Friday, February 7, 2014

Bill Sinkin in One Word | Last Word

The first time I met Bill Sinkin he made me very unhappy.

It was late 1966 or early 1967 and I was editor of the student newspaper at St. Mary’s University.

The newspaper had a tradition of staging a public debate once a year in the ballroom of a downtown hotel.

Sinkin, who was president of the nonprofit corporation that was preparing to put on HemisFair in 1968, had agreed to debate County Commissioner Albert Pena.

The topic: “Resolved: HemisFair is good for San Antonio.”

At the time, all city council members were elected city-wide and all members of the Bexar County legislative delegation were elected county-wide.

Pena was the highest elected official chosen by San Antonio’s vast West and South Side barrio.

Owing nothing to the city’s business and political establishment, Pena was a constant thorn in their side.

What was his argument against HemisFair?

We didn’t get to hear it.

Shortly before the debate, Sinkin asked to meet and told me he had to back out.

I read between the lines.

Some of the power players on his board had gotten wind of the debate and were appalled that Sinkin would deign to give that radical a forum to oppose them.

I was annoyed to lose our debate, but I also had my first taste of Bill Sinkin.

He had actually welcomed the debate.

First, he was confident in his arguments.

Second, he respected Albert Pena.

Sinkin was not one to join protests. Bankers rarely are.

But he did as much as any high-profile activist to serve the underserved.

He did it through action, persuasion and just being so likeable that only the most cold-hearted could turn him away.

Tom Frost, San Antonio’s most prominent banker for many years, told the Express-News Sinkin was “my liberal mentor who could tell me what the other side was thinking.”

But Frost didn’t think of Sinkin as working for “the other side.”

“He worked for the entire community,” Frost said.

San Antonio’s business leaders were more graceful than those of many other cities in accepting the end of segregation.

Sinkin did more than accept it. He helped lead it.

He founded a bank to serve San Antonio’s South and East Sides.

Then he became the first banker to hire African-Americans for his staff and to put them on his board of directors.

Sinkin’s charm wasn’t limited to the public sphere.

On a business trip to New York in 1942, he met Fay on a blind date – and that night asked her to marry him.

At least as impressively, he persuaded her to move to what was then the very backward city of San Antonio.

She was appalled to pick up a menu at a hotel restaurant here and find a listing for “Wop Salad.”

Within five years she was president of the League of Women Voters.

One problem they focused on was a lack of sewers in poor neighborhoods.

They counted 25,000 outhouses.

She led a delegation to urge then-Mayor Alfred Callaghan to work for sewers and water lines for large areas of the Hispanic West Side and black East Side.

His response: “Why don’t you ladies go home and cook dinner for your husbands.”

Fay Sinkin said they did just that, “then we cooked his goose.”

Callaghan was a one-term mayor.

Bill Sinkin had an instinct for politics – even in love.

Fay would later become a leader in efforts to protect the Edwards Aquifer.

When Sinkin died this week, I was asked on a radio program to describe him.

It wasn’t hard.

He was a citizen.

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