(From left) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Tracy Wolff.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his wife, Tracy, have shared decades of work in public service, including starting the county's digital library. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Hidalgo Foundation founder Tracy Wolff, his wife, are in the home stretch now of long and fruitful careers in public life and service. They aren’t going anywhere, but they are at the end of one long road and looking down the next one.

If anything, the Wolffs are likely to find their services in great demand once Nelson steps down from public office at the end of this year. The Wolffs, either one, will be every nonprofit leader’s wishful get. The Wolffs might want to call former City Manager Sheryl Sculley to perfect the art of diplomatically saying, “No, thank you. Please give us some time and space.”

After a 50-year career in a long list of elected offices, Nelson, a healthy and active 81, will find himself, like former Mayor Phil Hardberger, called on by new generations of leaders in the city, individuals hoping to make their own mark, wondering exactly how to turn vision into accomplishment. And how to get elected and reelected. Longevity is underrated.

“Nelson got things done,” Brackenridge Park Conservancy President Nicolas Hollis told me Wednesday night as we shared emcee duties at the organization’s gala honoring the Wolffs and their community service. I should have stolen that line. Unfortunately, Hollis said it after I delivered my own remarks recalling the Wolffs’ many contributions to the community.

I had five minutes to talk about Nelson and Tracy, Conservancy Development Director Lynn Bobbitt told me two days before the event. Writing a Wikipedia entry would have been far easier. How can anyone sum up the Wolffs and theiraccomplishments in five minutes? I tried.

When Monika and I moved back to Texas in 1989 with our two young sons, Nelson was organizing a run for mayor against incumbent Lila Cockrell, who had returned to that office after an eight-year hiatus, promising to serve for a single term. Then she changed her mind and decided to run again. Wolff and another City Council member, María Berriozábal, the first Hispanic woman elected to City Council, both challenged Cockrell and both made it into a runoff. Wolff won.

During his time as mayor, the Alamodome was completed and hosted the U.S. Olympic Festival, and the Central Library was built, the first new developments downtown in many years. President George H.W. Bush joined Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the historic German American School at the then-named Plaza San Antonio hotel to initial the final draft of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

It was a heady time.

Both Wolffs will be best remembered, and rightly so, for their shared work during Nelson’s long tenure as county judge. His singular accomplishment, in my view, will be the $384.1 million, decade-long San Antonio River Improvement Project.

Many others deserve their own fair share of credit for turning the decrepit, weed-strewn channelized waterway into the city’s showcase linear park. It would have never happened without Nelson pushing for local funding after years of federal indifference to the project.

Tracy, meanwhile, continues to head the foundation that underwrote the restoration of the historic Bexar County Courthouse, created the Children’s Court, and put a new focus on the rights of abused and neglected children.

Together, both Wolffs started Bibliotech, the county’s digital library system, years before the rest of us began to focus on the city’s terrible digital divide, which contributed to learning loss for many inner city students during the pandemic.

Nelson also experienced his share of defeat. Light rail, pushed in the early 1990s, never happened. Decades later, a planned streetcar for Broadway and an east-west downtown streetcar line was killed before it ever got to voters.

Despite his successes, far more work needs to be done to align the city and county economic agendas and budgeting.The Bexar County jail needs to be moved and completely reimagined. Wolff’s successor will have his or her hands full.

Nelson has written six books tracking his time in office as a state representative (1971-73), state senator (1973-75), District 8 San Antonio city councilman (1987-91), San Antonio mayor (1991-95) and Bexar County judge (2000-2022).

The Mayor and the Judge: The Inside Story of the War Against COVID, Nelson Wolff
The Mayor and the Judge: The Inside Story of the War Against COVID, Nelson Wolff Credit: Courtesy / Elm Grove Publishing

His latest work will be released in early May, titled The Mayor and the Judge: The Inside Story of the War Against COVID (Elm Grove Publishing, San Antonio, 2022). Many might think it is too soon to relive the pandemic, but as I read an advance review copy this past week I found myself engrossed by this insider’s account, recalling countless challenges and developments that were otherwise slipping into distant memory.

How all of us were suddenly thrust into isolation as schools, businesses and public gathering places closed. How panic set in as people rushed, irrationally, to hoard toilet paper and other products. How the San Antonio Food Bank overnight saw tens of thousands of new families queue up in long vehicle lines for emergency food packages. How H-E-B galvanized its 140,000 partners in hundreds of stores to calm the public, slow the hoarding, implement safety protocols, and keep people stocked with food and other necessities. How hospital staff members valiantly risked their own lives, day after day, to save others, especially the unvaccinated.

How Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg set a national example for other cities with daily press briefings that regularly included medical and scientific experts as the pandemic became further complicated by political extremists and misinformation on social media, and as the coronavirus itself mutated into successive outbreaks.

And how the city and county established efficient mass testing and vaccination sites, and worked with philanthropist and developer Graham Weston and others at BioBridge Global to launch Community Labs to elevate testing protocols to allow schools and businesses to reopen.

All longtime public leaders reach their endpoint. Some do not realize it and voters usher them out of office. Some leave on their own terms. Wolff ends his 22-year tenure as county judge on his own timeline. New leadership will bring new possibilities.

But, as attorney Frank Burney commented to me Wednesday, “There will never be another county judge like Wolff, or another couple like Nelson and Tracy, never.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.