Leo Rose at an event in February 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Leo Rose, a World War II veteran, community leader, gifted athlete, and successful businessman who helped bring the Spurs to San Antonio, passed away peacefully at home on July 8. Rose was 99 years old.

A “wonderful man” is how Pat Frost, president of Frost Bank, remembered Rose.

As a childhood friend of Rose’s stepson, “I grew up in the household and then had the honor of working with Leo on SA Sports,” Frost said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Frost recalled tennis being a central part of Rose’s life for many years and how he created the San Antonio Racquets, a longstanding club in World Team Tennis, the summertime co-ed league started by tennis great Billie Jean King.

Rose’s friendship with King is how he was able to bring the U.S. Women’s Hard Court Championships to San Antonio in 1989 for a match between tennis stars Steffi Graf and Ann Henricksson.

“Always bottom line with Leo is, ‘What am I doing for the community?’” King said of Rose in 2017. “He cares very much to bring the best to San Antonio, but he also wants to help the community have access to sports, exercise, health, all the things that really do matter to a community.”

Born in Minneapolis, Rose came to San Antonio at age 8 with his mother, stepfather, and two brothers during the Great Depression. His mother, Mama Rose, was widowed again in 1935.

Rose attended Jefferson High School, where he excelled in softball and basketball and earned a basketball scholarship to St. Mary’s University. He turned down the scholarship to help support his family and save money to send younger brother Bernie to college.

While working two jobs, in a grocery store and a paper warehouse, Rose attended night school and played competitive softball and basketball on San Antonio city leagues, winning several championships in both sports.

He was named to the All-City team for six consecutive years and was voted Outstanding Jewish Athlete of San Antonio.

In 1941, Rose volunteered for the Army Air Corps and received navigation training in Hondo. He also learned to fly the B-29, which was designed to fly long distances in the South Pacific. During that time, Rose’s brother Julius was listed as missing in action, and he later learned his brother’s submarine was discovered at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.

During the war, Rose and his flight crew flew bombing missions across the Pacific to mainland Japan a staggering 37 times. For their exceptional valor, they received the Distinguished Flying Cross with two additional clusters and the Air Medal with three additional clusters.

In 1945, Rose returned to San Antonio and a year later began selling specialty paper and Army surplus pots and pans. With his friend Melvin Lachman, Rose also sold a die-cast race car that became so popular, it helped launch the men into the wholesale toy business.

Lachman-Rose became the first toy distributor in Texas successfully buying and manufacturing toys, including Barbies and hula hoops, in Asia under the LARCO trade name.

In the late 1960s, Lachman-Rose created Kiddie City, a chain of five successful discount toy stores, and grew the company into the fifth largest toy distributor in the nation. Lachman-Rose was acquired by WR Grace in 1971, and Rose retired in 1978.

As an original owner of what became the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Rose and his partners brought the American Basketball Association franchise from Dallas to San Antonio in 1973.

 Rose married Gloria Zimmerman in 1951 and had two children, Kenny and Julie. After the marriage ended, Rose met Chickie Ringel Levit, a divorced mother of four, and remarried in 1966.

Rose dedicated many years of his life to community service and was well-known as a successful motivator and fundraiser. In addition to working on several committees of the Jewish Community Center, he served as president of the organization from 1966 to 1969.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War between Israel and several Arab states, Rose raised a record $2 million for Israel through the Jewish Federation and, after retirement, became endowment director, growing the group’s endowment fund to $15 million and chairing its 2008 Israel Emergency Campaign.

Rose also ran the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon from 1978 to 1983 and the Capital Fund Drive for the public television station, KLRN.

Rose also chaired the boards of the Sports Channel and the Sports Task Force, during which they brought two Southwest Conference basketball championships to San Antonio.

He chaired the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Sports Task Force, co-chaired the Senior Olympics, and served as an ongoing member of the San Antonio Sports Foundation board, leading a fundraising effort to build a center court at McFarlin Tennis Center.

In 2017, Rose was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.

“Leo was just a visionary who wanted better sports for San Antonio,” said former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros at the ceremony. “I think he understood that it’s good for the city, a unifying force, but it’s also something that puts us on the map.”

A lifelong athlete and avid tennis player, Rose hung up his racket at age 88 and returned to the game of golf. At age 90, he hit a hole-in-one.

Rose is survived by his wife, Chickie; children Kenny Rose (Sherry Ritchie-Rose), Julie Rose, Laurie Levit (Steven Ades), Kalima Rose (née Cathy Levit), Nancy Levit (Cathy Underwood), and Stephen Levit (Ann Levit); six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, as well as two nephews and a sister-in-law.

His mother and two brothers, Julius and Bernie, preceded him in death.

The current restrictions on gatherings allowed only for a private interment service. A virtual memorial service was held July 10.

Disclosure: Frost Bank is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.