This article has been updated.
Billy Joe “Red” McCombs was bigger than Texas. He outgrew the town in which he was born — Spur. Outgrew the city in which he sold his first car — Corpus Christi. Outgrew the metropolis in which he became a billionaire — San Antonio.
McCombs built an empire the U.S. could not contain. With Lowry Mays, he co-founded the world’s largest radio and billboard company — with advertising in 25 countries — then sold it for approximately $25 billion.
When McCombs died on Sunday, at the age of 95, he left a legacy so large it could not be captured in a book. McCombs co-authored two and ran out of space. After the second — “Big Red: Memoirs of a Texas Entrepreneur and Philanthropist” — was published in 2011, McCombs kept writing.
Left behind was a little-known treasure, piles of love notes penned to Charline, his wife of 69 years. Of all the passions in McCombs’ adventure-rich life — oil, cars, sports, cattle, real estate, philanthropy — none moved him like Charline. She was the gentle breeze in Red’s hurricane-force personality. The velvet touch at the end of a business meeting.
On Dec. 16, 2019, four days after her passing, Red tweeted the following: “The best decision I’ve ever made, up and down, from start to finish, was marrying Charline.”
Nicknamed for the color of his hair, he wrote to Charline every day. Sometimes he jotted a note in a card. Sometimes he scribbled on a sheet of paper or a cocktail napkin. Charline reciprocated.
“They would find different ways to say they loved each other,” says Marsha Shields, the second oldest of the couple’s three daughters. “They did it until the very end.”
McCombs died at his home, where “he was surrounded by family who loved and adored him,” according to a statement from the McCombs family. “Red was a visionary entrepreneur who touched many lives and impacted our community in immeasurable ways. But to us he was always, first and foremost, ‘Dad’ or ‘Poppop.’
“We mourn the loss of a Texas icon.”
Architect and builder
While Red made the headlines, Charline made some possible. They were San Antonio’s dynamic duo, a transformative power couple. Consider the Spurs. When the Dallas Chaparrals were looking for new ownership in 1973, McCombs strongly considered buying the American Basketball Association team. He believed San Antonio needed a professional sports franchise to become elite, to attract Fortune 500 companies. But after speaking with civic leaders, McCombs failed to detect sufficient interest in pro basketball.
He declined to buy and told Charline. She in turn called Angelo Drossos, Red’s close friend and persuasive business partner. Within an hour, Drossos arrived at the McCombs’ house.
“In the end, he and Charline kept me from bailing out,” McCombs wrote in Big Red. “She had no interest in the sport whatsoever, but she had heard me talk about this great need to have a major sports franchise in San Antonio. I had been talking about it for years. … How could I cut and run when one was finally, literally, on our doorstep?”
At the time, San Antonio knew McCombs as a fast-talking auto dealer, a cowboy hat-wearing civic leader. But he was an architect and builder. For more than 60 years, he used his leadership and wealth to launch ventures and complete deals that transformed San Antonio from South Texas outpost to international destination. He mentored mayors, advised CEOs, groomed an emerging generation of business leaders and influenced a new wave of philanthropists. In true Texas fashion, McCombs became a father of modern San Antonio.
“Without Red McCombs,” said former mayor Henry Cisneros, “San Antonio would be smaller, quieter, poorer, more contentious and divided — a shadow of its present, progressive profile.”
Roots in Spur
Red cut his first deal at the age of 10. In the West Texas farming community of Spur (pop. 1,318), he borrowed money from his father, a Ford auto mechanic, and bought a 100-pound sack of peanuts. He set up a stand on Main Street and sold his product to migrant cotton crews for a nickel a bag. As the U.S. slogged through the Great Depression in 1937, Red discovered a key to entrepreneurship: identify a need, find the buyers, deliver the product.
After migrant workers left the fields, Red mowed lawns and snagged a paper route. At 12, he delivered milk from the fender of a Model A Ford truck. Later, he became a cook, dishwasher, waiter and cashier at a local cafe.
From the family’s modest white-framed house, Red learned compassion. He saw jobless men knock on the door, beg for work and sleep in his yard. He watched his mother feed hundreds over the years. He observed his father hand out one dollar bills (after sending the tithe on his weekly $25 check to First Baptist Church) and lament he couldn’t give more. It was here, in a home Willie Nathan McCombs bought for $900, that seeds for philanthropy were sown.
