Red and Charline McCombs.
B.J. "Red" and Charline McCombs Credit: Courtesy / McCombs Family

I was fortunate enough to know Charline McCombs, who I quickly came to admire for her warm, inviting personality, her generous spirit, and the quiet confidence she projected. She was the perfectly poised counterpoint to her larger-than-life husband, B.J. “Red” McCombs.

Charline had a way of being at the center of things without even trying. If she was sharing a table with Red at a Spurs game or some other public event, people approached Charline first, Red second. I often thought that Red’s many well-documented achievements in life would not have happened without her.

In an era when women did not share the same opportunities as men, women like Charline still found ways to empower themselves and make a real difference. It just happened more quietly, with little media attention, and often enough, even less credit.

Charline had a wonderful sense of humor, which put people at ease and suggested to me that her quick mind and knack for a timely quip offered insight into how she managed to hold her own and then some in marriage with Red.

Red is the best storyteller I have ever known, and that is saying something. Since we first met in 1989, I have spent hours listening to him recall key moments in business deals, transforming the Dallas Chaparrals into the San Antonio Spurs with no real money, his experiences with authors such as James Michener, and his friendships with many other national figures.

Spurs Coach Gregg “Pop” Popovich, a McCombs favorite, is a master at knowing exactly when to focus on real life first and basketball second, so it was no surprise Thursday when he spoke so eloquently about Charline in his pregame remarks.

Red, of course, has always been comfortable around reporters, and he’s a master at controlling his own narrative. Not many self-made billionaires can hold a candle to the man in that category. It’s hard to compete with a guy as Texan as Longhorn cattle and whose name crowns the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet Charline had no problem keeping up. Her power emanated from her own ability to be normal: accessible, relaxed, secure in who she was and the place she occupied in San Antonio and the McCombs family and business empire.

The McCombs have always made me feel welcome in San Antonio. Red was the first person to invite me to lunch after I left my position as executive editor of the San Antonio Express-News in 2011. If he harbored any doubts about my plans as we ate sandwiches  on his outdoor balcony overlooking Brackenridge Park, he had the grace not to say so as I outlined my unformed vision for the Rivard Report.

Red, in fact, has never owned a computer in his office as long as I have known him. His longtime chief of staff Suzy Thomas prints out our daily report for Red to read at his leisure. When an email from her arrives in my inbox I know it is Red speaking to me, for better or worse. He never holds back. 

Red has needled me on occasion, pointing out that he has always been at a loss to understand why “you are one of Charline’s favorites.” That always brings a smile, knowing that Charline’s friendship was a deep well from which countless people in San Antonio and beyond were fortunate to draw comfort.

Now we have, among other named destinations in the city, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre to serve as a reminder of her important place in this city’s history and culture.

Charline and I shared one other thing: a birthday. Charline was born Nov. 17, 1928. She led a long and rich life, married to Red for 69 years. She was 91 when she passed away Thursday, Dec. 12. When Nov. 17 next arrives, my first thought will not be how fast time is passing me by. I will instead remember the good fortune I had to be treated like a friend by Charline McCombs.

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.