Bexar County said goodbye to one of its critical founts of historic and institutional knowledge when Betty Bueché retired last week.
Bueché, the county’s Heritage & Parks Department director when she retired Dec. 31, had been with Bexar County for more than 17 years. Her interest in historic preservation started when she lived in England with her father, who was in the Air Force and stationed there in the 1950s, about a decade after World War II ended.
“I was able to directly observe, as a child, a lot of destruction of buildings that had been demolished during blitzkriegs and bombing raids,” she said. “And I directly observed all of the societal changes and changes in values among countries in Europe as they continued to recover from World War II, making careful decisions about which parts of their heritage were essential and that they wanted to definitely retain.”
As the Heritage & Parks director, Bueché not only oversaw the maintenance and improvements of county parks but also spearheaded many projects celebrating Bexar County’s history, such as the Bexar Heritage Center. Without her, the Spanish colonial missions would not have received their UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2015, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and County Manager David Smith said.
“Because of her hard work, this community pretty much had everything in place ready to go and we were able to jump on it,” Smith said. “We became the nominee for the United States to UNESCO. And as you know, we got the nomination. Had she not been pushing that behind the scenes well in advance of that, that might not have happened.”
Bueché understood how complex the World Heritage recognition process was and jump-started the effort, Smith said. She even helped initiate an economic impact study — a step that was not previously required but was much appreciated by the selection committee, Bueché said.
That didn’t just make a difference in the county’s nomination, Bueché said — “it kind of set the standard.”
“The director-general Irina Bokova decided that was something she wanted to be able to look at as they consider other nominations going forward,” she said. “So UNESCO now collects data on visitors and economic impact, so that they can assess that aspect of it.”
Bueché studied biology and art at what is now the University of the Incarnate Word, which was called Incarnate Word College when she completed her undergraduate studies. Her first job took her into the Texas Parks and Wildlife system in 1975; Bueché became the first female park superintendent with the agency, overseeing Casa Navarro.
Two years later, Bueché was promoted to superintendent of Mission San José. When the National Park Service established the San Antonio Missions Historical Park in 1978, Bueché transitioned to work for the federal park service. During that time, she helped found Los Compadres, now known as Mission Heritage Partners, and ran the organization as executive director for three years.
Bueché later left the parks world behind and began working as a manager for her father’s wholesale trophy parts business, Awardsmith, in the late 1980s.
“Both of my kids were going into college, so I had to give up my nonprofit way of life to make sure that they had what they needed,” she said.
She found her way back to school herself in 1994, enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin to get a master’s degree in architecture. After graduating in 1997, Bueché worked as an architect for Denver-based company RNL Design for a few years before returning to San Antonio to join local firm 3D International. While she was there, she took on Bexar County as a client and in 2004, Bueché began working as the county’s infrastructure services manager.
“It was kind of a natural transition,” she said.
The infrastructure services department later was dissolved, and Bueché became the county’s director of facilities, overseeing building projects such as the Paul Elizondo Tower and the Bexar County Courthouse restoration. When the World Heritage process began, the county created the Heritage & Parks Department, with Bueché at the helm. Since then, she’s been integral to projects such as the ongoing San Pedro Creek Culture Park, helping to develop an interpretative plan for the park that keeps the history embedded in the project, Smith said.
Bueché also came to the table with innovative ideas, Wolff said.
“We had an opera at the launching of the grand opening of the first section of the San Pedro Creek park,” he said. “We had an outdoor opera and it was specially written for the creek.”
Some of Bueché’s impact on the county showed in less flashy ways, Bexar County Parks Manager Ken McGlamery said. During a federal government shutdown that began in December 2018, Bueché worked with the National Park Service to let county workers clean the bathrooms at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and thus keep the park open.
Bueché also revealed to McGlamery pieces of Texas history that he hadn’t previously known. Her knowledge of Bexar County history is unmatched, he said.
“This area is just full of history,” he said. “If I could pick a perfect job for Betty after retirement, I envision her in some old western garb with a six-shooter in a leather holster, sitting around a campfire telling stories about the history of the area, kind of leaning on her cane and everybody having an intent ear to what she’s saying. She just knows so much about the area.”
Smith also credits Bueché for teaching him about chapters of Bexar County history, like the Battle of Medina.
“I’m interested and fascinated by history and how it goes through the present and even into the future,” he said. “And having been able to work with Betty for these years has been enlightening and illuminating. I love being around people who are passionate about it.”
Smith hopes to keep working with her even after retirement.
“We haven’t exactly worked out all the details, but I do want to keep her around in a consulting capacity for projects like for the interpretive plan for San Pedro Creek,” he said. “It would be hard to replace her knowledge of the history of this whole community, really. That would be very hard to replace.”
For now, the 72-year-old Bueché wants to spend more time with her two children and four grandchildren, who range in age from 10 to 16.
She’s not worried about her department, as she prepared staff to take over functions she used to oversee.
“They’re really great and dressed and ready to play,” Bueché said. “They’re a great team, that’s for sure.”
Smith said he’s looking at potential replacements for Bueché, whom he described as an exceptional leader and champion for local history during her time with Bexar County.
“It was just a well-timed and -placed coincidence of Bexar County history that no one is going to know, because we’re bureaucrats,” he said. “But having the right person at the right job with the right skill set sometimes can make a big generational difference.”