Robert Rivard

At 89 years old, Rosemary Kowalski is my oldest friend on Facebook. Her profile photograph shows her standing, sporting a FBI ball cap and hearing protectors, and firing a semiautomatic rifle at a shooting range. Clearly, this is a women who is not even close to being done.

For newcomers to San Antonio, Rosemary is an icon, one whose accomplishments make her a one-word household name. Rosemary. She is one of Texas’ most successful business women entrepreneurs, and has served as a role model to multiple generations of women who have followed in her footsteps.

Rosemary Kowalski: Role model for generations of women. All photos courtesy of The RK Group
Rosemary Kowalski: Role model for generations of women. All photos courtesy of The RK Group

Rosemary is being honored today at the Free Trade Alliance’s Women in International Luncheon at the Briscoe Western Art Museum on West Market Street. The all-women program is designed to help women become active and successful in international affairs and business. They couldn’t ask for a better honoree. Rosemary has served dinner to Pope John Paul II and a cocktail to Queen Elizabeth. In between there have been presidents, congressmen and governors, CEOs, celebrities, and thousands of catered meals for ordinary San Antonians.

“Rosemary is one of the first women I met when I came to San Antonio nearly eight years ago, and she is the most high-energy, thoughtful, supportive, and fun woman I know,” said City Manager Sheryl Sculley. “She’s a self-made business woman who remains active and continues to give back to the community through her own work and philanthropy. You say the name Rosemary, and everyone knows who you are talking about.  She’s the grand dame of San Antonio.”

There aren’t many honors, awards or accolades left to bestow on Rosemary. She’s served on just about every major non-profit board in the city and she’s given her own time and wealth to more causes than even she can possibly remember. What you won’t learn about Rosemary, however, from  all her press clippings or the 600,000 references that surface in a Google search is what a warm and generous person she is and always has been, dating back to humbler days after World War II when she ran a barbecue shack with her husband Henry.

Hank Kowalski and the first Uncle Ben's Catering truck, c. 1950s.
Hank Kowalski and the first Uncle Ben’s Catering truck, c. 1950s.

Rosemary is a friend to all, someone who never sacrificed being nice while working tirelessly to build Catering by Rosemary into the region’s premier catering and full-service event company. The company was renamed The RK Group when her son, Greg Kowalski assumed control in 1989, the year I arrived in San Antonio. Greg has grown the company many times over, all the while keeping a fairly low profile, while Rosemary has remained a very public figure – seemingly present at every important moment in the city’s contemporary history.

Rosemary Kowalski with former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell (center) and Carri Baker-Wells at lunch.
Rosemary Kowalski with former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell (center) and Carri Baker-Wells at lunch.

Rosemary and her best friend former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell, who is 91, frequently appear together at civic and social events, often several times a week, neither showing any loss of energy or engagement. Last year I watched in wonder at a private engagement party that attracted a who’s who of the city’s business and civic leadership, as both women were invited to the microphone to speak extemporaneously. Both did so without missing a beat. In what other major city in America, I asked myself, are there two women still so active and poised that asking them to speak publicly was, well, taken for granted by all those in attendance.

“Rosemary always says, ‘Lila, you came in the front door, and I came in the back door,’ and it’s true,” said Lila, who was elected to City Council in 1963 and served two different times as mayor, from 1975 to 1981, and from 1989 to 1991. “I remember when I was hosting the Queen of England and in comes Rosemary, personally,  to serve the Queen her favorite cocktail, a gin and tonic. She always found a way to be in the thick of things.”

Pope John Paul II came to San Antonio in 1987, and Rosemary was chosen to cater his meals at the archbishop’s residence.

“I designed a three-course dinner for him,” Rosemary recalled. “That way my daughter served one course, my son served one course, and I served one course. All three of us had the chance to go into the dining room and serve the Pope one course. He was a very warm and kind man, always smiling, and he liked my food.”

Rosemary and Lila both rose to prominence in the same era, when few women held leadership positions in business or civic life.

