“You don’t look a day over 52,” he said to me with a purposeful wink.
Bill Sinkin, who celebrated his 100th birthday last night at the University of Incarnate Word‘s Rosenberg Skyroom, speaks barely above a whisper but his wit and passions are loud and clear – and have been for a majority of his century in San Antonio.
For the record: I’m 27 and he knows it. Bill continues to be incredibly charming and today was no exception.
He’s been a student, business owner, banker, diplomat, chairman and organizer – all the while an activist for equality, civil rights, education, environmental sustainability and a dedicated husband and father. We sat at a table in the Skyroom together earlier in the day while staff arranged centerpieces and constructed a large, glittery sun for Bill to burst through (read: slowly, proudly walk through) after his comedic, yet heartfelt introduction from WOAI News Anchor Randy Beamer as “The Sun King.”
Lightly guided at times by his son and colleague, Lanny Sinkin, and (of course) wearing one of his trademark colorful bow ties, he tells me what he wants for his 100th birthday:
“The only thing that I would hope for … would be the lack of all discrimination,” he said.
“Oh, is that all?” Lanny says laughing.
He smiles humbly. Bill knows it’s a tall order, but he’s seen so much progress during his 100 years in San Antonio, it’s probably hard not to come to the conclusion that our progress toward a more enlightened community – or species as a whole – will continue.
His bank, Texas State Bank, was the first to open its doors to both blacks and whites in Texas. (Texas State Bank was also one of the first buildings in San Antonio to install solar panels in the 1980s.) Despite receiving threats of violence and losing a few racist customers (no big deal), they continued to employ a black teller – who was fully visible to their loyal clientele (70% of which were black).
At the evening celebration, Bill told the audience that he is most proud of his “efforts fighting racists.” To which he received a standing ovation.
Bill’s activism continues on a daily basis at the Solar San Antonio offices, the nonprofit solar-power advocacy organization he founded in 1999. He was first inspired by solar-power, what he describes as “a miracle,” when he was visiting a housing project as Chairman of the San Antonio Housing Authority. He saw “a lamp that was run by the sun … they put one solar light in the house – in the kitchen – because that’s all they could afford. They were poor, couldn’t afford electricity … from then on I wanted to spread that idea around. I’m not a student of technology …”
“But he knows a good thing when he sees it,” Lanny finishes his father’s thought. Bill smiles and thanks him. Later, Bill explains his working relationship with Lanny:
“The pinnacle of his success is what he’s doing right now, (Lanny) took this operation (Solar San Antonio) and built it up – he brought a wonderful energy to it, I gotta give him credit for that – and Money. He paid me to say that,” Bill winks again.
Solar San Antonio is also celebrating a recent victory for local solar customers and installers. CPS Energy attempted to replace the current net-metering arrangement with the SunCredit program – which would have reduced customer credit by almost half – dramatically delaying a customer’s return on investment. After an uproar from solar customers/installers and a subsequent CPS-hosted town hall meeting with stakeholders, CPS announced late last Wednesday night that any change to its net metering program will be held off for another year “as it works with local installers to come up with an equitable solution,” according to Energized, CPS’ official blog.
“The utility will form a working group that will include installers and other stakeholders to craft a program that fairly compensates those who install rooftop solar for the power their systems produce, while at the same time taking into account fixed infrastructure and other costs,” Energized Manager Tracy Idell Hamilton wrote last week.
Under his and Lanny’s leadership, Solar San Antonio continues to pave the way for San Antonio to become a model city for roof-top and community solar. Thanks to their efforts, a 10-member task force has been created (five of which are CPS employees, five are from the local solar industry), a satisfying compromise for all parties is likely.
“¡Viva el sol!” said his old friends, new friends, family, and colleagues in unison after Bill prompted the grito.
Bill is no stranger to controversy nor “equitable solutions,” and he’s patient and optimistic about San Antonio’s future – a city he admires and respects deeply.
In the past, Bill has referred to it as a “feminine city,” Lanny said. What he means is that San Antonio is … “soft.” I know a few feminists that might be offended by that metaphor, but here’s why I wasn’t:
“San Antonio is one of the few soft cities,” Bill said quietly. “That means that it has grown without (extreme) violence … we’ve never had a (major) riot … the way this happened is through education – that’s how a city grows properly … it’s a splendid example of the fusion of different cultures of the world with dignity and acceptance.”
By “feminine” he means intellectual and classy.
However, Bill knows San Antonio is not completely free of violence nor discrimination. He recounted for me, as I’m sure he has several times to young reporters and curious friends, his experience as a young son of Russian immigrants on his second day of class at Collins Gardens Elementary School.
“I was dressed in what my parents though was appropriate attire,” Bill said of his velvet jacket and pants suit. He was 6, his hair in perfect, dark curls around his face. He was taken out at recess by a few boys and beaten up. “They tore off the sleeves and bumped my head.” He demonstrates with his hand, pushing an imaginary 6-year-old head.
“What those (inaudible) boys did … Sorry, I don’t like to use profanity,” he said as I leaned in closer to hear, “Made me (not) want to have to say that I was Jewish.”
As he recalls this experience to me in this quiet ballroom, later filled with more than 300 city dignitaries and friends, he doesn’t speak of this time with tears in his eyes. “This experience led to almost everything else good” in his life, he said.
Major Julián Castro joined Beamer in introducing The Sun King of San Antonio. Castro said Bill’s life commitment to civil rights has made it possible for more members of minorities (both class and race) to become strong members of society and civic leaders.
“You have profoundly changed San Antonio,” Castro said. “Bill represents San Antonio’s character … even 100 years from now, we’ll recognize your contributions … 2113 is better off because you have been here.”
As I sat watching Bill slow-dance with a beautiful young woman in a purple dress, I couldn’t help but imagine: What if that that 6-year-old in a torn velvet suit could see himself today?
I couldn’t help but think of how his 100 years of experiences – good and bad – have shaped him into such a force for progressive change and how the experiences of his son and staff (personal and professional) have led them to become intelligent, generous and compassionate people. Many of us could have been that 6-year-old and ended up on a completely different path. While I had this classic nature vs. nurture moment of reflection, I realized that I was just glad these 100 years produced such a cool dude.
Here’s to 100 years of progress, and – why not? – 100 years more.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.