San Antonio’s greatest single act of family philanthropy, a story never fully told, is now, 25 years later, a book.

Anyone with an interest in philanthropy, or connected in some way to the hundreds of area nonprofit beneficiaries over the last quarter century, will want to read The Kronkosky Foundation Story: Creating Profound Good through Community Philanthropy (Trinity University Press, 2021), authored by longtime foundation executive Ingrid Friese Petty.

I remember the day in 1998 when I heard the news of the charitable foundation’s creation from Kenny Wilson, then market president of NCNB/Nations Bank (now Bank of America), which managed the Kronkosky family’s trust; Palmer Moe, a retired senior executive at Valero; and Allan Patterson, the family’s attorney.

“Ever hear of the Kronkoskys?” Moe asked as the four of us met for lunch at Club Giraud. When I responded with a blank look, he added, “I know, hardly anyone knew them or knows the name now. You won’t forget their name once we tell you their story.”

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation was initially funded with $295 million following Albert Kronkosky Jr.’s death in 1997. An additional $75 million was added when his wife, Bessie Mae, died in 2010. Overnight, the gift changed the face of philanthropy in San Antonio and the surrounding communities. Today the foundation has assets totaling $475 million.

Since the 1990s, family foundations launched by Clear Channel founder Lowry Mays and wife Peggy Pitman Mays, by Valero Energy and NuStar Energy founder William “Bill’ Greehey, and by Harvey Najim, founder of Sirius Computer Solutions, have expanded the local philanthropic realm with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets serving San Antonio area nonprofits.

Few people knew much about the Kronkoskys. The couple guarded their privacy among a tight coterie of friends and associates. They never had children. They avoided politics and high-profile social events, making charitable gifts anonymously while they were alive. They lived simply and never conveyed any public demonstrations of their accumulated wealth.

The family’s story begins in New Braunfels where the first Kronkoskys settled in 1850 and then moved to San Antonio in 1885.

Those who did know the Kronkoskys believed their wealth was derived from the success of the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company, founded in New Braunfels by Albert Kronkosky Sr.’s brother-in-law, William Gebhardt.

“That was true, but only partly so,” Petty writes in her account.

Albert Sr. was the businessman in the family and took control of the company. Albert Jr. eventually took over from his father and eventually sold Gebhardt to Chicago-based Beatrice Foods in 1960.

Albert Sr. founded the San Antonio Drug Company, also passed down to Albert Jr. and later sold to a larger company for stock. But the family’s real wealth, Petty writes, stemmed from holding stock in Merck & Co. Albert Sr. was friends with George Merck and one of the original investors in his company. The family continued to accumulate stock in Merck as it grew into one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. When George Merck died in 1957, Albert Sr. was Merck’s single largest shareholder.

A great fortune built by one generation and nurtured by the next generation became the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation.

News of the new foundation was made public shortly after our background lunch that day in 1998, along with the detailed stipulations dictated by Albert and Bessie Mae of what organizations and charities in four counties qualified for grants.

Moe would go on to serve as the foundation’s first managing partner for 17 years before handing the reins in 2014 to San Antonio attorney Tullos Wells, who still serves in that position. Wilson eventually retired from the bank and went on to serve as CEO of the Haven for Hope for five years until stepping down earlier this year.

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation changed the philanthropy landscape in San Antonio and the counties of Bexar, Bandera, Comal, and Kendall.

“They made what was then — and remains today — the largest single, most profound philanthropic gift to the greater San Antonio area by establishing, in perpetuity, the Albert and Bessie Mae Kronkosky Charitable Foundation,” wrote Wells in his Introduction to the book.

As of 2020, the foundation had distributed $309.1 million to 435 different nonprofit organizations in Bexar and the surrounding counties. Designed to operate in perpetuity, the foundation continues to distribute millions in grants annually.

The principals behind the creation and management of the foundation, the book author, and Tom Payton, head of Trinity University Press, gathered Wednesday evening at the Southwest School of Art for a book launch party attended by philanthropists and nonprofit leaders. I was unable to attend the event but was honored to write the book’s foreword and to help Wells and Petty edit the manuscript.

TU Press’ Maverick Book Club will stage a free virtual event Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 6 p.m.— featuring Wells, Petty, and San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper — that I will moderate. Click on the link to register. One question I will be sure to ask: How can nonprofit leaders apply for Kronkosky funding?

If that’s the question you want answered, please join us. The Kronkosky Foundation has made San Antonio and the surrounding counties a better world for hundreds of thousands of people in need. That work will continue for the next 25 years and beyond.

The Greehey Family Foundation, the Mays Family Foundation, and Harvey Najim are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.