Clifton Bolner, a San Antonio native who went by Clif and built a business on spices and seasonings from around the world, died at his Monte Vista home Tuesday at age 94.
Born in 1928, Bolner grew up on the South Side of San Antonio amid a large family descended from grandparents who emigrated from Italy, Mexico and France. As a child, he worked in the family business, helping deliver groceries, and attended St. Gerard Elementary School.
After graduating from Central Catholic High School, he attended Texas A&M University where he participated in the marching band, playing clarinet and saxophone.
While in college, Bolner began dating his future wife, Rosalie Richter, whom he first met while attending St. Gerard’s, where their mothers worked in the cafeteria kitchen. The couple married in 1949.
Graduating with a business degree in January of that year, Bolner served as an officer at Kelly Air Force Base during the Korean War while also working as a partner and butcher at his father’s store, Bolner’s Grocery.
In 1955, seeing that neighborhood grocery stores were going out of business, Bolner sold his share of the store to two uncles and acquired for $5,000 a fledgling spice business.
As Bolner’s Fiesta Products, he sold about 15 pure spice products and garlic, building the business through his knowledge of the grocery business and personable nature.
“When dad talked to people, you’re either a king or a queen, a prince or a princess – unless you’re one of his kids and misbehaved,” said Bolner’s son Tim, president of Bolner’s Fiesta Products. “And he never made a promise that he couldn’t keep.”
Tim Bolner joined the company in 1971 and his brother Mike in 1973. Another brother, Chris, started in 1985 and is vice president of sales. Mike retired two years ago, but sisters Beverly and Mary also worked in the family business that now employs dozens of people, along with several members of the third generation.
Today, the company sells hundreds of spices and seasoning products that include Texas barbecue rubs and authentic Tex-Mex flavors, like Extra Fancy Taco Seasoning.
In 2014, the Texas Historical Commission named Bolner’s Fiesta Products a Texas Treasure, an award that honors longstanding businesses that have added value and character to the culture of the state.
Fiesta Brand has been a member of the American Spice Trade Association since the 1960s, Tim Bolner said, and his parents traveled frequently to conventions. “He made many, many friends all over,” in the U.S. and abroad, he said.
Bolner retired from the business in 2010. “He kept coming to work, but he was just advisory at that point,” Tim Bolner said.
A devout member of the Catholic Church, Bolner also attended daily Mass at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church and counted among his friends many members of the clergy, including the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), founders of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio (OST).
Bolner was a generous supporter of the school, said Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, president emeritus of OST, who often met with Bolner at his home.
“He always apologized that he couldn’t be more generous because he was being generous to so many other people in my life,” Rolheiser said. “[He would say,] ‘I’d like to give it all to you, but there are just so many people I need to help.’”
Bolner and his wife were “the picture of graciousness, class, generosity,” Rolheiser added. He was also civic-minded, Tim Bolner said of his father, serving on the board of the San Antonio Symphony Society and the Witte Museum.
Bolner was named Distinguished Alumnus of Texas A&M University, the Texas A&M Mays Business School and the Central Catholic High School Alumni Association. In 1982, Bolner was awarded the Brotherhood Honors Award from the San Antonio chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
The Bolners had seven children and were “popo” and “nana” to 27 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. They were married 59 years.
After Rosalie died in 2008, Bolner married longtime family friend and widow Mary Jo Biediger in 2010.
“When my mom passed away, my dad was horribly lonely,” Tim Bolner said. But both his dad and Mary Jo had been in poor health for about a year.
Mary Jo Bolner died two weeks before her husband, on Dec. 29, at age 92. She was preceded in death by her first husband Kenneth Biediger and son David Biediger. She is survived by her daughter Mary Paulette Eckert, a brother, Father Edward “Tiger” Vrazel, OMI, and the entire Bolner family. Services were held Jan. 4 and 5.
Clif Bolner is survived by his children, Tim, Mike, Debbie, Cindy, Beverly, Chris, and Mary Beth, and their spouses and children, his stepdaughter, several siblings, in-laws, and their spouses, and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.
Funeral services for Bolner began Friday with a visitation and rosary. The Holy Mass of the Resurrection is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Jan. 14 at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church, 223 E. Summit Ave.