Willie moved the family to Corpus Christi in 1943. Red stayed behind in Spur with a friend to finish the school year, never intending to leave. Tired of waiting for Red, Gladys McCombs drove to Spur, packed her son’s belongings, and told him they were heading to Corpus. Red said he wasn’t going. Gladys took Red’s tennis racquet and whacked him on the head.
“I actually fell to my knees,” McCombs wrote in The Red Zone. “She said she didn’t want to hit me again, but I’d better get in the car.”
McCombs fell in love with the beach. He fell in love with adventure. After graduating from high school, playing football at Southwestern University, joining the Army and completing a tour of Korea, he fell in love with a Corpus Christi brunette. Soon after, he fell for the automotive business. In 1950, he became a car salesman for a Ford dealer and married the brunette, Charline Hamblin.
On the sales floor, McCombs cut a commanding presence. At 6-foot-3, he was a barrel-chested dealer with a booming drawl that, in the words of James Michener, “would rattle windows.” Success? He sold 31 cars a month for three years, three times the national average, and kept the sales slips.
Flush with cash, McCombs followed his gut and bought a minor league baseball team. In three years, the Corpus Christi Clippers won three pennants, sent two players to the major leagues, led the Big State League in attendance and made him more than $100,000. One Clipper, Ed Charles, went on to play for the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets.
When attendance fell, McCombs sold the team. Perceptive eye. Shrewd instincts. Wheeler-dealer mindset. He combined these gifts with a skill for selling to forge his next move. He quit the dealership, took out a loan and opened McCombs Used Cars. In 1957, he sold more Ford Edsels than any dealer in Texas but soon recognized calamity. McCombs bailed on the Edsel after five months, long before the Ford Motor Co. realized it was a bust.
A friend, Austin Hemphill, asked McCombs to help salvage a failing dealership in San Antonio. He made it profitable, formed a partnership with Hemphill and moved Charline and their three daughters — Lynda, Marsha and Connie — to San Antonio in 1958. Here, he built one of the most successful Ford dealerships in America.
HemisFair as a catalyst
Decision-makers fascinated McCombs. He recognized in his youth that three people ran Spur: the banker, lawyer and doctor. He aspired to become one of them, a community leader. After opening his first dealership, he joined the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce. In San Antonio, he connected with leaders in banking, business and media. Beyond Texas, McCombs joined the Ford Dealer Council and became its national chairman in 1963, five years after becoming a dealer.
By 1966, he’d built a professional network that reached the Oval Office. McCombs carried enough influence to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to relocate the Texas headquarters of the White House press corps from Austin to San Antonio. When reporters arrived, McCombs welcomed them to their hotel with a margarita party.
He longed to rebrand the city’s image to attract Fortune 500 companies. HemisFair ‘68 represented an opportunity. He was a member of the fair’s executive committee that approved plans to build the 750-foot HemisFair Tower.
To host a world’s fair, San Antonio was required to showcase 26 exhibits and free-standing buildings, each with a theme. A few Texas corporations had agreed to sponsor exhibits. But HemisFair could not attract a single national corporation. McCombs asked Ford for a sponsorship. Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca declined, saying the company had no interest in “that dusty little town of yours.” Insulted, McCombs fired back. A cussing match erupted.
After the expletives cleared, McCombs called Texas Gov. John Connolly and got the president involved. Ford became a sponsor. Other national corporations followed. “Once we recognized that the key was to get President Johnson to call other corporate heads,” he wrote in Big Red, “our sponsorship problems vanished.”
HemisFair attracted more than six million visitors. Its legacy included a massive wave of hotel construction, a convention center and the extension of the River Walk to the fairgrounds, all of which led to a $15 billion tourism industry before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then there was the 10,000-seat arena, the future home of an NBA franchise. With McCombs pulling key levers, HemisFair propelled San Antonio into a new era of growth, economic expansion and wondrous possibility.
Five years later, McCombs raised the city’s profile and changed its identity. In one of the most unusual deals in sports history, he and a group of investors signed a three-year lease with an option to buy the American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals, who were losing $400,000 a year. San Antonio, at last, had a major professional sports team. Locals, at first, didn’t seem to care. Only 2,000 showed up for the Spurs’ first victory.
