A few years ago, before she died, Henry Cisneros’ mother Elvira was walking across the street from Frost Bank’s main offices when its chairman emeritus, Tom C. Frost, stepped out the door.

“Tom came out of the building and shouted across the street, ‘Elvira!’ and waved at her,” recalled Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Here you have one of the leading business figures in San Antonio waving at a nearly 90-year-old lady across the street because he remembered her from the 1940s.”

On Friday, the family confirmed that Frost, a successful banker who became a giant in philanthropy and a force behind San Antonio’s civic and cultural institutions, had died a month after a reported stroke. He was 90.

Over his more than 30-year banking career, Frost oversaw his great-grandfather’s bank’s transformation into an international institution that prevailed through multiple economic downturns.

After his retirement in 1997, he dedicated himself to philanthropic efforts related to the arts, education, and job training, among many others.

“Tom was a wonderfully accessible, common-sense person,” said Cisneros, whose mother and wife both worked for Frost Bank early in their respective careers.

“The fact that he lived as a scion of a massive legacy never changed his groundedness, nor his commitment to San Antonio,” Cisneros continued. “He knew the history of San Antonio. He knew the personalities of San Antonio. He weathered every storm with San Antonio, and his banks helped build San Antonio.”

It’s difficult to list all the ways Frost left his legacy in this city. He was deeply involved with HemisFair ’68, and a loan from his bank helped bring the Spurs to San Antonio from Dallas.

He also left his mark on the McNay Art Museum and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. He was closely involved in the North American Free Trade Agreement talks in the 1990s and in developing the South Texas Medical Center.

“He had the ability to see the big picture,” said J. Bruce Bugg Jr., another prominent local banker and businessman who worked closely with Frost on the Tobin Center and on raising more than $50 million for the McNay.

“He would take time and listen to different people’s points of view on what a path forward looks like,” Bugg continued.

Senior Chairman of the Board of Frost National Bank Tom Frost is the great great, grandson of Ferdinand Ludwig Von Herff, a Darmstadt citizen who migrated to San Antonio in the 1800s. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Tom C. Frost IV. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Frost proved that he was willing to create consensus, forging an unlikely partnership with  activists from Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) and Metro Alliance. He became an advocate for the groups’ flood relief proposal and helped address their concerns and secure their support for a new Toyota manufacturing plant in San Antonio.

In more recent years, Frost focused on job training and workforce development with Project Quest, a program that has helped more than 6,000 people.

Many who worked alongside Frost over his long career talked about his leadership skills and the deep interest he took in improving life in San Antonio.

Phil Hardberger, 84, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2009, said Frost was among the businessmen and women with whom he met regularly as mayor.

“He was always there, always well-armed with the facts, and also able to argue his opinion,” Hardberger said. “That continued long after the time most people have gone fishing. … He was very active.”

Others described how Frost helped deepen San Antonio’s ties with Mexico because of his experience working in that country, gaining the trust of Mexican nationals interested in putting their money in the U.S.

“I think of him as being someone who saw the importance of San Antonio’s relationship with Mexico,” said Lila Cockrell, 96, also a former San Antonio mayor. “He spoke Spanish, and not everyone understood how important that was.”

Above all, those who knew Frost and worked alongside them said he never stopped working to make his city better.

“He was quite a leader and left a great legacy,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. “He had a good heart for the people that were striving to do better.”

What others said about Frost’s passing:

  • Mayor Ron Nirenberg: “Tom Frost was a civic giant. It would be impossible to overstate his influence on modern San Antonio. He played a crucial role in making HemisFair a reality, and he used his considerable influence to make this city a better place for everyone. He helped bring the world to San Antonio. More than a business leader, he was a caring and compassionate citizen, who understood and served the heart and heritage of San Antonio. I was proud to call him my friend. I will miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
  • Phil Green, chairman and CEO of Cullen/Frost bankers: “Frost celebrates its own 150th anniversary this year. Companies don’t last that long without great leadership. They also don’t last that long without a culture that emphasizes long-term relationships with customers, something that came from Tom Frost. He wrote our mission statement, which still guides us: We will grow and prosper building long term relationships though top quality service, high ethical standards and safe sound assets.”
  • Richard Aste, director of the McNay Art Museum: “Today we have lost a beloved member of the McNay family. As a lifetime trustee, and our chairman, Tom Frost was a champion of the museum as a community oasis of peace, beauty, hope, and inspiration. As a mentor and advisor, he was always strategic and forward looking. And as a human being, he was integrity and moral leadership personified. The McNay thrives because of Mr. Frost, and we will continue to honor his spirit and his legacy every day by bringing beauty and inspiration to each and every member of our community.”
  • City Manager Sheryl Sculley: “Tom Frost was synonymous with both the history and the future of San Antonio. He was one of the first leaders I met at the beginning of my tenure in San Antonio, and he was always available to help the City understand the needs of and work with the business community. More than anything, he was committed to making San Antonio best in class. As business and civic leaders go, he was best in class.”
  • Rosemary Kowalski of the RK Group: “I have heartfelt sympathy for the Frost family, as a 93-year-old friend that has known Mr. Frost all of the 73 years of my hardworking life and have been fortunate to cater for him in his home and for the Frost Bank. I admire him for his leadership and for all his part of history.”
  • Joe Krier, former City Councilman and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce: “Tom Frost has been a friend and source of wise advice for more than the 20 years I was CEO of the Chamber. His business acumen is legendary. His vision, advocacy, and leadership for public education have made San Antonio a better place for thousands of school children in the past and for decades to come. I’ve never known a more honorable, decent, and kind leader of our community.”
  • Lowry Mays, Former Clear Channel Communications chairman: “The greatest gift in life is friendship, and I was lucky to call Tom my friend. Tom was always deeply involved in absolutely everything going on in this city. He was great at recruiting others to help him create what was needed at the time. The thing you could always count on was that Tom was always focused on what was best for San Antonio. I really admired that.”

Services for Tom Frost will be held 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 17 at Christ Episcopal Church, 510 Belknap Place.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.