each other regularly.”

They married in 1950; she was 22, he 23. That night, Red spoke at length to his bride in the car on their way to San Antonio. As Charline recalled years later, he said, “I don’t know what life holds for us, but it’s going to be great. Someday I may come home and tell you we’re going to South America, and I expect you to be supportive.’ I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to South America.'” The above quote can be found in Red McCombs’ 2002 autobiographical book, Red Zone: Cars, Cows and Coaches, where the self-made billionaire known for his deal making also wrote, “I’ve always said that, from the day I realized I was a salesman, I have signed only one lifetime contract, and that was with Charline.” At the time of their wedding, Red was working for a local Ford dealer in Corpus, progressing quickly into management and, at age 25, to ownership of his own dealership. His fortunes continued to improve after the couple and their three daughters moved to San Antonio in 1958, eventually leading him to diversify into cattle, energy, investments, real estate and sports. And turning him into a Texas living legend in the process.

In the early years, Charline stayed out of her husband’s business. “When I was in my 20s, I was only concerned with making a home for my family and with my children’s happiness,” she says. “Our marriage grew and was successful, and that’s what mattered to me. I’ve never really analyzed why. It’s an ongoing thing with us — supporting each other. There have been things he’s done over the years, risks he’s taken that would make some people quiver, but I always said, ‘You want to do it, go ahead.’ I let him make all the decisions in the business world, and he lets me make all the decisions at home.” She also points out that she and Red have complementary personalities. While she describes herself as calm and low-key, she says he is “totally opposite,” which probably also contributed to their lifelong compatibility. Only reluctantly would she admit to one painful challenge. At 48, Red became seriously ill with hepatitis, aggravated by his then-heavy drinking. Though he himself has described his past problems with alcohol in his book, Charline is clearly uncomfortable with this subject. Instead, she emphasizes her great admiration for her husband, who is “always generous,” always “sees the big picture.” That generosity is something she fully supports. Though never a front-line community leader, Charline believes in giving and has over the years been involved in a number of causes, both with her husband and alone. She’s especially proud of her work for the United Negro College Fund; the scholarship for minority women she established on her 70th birthday at her alma mater, Southwestern University; and her participation in the restoration of the Majestic and Empire Theaters in downtown San Antonio. The latter, in fact, bears her name. “That was humbling. I don’t like to make a fuss about myself,” she says, true to her ladylike upbringing.

But her face lights up when she speaks of her recent involvement with the San Antonio Area Girl Scouts of America. As a girl, she had been one of them, as were all her daughters. As “a very interested participant,” Charline worked for two years on the first-ever capital campaign fund drive for the group and now speaks in terms of “we” as she describes the new building “that we are moving into as we speak” and the green space “we acquired” for outdoor activities. “I didn’t realize before I became involved that Girls Scouts is so much more today than when I was one. The organization offers after-school programs, they help inner city girls, they touch so many lives,” she says. “What impressed me the most is that girls are now taught leadership skills and self-confidence. It’s amazing what they get from scouting.” For her service and philanthropic efforts, Charline has received multiple awards from organizations as different as the UT School of Architecture and Design and the American Heart Association. On Jan. 22 she will be the honoree at the Rodeo Association’s third annual “Cowgirls Live Forever” luncheon and fashion show, an event that raises money for scholarships. However, that’s an honor she deserves in more ways than one. She actually is a cowgirl who, with Red, raises cattle on their ranch near Johnson City, in addition to zebras, buffalo, elk, antelopes and other, more exotic animals. Another of Red’s business ventures that she took to was sports. As he bought and sold several teams over the years, including the Spurs, she became a fan and a friend of many of the players and their wives. “We were very much an involved and hands-on couple when it came to the team,” wrote Red.

Together, the McCombs have donated large sums of money to the community, most notably $50 million to the UT Business School that Red had attended as a young man (but dropped out of to make money) and $30 million to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where their daughter Marsha was treated and where Red serves on the Board of Visitors. They have also had a long-term supportive affiliation with Southwestern University, which both attended for a while but not at the same time. Charline insists, however, that she is essentially a private person whose main interest remains the family, which today includes eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Asked what she is looking forward to, she considers the question for a moment then shrugs, saying simply: “I look forward to a whole new year. I love life. I enjoy living every day.”

Anchor of the family

When Linda Whitacre faxed me her biographical data, two things about them struck me. The list was very short — about 10 lines — and in it she had written that after marrying Edward Whitacre in 1964, she “began a career as a corporate wife, moving 19 times in 43 years.” CADuring that time, her husband rose from facility engineer at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in Lubbock to CEO and chairman of AT&T, the largest telecommunications company in the world. So the moment we are settled in her library for our interview, I ask Linda about all those moves. It must have been hell for her. “Oh, no,” she replies, “it was exciting. I was a good wife. Nowadays, wives say ‘no,’ but I never knew that was an option. Transfers meant promotions. That was just the way it was.” Raised in a middle-class Fort Worth neighborhood, Linda had enjoyed a stable life in a loving family throughout her youth, and she pretty much expected that she, too, would get married someday and settle in her hometown. But fate had other plans. While a student at Texas Tech, majoring in home economics, she found herself in need of a ride home at one point after a late final had detained her on campus longer than usual. Most kids had already left for the summer. So she started calling around for help. Eventually an engineering student named Ed Whitacre phoned. “I understand you are looking for a ride home,” he said.