To bolster attendance, the team acquired Swen Nater, a 7-foot center, and George Gervin, a future Hall of Fame guard. The Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, Gervin became a scoring sensation and fanaticism erupted. Twenty years after acquiring the Spurs, McCombs sold his controlling interest in the team for a second time. But by then, 1993, San Antonio sparkled like the jewel he had envisioned: a destination city with nearly 1 million residents, five Fortune 500 companies and a playoff-winning team anchored by future Hall of Famer center David Robinson.
After the Silver and Black won a fourth league title in 2007, Robinson penned a piece for Sports Illustrated. “People from around the world may have heard about the Alamo,” he wrote, “but they definitely know about the NBA world champion Spurs.”
San Antonio’s Mount Rushmore
San Antonio traces its DNA to Spanish missionaries in 1718. From a settlement founded on a river, a metropolis emerged. Its builders were philanthropic and iconic, one of them a businessman from Spur. Look around. The Tower of the Americas, HemisFair Park, the Tobin Center, the Alamodome, the Toyota manufacturing plant, the first River Walk extension (completed in 1968), the Museum Reach (2009), The Broadway, a 21-story tower of luxury condos — all can be dusted and found with prints that belong to Red McCombs.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for San Antonio,” said Louis Barrios, CEO of Los Barrios Enterprises, “Red’s face would definitely be on it.”
McCombs not only gave voice and leadership to landmark buildings and projects, he gave millions of dollars. The reach of his philanthropy extends across the state. Since 1981, the McCombs Foundation has given $181 million to civic, educational and charitable causes. A $50 million gift led the University of Texas to rename their business school The McCombs School of Business.
An unsolicited $30 million gift to MD Anderson in 2005 created the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for Early Detection of Cancer. Ten years later, MD Anderson reported that more than one-third of its research was channeled through the McCombs Institute and noted, “the funds are fueling groundbreaking advances in cancer research.” In its report, MD Anderson cited specific advances in cancer immunology research, radiation oncology research and biomedical imaging.
“The reason I give,” McCombs often said, “is because it makes me feel good.”
His influence reached around the world. In 1972, McCombs and friend Lowry Mays bought KEEZ-FM radio for $125,000. Though neither knew a thing about radio, they acquired more stations until they created an international media empire. In time, Clear Channel Communications, now IHeartMedia, added outdoor advertising and live entertainment to its portfolio.
“We built the largest radio company in the world, the largest outdoor advertising company in the world, the largest seller of live entertainment in the world,” Mays told the San Antonio Report in 2018. “We were in 65 different countries. It was a very big company – 20,000 employees. I had no idea that we’d get into the outdoor advertising business or the entertainment business.”
McCombs possessed a rare combination of gifts — gifts so dynamic and diverse some imagined him a world leader.
“He could have been president of the United States,” said Cisneros, the former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary who has known several U.S. presidents. “When you measure intellect, charisma and force of leadership, he’s among the best I’ve ever met.”
Reputation and success did not shield McCombs from stumbles. Miscalculations in business humbled him. Personal challenges drew him closer to God. In the early 1960s, Ford urged McCombs to enter its West Coast markets. He declined, believing, mistakenly, that he lacked the capital and ability to succeed. Ford later offered the Volkswagen franchises in Houston. He declined again, thinking the VW would never sell in the U.S. McCombs also believed Americans would never buy compact Japanese cars. The market proved otherwise, and he began selling foreign autos.
“I was so totally wrong about the competitive threat from Japan,” he wrote in Big Red, “that I almost missed the boat.”
Four years after acquiring the Spurs, McCombs nearly died. One November morning in 1977, he began convulsing and landed in a Houston hospital. The diagnosis was alcohol-related hepatitis. Doctors didn’t think he would survive. Charline did not know her husband had become addicted to alcohol. But Red knew. Desperate, he prayed. Six weeks later, he left the hospital detoxed. With no desire for alcohol, he made a vow to Charline.
He never drank again.