“We met in 1956, shortly after my husband Sid and I and our two girls arrived in San Antonio after Sid accepted a job running the San Antonio Medical Society,” Lila said. “In those days the Society held monthly meetings at its Monte Vista location and Rosemary catered the dinners. They cost $1.50 a plate: roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans. Over the years I watched her and her company grow in sophistication.”

However worldly Rosemary grew, she has never lost her trademark smile and sincerity.

“I never planned for things to work out the way they’ve worked out, I just loved being in a business where we could help people on some of the most memorable days and occasions of their lives have everything just perfect,” Rosemary told me recently over a long and delicious lunch at her company’s headquarters on East Commerce Street.

Taking me later to an adjacent conference room adorned with memorabilia, Rosemary pointed to an old photograph of Uncle Ben’s Diner, a beer and barbecue joint near St. Mary’s University, the spot where she and Henry, now deceased, started.

Uncle Ben's Barbecue, where Hank and Rosemary got their start.
Uncle Ben’s Barbecue, where Hank and Rosemary got their start.

“We started small, and fell into the catering by accident, doing all the setup and delivery out of the trunk of our car, even carrying ice and warmers with us,” she said. “Business grew so fast we decided to shut down Uncle Ben’s.”

Then came HemisFair ’68. By then Catering by Rosemary occupied multiple buildings on Zarzamora Street. Her company won the world’s fair catering contract for all but a few of the 112 pavilions. Many of today’s best-known family owned businesses in San Antonio trace their lineage to HemisFair, perhaps the city’s first real business incubator.

Four years after the fair, Rosemary won the lucrative catering contract at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center just as the convention and hospitality industry was coming into its own, sparked largely by HemisFair.

“I was on the City Council then and it was a very different era under Mayor Walter McAllister,” Lila said. “He came in one day and said, ‘Now the Convention Center is going to need an official caterer, a good caterer, and I suggest that caterer ought to be Rosemary.’ And that was that.  We all got on board.”

Somehow, even as the business grew to employ 800 people, move to its current six-acre site near the Alamodome, and come to dominate the hospitality industry, Rosemary managed to keep her personal touch on things. After Lila lost her husband in 1986, the two widowed friends began to take cruises together.

“Rosemary had never been on a cruise and we decided we would go to Alaska,” Lila said. “When I arrived to pick her up for the ride to the airport, there was Rosemary waiting on the curb with four pieces of luggage plus carry-on. I had one suitcase and carry-on. We flew out to Vancouver and sailed from there. When we got on board, it took me a short while to stow my luggage, while Rosemary had her things covering everything in our state-room, filling every drawer, on and under the bed.

“Well, we went on our tour of the ship and Rosemary discovered the gift shop. She began to think about her family, and her hundreds of employees, and she soon became the best patron of the gift shop. The pile on her bed kept getting larger. I wondered where she was going to sleep. When we got to Alaska, Rosemary bought four more pieces of luggage to carry everything. I found myself thinking, ‘How can I go through customs separate from her?’ Well, she made it through and I never asked her about overcharges.”

Lila said just before their next cruise, one to the Caribbean,I had a little heart to heart with her about luggage and shopping, and reminded her that anything that she bought could be shipped home. I’m glad we had that talk. In Barbados she saw a nice tablecloth and, there she goes – she bought 50 of them.”

Rosemary with First Lady Barbara Bush.
Rosemary with First Lady Barbara Bush.

Lila, Rosemary and several other successful women, including attorney Jane Macon and Helen Kleberg Groves, a rancher who grew up on the storied King Ranch in South Texas, meet once a week for dinner at Goodtime Charlie’s on Broadway, home to one of the city’s best hamburgers and chicken fried steaks.

“We have a great time: Good friends enjoying simple but good food, quick service and it’s not too loud,” said Helen. “Rosemary is a remarkable person, very inspiring. She started with nothing except an idea and she worked hard and made her dreams come true.”

A handful of younger women leaders in San Antonio have told me they’ve attended the Monday night dinner at Rosemary’s invitation. I intended to show up for one of their dinners, uninvited, but I lost my nerve.

Lila, a first-class story-teller, is writing a book now about her own long and rich public life. I haven’t yet gained a peek at the manuscript, which I would love to have, but it seems certain that Rosemary will be on many of its pages.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

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