“I was smitten right away,” says Linda. “I thought he was really cute. He came back later to drive me back to college, but I knew he had another girl at the time so I thought it was hopeless. I didn’t even see him for three months after that.” Their paths crossed again at a highway stop, and soon after, he called again, offering her yet another ride home. The old girlfriend was apparently forgotten. They were married a couple of months after his graduation and promptly moved to Dallas. To make ends meet, Ed had already taken a job with Southwestern Bell the summer after his junior year in college. By the time he graduated — the first in his family to do so — he was very much the company man. And Linda’s moving life had begun. “We first got a one-bedroom apartment in Dallas, but we stayed there for barely a year. When we moved into a two-bedroom in Mesquite, I thought I was coming up in the world,” she recalls with a chuckle. “For the first five years we moved a lot right in the Dallas area. In Tyler we bought our first house but stayed in it only three months before being transferred again.” Then came New Jersey and a non-air-conditioned apartment. By that time the Whitacres had two young daughters, one of whom had asthma and had to be hospitalized several times. Linda remembers leaving baby Jennifer with near-strangers in order to rush the older girl, Jessica, to the hospital in New York City. “Ed was traveling a lot at this time, and that was hard for me,” she admits. This was also the first time that she was far away from her family and friends. “I am basically a shy person, so making new friends was doubly difficult for me,” she says.

She found support with other Southwestern Bell families as the moves continued through Arkansas, Texas and Kansas. It got so that whenever Dad would greet the family with “Guess what?” their daughters would quip, “Where to now?” Life eventually became easier when they moved to the company’s headquarters in St. Louis. With the children now older, Linda started joining her husband on his travels to France, Italy and other places. Seeing Paris was a dream come true, she says, and the beautiful French capital remains her favorite city. Also, as her husband rose through the ranks, she began — shyly — to develop new interests. Though she had already volunteered for a cause back in Topeka, Kansas, it was during the seven years the family spent in St. Louis that she had a chance to really explore new things. Today, a bolder Linda is a member of a number of civic organizations and serves on the boards of the South Texas Blood and Tissue Foundation, the San Antonio Botanical Society and Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, as well as on the development board of the San Antonio Can High School. The latter is a charter school that gives a second chance to at-risk students who dropped out of school the first time around.

“It really struck a chord with me when I went to visit the place and saw what they were doing,” says Linda, a tall, elegant-looking woman with an easy, pleasant manner. She is equally enthusiastic about the developments at Texas Lutheran, which “became a passion for me.” There is a new growth and dynamism at the faith-based college that she wholeheartedly wants to support. In this case, she’s not just on the development committee, she is its chair. Has she overcome her previous shyness? “No, not entirely. I am not really a good fund-raiser. It’s hard for me to ask people for money,” she explains. “But I have grown. Maturity brings a degree of self-assurance. I have done things I never thought I would do. I’ve met heads of state and Hollywood stars, Nelson Mandela, three of our presidents, senators C9 but it’s still a fight for me. I am not a natural-born leader, but I can take direction and do a job.”

And a very good one, according to TLU’s VP of development, Betsy Clardy. “Linda has a global perspective about what’s best for the university. She sees not just one part but all that we need to do to make things better,” says Clardy, who works closely with the development committee. “She’s great to work with; so supportive of us.” Like Peggy Mays, Linda feels that wealth has not necessarily changed her. Yes, she knows she can go into a store and buy whatever attracts her attention, “but I am still concerned with prices. I don’t like to overpay. What’s been ingrained in you stays with you.” Then she reveals to us that her husband frequently buys her fancy clothes as gifts: “And he does pretty well.” Fitting her personality, she cites reading and spending time with her grandchildren as her favorite pastimes, while Ed prefers to fish, hunt and do outdoorsy things. Now that he is officially retired, both have had to adjust to different home rhythms, but she clearly relishes her home, vehemently refusing to downsize when he recently suggested it.

“I would like to have friends over more often now, a real social life that doesn’t revolve around the company,” she says, while giving us a little house tour. When we stop to chat in the sunroom — bursting with greenery basking in the autumn light — she confides that taking care of plants makes her feel close to her mom, who also loved and cultivated plants in her home. “I am content with my life,” she says, as if to conclude our discussion. “I never sought the limelight. It’s important to have an anchor for the family, and I think that’s been my role.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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