McCombs as mentor
The empire expanded. The McCombs portfolio includes a Top 100 car dealership in the U.S.; an energy team with oil and gas investments around the world; a real estate group with properties in San Antonio, the Gulf Coast, the Hill Country and Colorado; a business team that invests in startups and a range of large companies; and multiple ranches in Texas, most notably, the RM, which breeds and markets Longhorn cattle.
Running the enterprises is Shields. A graduate of Duke University, Shields taught school for a couple of years before going to work for her father in 1978.
“I grew up in the car business,” she said in 2021. “I spent Saturdays with my dad at the office or the shop. I answered the phone when I was a kid. I always enjoyed working with him and I usually enjoyed working for him. He can be a tough boss. He motivates all of us to do more and to do things better than we think we can do.”
For more than a quarter century, McCombs trained and mentored the next generation of local business leaders. Shields, the most visible case study, rose to manager of McCombs Family Partners in 2002. The next year, McCombs Ford won the first of many President’s Awards, given to the top 1% of Ford dealerships.
“Congratulations, Marsha,” McCombs wrote in a half-page ad in the San Antonio Express-News. “You earned Ford’s most prestigious award your first year as a dealer. It took me a lot longer.”
“I didn’t see it coming,” she said. “I was stunned and amazed and proud and I immediately ran over to the phone to call him. It reveals the tender part of my dad’s heart. He is quick to give other people recognition. He takes delight in mentoring and raising up other leaders.”
The business and civic leaders empowered by McCombs comprise a Who’s Who of San Antonio. One is Westover Hills developer Marty Wender. Without McCombs’ help, Wender says, he wouldn’t have been able to build Highway 151 or secure SeaWorld.
“Everything I’ve accomplished in my life is because of Red’s influence, directly or indirectly,” said Wender, whose Westover Hills development includes Microsoft and other major data center facilities. “I’m probably one of a million he’s mentored.”
Rad Weaver is one in a million. He started working for McCombs at 18, washing cars for $7.50 an hour. At 35, he became CEO of McCombs Partners. In between, he played baseball at the University of Texas, parked cars and chauffeured McCombs. After earning a degree in business administration, he became a marketing and sales whiz for McCombs’ third sports franchise, the Minnesota Vikings.
At McCombs Partners, Weaver oversaw a diverse investment portfolio of companies in a range of industries. Now CEO of investment management firm CW Interests, he owes his success to years of mentorship from McCombs.
“What I loved the most was driving him around,” Weaver said in 2021. “He’d say, ‘You’re either growing or shrinking every moment of every day.’ I find myself saying the same things to my kids that I heard from him: ‘Every decision has a consequence. Some are immediate and known. But some are not immediate and unknown. When you look back on those, you’ll have clarity and they will reveal themselves.’
“I’ll cherish those conversations even more than our business conversations. I’ve learned so much about life from him. I’ll be forever grateful. I love the man.”
Red McCombs placed more value on people than projects, a truth Shields recognized every time her father ran late talking to a visitor. As Shields tapped her watch, he continued on as if to say: My next appointment can wait.
“I learned from my father that people are more important than calendars and schedules,” she said. “He would never look at his watch or the clock. What’s important to him is talking to you. What he enjoys are personal relationships.”
People with big ideas intrigued McCombs. People with capital and a solid business plan excited him.
He invested in mayors and bankers. In legislators and entrepreneurs. He poured himself into people who could impact the city.
“Any philanthropic gift from my parents was always viewed as an investment in someone who could lead an organization and multiply it in a way they couldn’t do on their own,” Shields said.
“They always looked for not just an organization or a cause. But for the people who could make things happen.”
McCombs’ name appears in brick and mortar. But his spirit lives in flesh and blood. Louis Barrios, the restaurateur, is one carrier.
“Red is the biggest encourager I’ve met in my life,” said Barrios, a frequent visitor at McCombs Plaza. “He builds you up. You ask a question and it’s like opening the mind of a genius and having him teach you in a very entertaining way. You can ask him anything and be in awe. At the end of people’s lives, they don’t talk about their accomplishments or about money. They talk about people. And that’s the most important thing to Red.”
One way to measure McCombs’ impact is by the company he welcomed to his office. The line, long and renowned, wound through the decades. It was a line of architects and builders, executives and elected officials, investors and philanthropists, sons and daughters of a city father.
The McCombs Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.