The year-end acknowledgement of “notable passings” is an annual news rite, one which serves to remind readers of San Antonians whose contributions to life in the city often outlive their time among us.
As this new year begins, we should put the more than 1,500 mostly unknown citizens who died from COVID-19 at the front of our thoughts and prayers. Most will be remembered as anonymous victims of a terrible pandemic that knows no calendar boundaries.
One reader last week posted a comment on my pandemic-related column asking the San Antonio Report staff to profile every single victim of the virus, including how and where they were exposed to the virus. Editors wish such individual remembrances were within our grasp.
The publicly available information about those 1,500 people lost to the virus in 2020 is scant at best. Sometimes local officials disclose the approximate age, gender, ethnicity or race, but little else. We know how many seriously ill people are hospitalized, and we often know that someone lived in a senior care community.
We scan paid obituaries posted by local funeral homes, and though we suspect the cause of death, it is often omitted. Some grieving families want people to know about the dangers of the virus and the importance of using masks and observing social distance protocols. Others, however, do not want people to know a loved one was a victim of the coronavirus.
I wish we could offer readers a moving portrait of each San Antonian who is no longer with us because of the pandemic. Such stories could serve to temper the irresponsible behavior of people who show too little regard for the well-being of others around them.
Privacy laws limit what hospitals and local authorities disclose. Texas imposes restrictions on public and media access to death records. One unintended result is that people become numbers, and readers become numb to numbers. It’s no longer neighbors, seniors, co-workers, and health care workers who are dying. It’s just another set of numbers, one day’s numbers quickly replaced by the next day’s numbers.
Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy good health and stable lives move on, working remotely, taking precautions, guarding our elderly, lamenting the loss of favorite neighborhood restaurants and other locally owned small businesses, fatigued by national politics, and waiting for our turn to line up for vaccinations.
This new year brings hope, but winter also offers time to reflect and elegize those we will never know, and so I find myself turning to poetry to memorialize the departed.
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,” wrote W.H. Auden in the opening line of his 1936 poem, Funeral Blues. There are other elegies worth reading again now. Poetry in such moments cuts deeper than prose.
We cannot let the daily drumbeat of numbers dull our senses to the human toll, which will only mount in the first months of a new year. A new year, a new president, and new vaccines will be no comfort for the sick and their families this winter.
We also should pause in remembrance of more familiar figures who died in 2020, individuals who will live on in our memories. I name but a few here and welcome readers posting the names of others who deserve a place in this procession.
The year began with the death of Jefferson High School alumnus Jim Lehrer, one of the most respected and influential journalists of his time who often had a word of encouragement for me through the decades I was honored to know him. Lehrer nursed boyhood dreams of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was headed to the New York Yankees. We both ended up where we belonged after early starts in blue-collar jobs.
I last heard Lehrer’s famous re-creation of his Trailways bus station ticket agent public address announcements at a dinner honoring him at Southern Methodist University in 2019. Listen here.
Jack Richmond was a successful Pizza Hut franchise owner, but he was better known for his family’s philanthropy honoring the memory of their lost son Wade, a Lee High School student. Richmond felt passed over for a promotion at the Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. in his home state of Kansas. He came to San Antonio in 1968 when Hemisfair opened and bought into a new pizza franchise concept. In the ensuing years, he built the business into 34 Pizza Huts, the profits benefiting many local nonprofits.
Another Midwestern transplant, Ron Calgaard, transformed Trinity University into a nationally recognized small liberal arts school and became its longest-serving president over 20 years. “Visionary” is a word most often cited in people’s recollection of Calgaard, along with his academic ambitions for Trinity, his formidable fundraising, and his considered wisdom. On more than one occasion I invited myself to interviews with Calgaard for no particular purpose other than to take in his deeply informed perspective on the city and world.
Bartell Zachry, the scion of an international engineering and construction powerhouse who quietly served for decades as a sought-after community leader, was one of the most publicity-adverse figures I have known in San Antonio. The Zachry family has built embassies, nuclear plants, and countless other major public works and private developments around the world. Both the businesses and the family foundations operate quietly in contrast to their impact. Zachry’s impact on public education, from pre-K to his beloved Texas A&M University, is a big part of his legacy.
Few readers will recognize the name of Albert Castillo, a retired San Antonio police officer who served as the driver and private security officer for 10 mayors, starting with Henry Cisneros (1981-89) and continuing through his service for Ron Nirenberg. Castillo was a quiet and discreet presence, always in the background, but he had a good memory for the many people he met and and a welcome sense of humor.
The Rev. Louis Zbinden served as pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church downtown for more than 30 years and was an early advocate for the homeless, even welcoming individuals into his family’s home for food and shelter. He played critical roles in founding the Christian Assistance Ministry, the San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry (now SAMMinistries), the Samaritan Counseling Center, the Christian Dental Clinic at Haven for Hope, and Bexar County Detention Ministries. Like other prominent spiritual leaders in San Antonio, Zbinden was ecumenical in his outreach, working with others of all faiths to accomplish his ambitious goals of serving the poor.
James Ward Gorman Jr., Jim to all who knew him, was a widely respected businessman and with Tena, his wife of 68 years, a widely admired philanthropist with many local causes that won their support. Gorman was a trained geologist who originally joined his father’s oil business, the Gorman Drilling Co., after service in the U.S, Air Force during the Korean War. After a severe downturn in the 1960s, Gorman moved to New York City and became a licensed securities broker on Wall Street. He and his family later returned to San Antonio, where he established Gorman Enterprises with investments in energy, banking, ranching, and real estate.
If there was singular focus for the Gorman philanthropy it was with the biosciences, research, and medicine. Gorman was the longest-serving trustee of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, a longtime trustee at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, and he served on numerous hospital boards. He was a co-founder of the Cancer Therapy and Research Center.
Peggy Pitman Mays was the matriarch of one of San Antonio’s most philanthropic families, so it came as no great surprise last week when the Mays Family Foundation and the Hemisfair Conservancy issued a joint statement Thursday announcing the foundation’s $1 million gift to create the Peggy Mays Garden along East Nueva Street in the park between the future Civic Park and Yanaguana Garden.
“My mother was devoted to adding beauty and improving life for all San Antonians,” Kathy Mays Johnson said, recalling childhood trips to Hemisfair with her mother. “Our family cannot think of a better way to honor her than with these exquisite gardens at Hemisfair that everyone can enjoy for generations.”
The gift is the largest in the history of the conservancy.
Not all the notable passings were of people known citywide, but S.T. Shimi was deeply appreciated in her Southtown community and beyond for her work as an artist, performer, teacher, and neighborhood activist. She was a model citizen who proved that neither wealth nor political power is essential to leading a purpose-driven life and having a positive impact beyond our own immediate circle of family and friends. Shimi walked everywhere, and it was as a pedestrian exiting a bus on a public street that she lost her life after being struck by another vehicle. It was one more senseless loss of life in a year defined by loss.