Lester Lowry Mays, a businessman who turned ownership of a single radio station into the media empire known as Clear Channel Communications, died Monday at age 87.
Starting in the petroleum industry, Mays fell into the radio station business by accident. As he worked to better understand and master an industry he previously knew nothing about, Mays partnered with auto dealership magnate Red McCombs to build Clear Channel Communications into an international media empire.
In a 2018 interview, daughter Kathy Mays Johnson called her father a master of spontaneous persuasion. “That’s how he does business,” said Johnson, president of the Mays Family Foundation he began later in his career. “He’s an on-the-spot thinker. A risk taker. Everything kind of happens.”
Born in Houston, Mays was 12 years old and living in Dallas when his father Lester Mays, a salesman, was killed in a car crash in 1947. To help support his widowed mother and teenage sister, Mays worked on the family farm and in a local market.
After graduating from Texas A&M University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in petroleum engineering, Mays worked on oil rigs for the next 15 years.
During his later military service as a petroleum officer at Brooks Air Force Base, Mays met his future wife, Peggy Pitman, in San Antonio. They married just before he was sent to Taiwan to lead the construction of an oil pipeline project.
Upon returning to the United States, Mays attended Harvard University and earned a master’s in business administration. The couple moved back to San Antonio in 1962 and Mays joined an investment banking firm. In 1970, he formed his own firm.
Two years later, Mays co-signed a loan for a friend who wanted to buy a radio station. But the friend backed out, leaving Mays with the station and the start of a long and remarkable career.
Media business grows
Mays and McCombs bought a TV station in 1988, an outdoor advertising business in 1997, and acquired hundreds more radio stations in the 1990s and early 2000s.
During that time, the Federal Communications Commission rules prohibited companies from owning more than two radio stations per market. Mays successfully lobbied Congress and in 1996 the Telecommunications Act became law, deregulating media and clearing the way for the growth of Clear Channel.
Mays was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 1999 along with six others, including President George H.W. Bush. He served as chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 1985 and campaign chairman of the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County in 1995.
Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros was appointed to the Texas A&M University Board of Regents with Mays in the 1980s and also crossed paths with him while leading the Spanish-language media company Univision. He called Mays an “astute businessman.”
“I had the chance to see Clear Channel in operation and it was clearly the class act of radio companies,” Cisneros said. “It’s an amazing thing that in one lifetime you could build a national enterprise of that nature. But that’s just the quality of business person that he was.”
At its peak, Clear Channel owned more than 1,200 radio stations in the U.S. In 2008, Mays and McCombs sold Clear Channel, now known as iHeartMedia Inc., in a deal worth approximately $25 billion.
Mays rolled a large sum of this windfall into the Mays Family Foundation, established by Mays and his wife in 1994. As of 2017, the foundation had contributed over $163 million to communities where the Mays family lives and works, according to the foundation’s website.
In 1996, Mays gave $15 million to the Texas A&M University school of business, which now bears his name. He contributed another $25 million to the school in 2017. “A really big tree fell in the Aggie forest today,” stated John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, in the school’s announcement of Mays’ death. “We will never forget what he did for Aggieland.”
In San Antonio, significant contributions from Mays resulted in the creation of UT Health’s Mays Cancer Center and an event center at the Witte Museum bearing his family’s name. A $1 million gift to Hemisfair in 2020 is funding the Peggy Mays Garden along East Nueva Avenue between Yanaguana Garden and the future Civic Park.
Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio, said the Mays couple represented the epitome of committed citizens.
“When I asked Lowry about a naming gift for the center years ago, he offered his help without hesitation,” Henrich said. “Lowry, Peggy and their family embraced the love that lies at the heart of giving. Their gift of generosity and love is a lasting treasure of incalculable value.”
Johnson said her father recently told her that it had become clear to him that, of everything they’ve done, their lasting legacy will be the Mays Family Foundation. “It was created from our desire to take the tremendous, good fortune we experienced in our lives and use it to improve the lives of our neighbors,” she said he told her.
A 2018 recorded interview from the Voices of San Antonio series by the San Antonio Library Foundation features Mays talking about his life and work. When asked to offer words of advice, Mays said people should “develop a work ethic as young as you can and try to build something worthwhile … something that will keep you excited you can continue to grow.”
Mays was predeceased by Peggy Pitman Mays, his wife of 58 years, in 2020. He is survived by four children — Johnson, Mark Mays, Linda Mays McCaul and Randall Mays — and 16 grandchildren.
A private memorial service for the Mays family will be held Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and livestreamed at porterloring.com.
Disclosure: The Mays Family Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of supporting foundations and business members, click here.