Bartell Zachry, the scion of an international engineering and construction powerhouse who quietly served for decades as a sought-after community leader, died Wednesday at the age of 86 after a long battle with multiple system atrophy, surrounded by Mollie Steves Zachry, his wife of 60 years, his four children, and numerous other family members.

H.B. “Bartell” Zachry Jr., well known in business and civic circles around the state and beyond, kept a low profile locally. He never sought press coverage for himself or his business interests and was content to let the family’s philanthropy speak for itself without press releases or much fanfare. In 2015, he gave Texas A&M University, where he graduated as a civil engineer in 1954, a $25 million gift for a new civil engineering building that bears the Zachry name.

“We have lost a giant: a businessman, civic leader, philanthropist, and a great Aggie,” said Elaine Mendoza, founder and CEO of Conceptual MindWorks in San Antonio and the current chair of the Texas A&M board of regents. “He cared, he acted, he gave. Bartell was thoughtful in his deliberations as he listened patiently to others and then shepherded a consensus to move a group forward to do what was best to meet the mission of whatever the group was working towards. He led with his heart and selflessly gave his time to serve. Bartell is certainly one to emulate – a tall order indeed.”

Zachry was press-shy, but he did record an oral history interview with UTSA in 1994. He was otherwise content to focus on family, and pursue his love of the outdoors at gatherings in the Hill Country. He enjoyed flying kites and spending time with grandchildren.

News of his death Wednesday quickly spread among San Antonio’s leadership community.

“Bartell Zachry Jr. lived a life of purpose, achievement, and kindness,” said former Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. “He was an extremely accomplished businessman who shared his success and his gift for leadership with organizations doing great and important work across Texas. He was especially one of our state’s strongest advocates for education, from pre-K through higher ed and especially his beloved Texas A&M.”

Straus said every leadership discussion of looming local issues inevitably led someone to ask, “What does Bartell think?”

“I’ve known three generations of the Zachry family, and each one has been marked by business success and outstanding community leadership,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “I remember talking to Pat when we still had our building materials business, and then we watched Bartell take Zachry to whole new level. Now, John and David have their companies. They built the Museum Reach and the Paul Elizondo Tower where we at the county have our offices.”

“Maroon blood runs in the Zachry family,” said Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp. “I thought his father Pat was impressive when I first met him, but then along came Bartell, who was a quiet man yet an amazing force. Later, John and David followed, and both are active as leaders in the Texas A&M community. The university has never had a more loyal family than the Zachry family. A big tree has fallen in San Antonio. It’s hard to believe he is gone.”

Zachry’s public service and philanthropy benefited dozens of San Antonio organizations and groups. He served as chairman of the board of directors of the Southwest Research Institute, the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, the Alamo Heights Independent School District, the Texas Military Institute, United Way of San Antonio, Mayor Phil Hardberger’s P-16 Education initiative, and helped lead the 2003-05 $14 million capital campaign at the Children’s Shelter of San Antonio.

Zachry was given the International Citizen of the Year Award by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio in 1989. He served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, and as a distinguished alumnus and trustee at Texas A&M, and was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 2000.

“I’ve always considered Bartell the prince of the business community. His deep interest in San Antonio and his abiding interest in our children’s education, combined with his willingness to give freely of his time made an emotional connection that is lasting,” said Phil Hardberger, who served as San Antonio mayor from 2005-09. “When I was mayor, I asked for volunteers to go door-to-door to talk to kids that had dropped out of school, to get them enrolled again. Bartell was the first to show up. He worked all day, going from door to door on a hot July day, sweat dripping, alone, knocking on doors and talking to these students – no press, no advance people – just Bartell and a bunch of poor kids. His businesses spanned the globe with 20,000 or so employees worked for him, but that is how Bartell spent the day, talking to students who had lost their way.”

For more than 50 years, Zachry was the leader of the H.B. Zachry Company, founded in 1924 in Laredo by his father H.B. “Pat” Zachry Sr., who died in 1984. The company grew from its humble beginnings on the Texas-Mexico border to a San Antonio-based engineering and construction company that undertook and completed projects around the world. The company’s projects have ranged from U.S. embassies to interstate highways to nuclear power facilities and the Alaskan Pipeline.

Zachry Jr. took the reins of the company as president in 1964, seven years after he joined the company upon completion of four years of service as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. His early assignments took the Zachrys to life and work in Hawaii and the jungles of Peru. For all the company’s international projects, however, the Zachry name became synonymous in San Antonio with the construction of the Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel in a record 220 days in time for the opening of HemisFair ’68.

The River Walk project was the first to be built using modular room units hoisted into place complete with interior furnishings and finishes. Zachry was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers for the project, which gave him its annual Engineer of the Year Award.

The H.B. Zachry Company lifts modular rooms into place at the Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel: (from left) Bartell Zachry, Mollie Zachry, and Tom Powell. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections – Zintgraff Studio Photographic Collection

In 2008, Zachry oversaw the reorganization of the Zachry Company, handing over the leadership to his two sons, John and David. Zachry Corp., where David Zachry serves as chairman and CEO, handles civil engineering and and construction projects. The company is leading the development and construction of a hotel, office tower, and multi-family residential complex at Hemisfair.

Zachry Corp. retains ownership of the Hilton Palacio del Rio and the Tower Life building, among other properties and businesses.

John Zachry serves as chairman and CEO of Zachry Group, which oversees major industrial engineering and maintenance projects in the energy generation and petrochemical industries.

The family established the Bartell Zachry Memorial Endowment for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases, a permanent endowment at UT Health San Antonio. The family has asked that gifts in Bartell’s memory be directed to the endowment, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive, Mail Code 7835, San Antonio, Texas 78229-3900.

“I think much of what animated Bartell was a natural curiosity about why things are the way they are. That curiosity and his analytical approach to complex problem-solving were components of a formidable intellect,” said Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio. “When I would mention, even casually, a scientific problem currently under active investigation, Bartell would immediately engage and pepper me with multiple probing questions to get at the root cause of the issue. On another occasion, my wife Mary had just finished reading David McCullough’s epic story of building the Brooklyn Bridge [The Great Bridge] and she told Bartell about it. He devoured the book and then spent hours talking to Mary about the engineering marvel it was.

“You wouldn’t necessarily know about these qualities Bartell possessed if you did not know him well because he was so unfailingly modest, kind, and unpretentious. He demonstrated to me on numerous occasions his personal sincerity, generosity, warmth, and empathy. I know everyone who had the privilege of knowing Bartell Zachry was enriched and lifted by his friendship.”

Zachry is survived by his wife, Mollie; his son John and wife Laura; son David and wife Karen Lee; daughter Anne Rochelle and husband Jeff; daughter Ellen Carrie and husband Chris; and grandchildren Bart, Joe, and Will Zachry; Sam, Olivia, and Henry Zachry; David, Thomas, Mollie, Lindsey, and Sallie Rochelle; and John, Elizabeth, and Andrew Carrie. He is also survived by his sisters Mary Pat Stumberg and Suzanne Word, and his brother Jim Zachry and his wife, Nancy, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.

A private memorial service will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for family members only. Due to the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus, funeral services will be recorded and available for the public to view on June 11, after 4 p.m., on the Porter Loring Mortuaries website.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.