(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 his wife, Tracy, always hold hands. Even at high-profile events covered by worldwide media.

“Nelson was mayor in 1992 when NAFTA was signed in San Antonio,” Tracy Wolff said, “and at the ceremony where we lined up with seven presidents and other dignitaries, he held my hand. He really is romantic.”

If the ceremony for the draft North American Free Trade Agreement attended by President George H.W. Bush, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney didn’t keep the then-mayor from demonstrating his bond with his wife, nothing can.

Just as holding hands comes naturally, the Wolffs hold each other’s concerns for San Antonio and Bexar County in common and sometimes influence the other’s ideas.

It’s what you would expect from two people who met in the civic trenches when he, as a former State representative and State senator, was volunteering for Target ’90/Goals for San Antonio. Tracy served as program director for the 1980s initiative spearheaded by Mayor Henry Cisneros to improve the city by 1990. At the time, Nelson Wolff was running the family business, Sun Harvest Farms.

“I didn’t pay much attention to him until he became the Target ’90 chair a couple of years later,” Tracy said.

Their professional relationship became official when he hired her as campaign manager for his City Council run in 1987. The relationship deepened, and by January 1989, they were married, each for the second time.

Even without the romantic hand-holding, she was a perfect mate for him. She had grown savvy about the city’s demographic, social, and political dynamics at Target ’90 and, before that, at the Texas Engineering Extension Service.

“I kept being thrown out into the community to be involved,” she said.

Her development was accelerated by working closely with Cisneros through Target ’90 when he was mayor. As a Northside resident, she was shielded from many civic problems, an admitted gringa. Cisneros’ modus operandi was to bring people together to solve problems.

Tracy said she remembers these meetings vividly, “looking around a table of people and thinking, what are these people doing with these people? And when they started talking, you realized they cared about a certain issue, whether it was housing or transportation or children or day care, they all had deep feelings. And the next thing you knew, they were all talking to each other. It was the most incredible education you could get.”

Understanding the possibilities – and humanity – of mixing people from different experiences stuck with her when she helped plan a luncheon for first lady Barbara Bush during the NAFTA-signing visit.

“I fought the ladies who wanted to have a small, cozy little luncheon at The Argyle,” Tracy said. “I said no, and we invited 120 women from across the city to the Tobin Estate. I still have women come up and say thank you.”

From the start of their marriage, the Wolffs sought to improve the city and county, looking for opportunities and bringing their own interests to the mix. They played central roles in restoring the City Hall and Bexar County Courthouse buildings, bringing the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown, expanding the Henry B. González Convention Center, helping lure Toyota’s manufacturing plant to Bexar County, opening the Tobin Center for the  Performing Arts, and developing the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River.

As first lady of San Antonio, Tracy revolutionized the quality of day care centers in the city, of which less than 2 percent were accredited when her husband was elected mayor. With support from the Family Service Association and the City of San Antonio, she raised $3 million to establish Smart Start, a trust fund administered by the San Antonio Area Foundation. Smart Start continues to award grants to child care programs and home care providers who wish to become accredited.

When Nelson was elected Bexar County judge in 2001, Tracy was saddened by the shabbiness of the Children’s Court, consigned to the County Courthouse basement, which heard cases of child abuse, sex slavery, and other critical issues.

Tracy made sure the Hidalgo Foundation of Bexar County, which she established for the restoration and renovation of the Bexar County Courthouse, included funds to support the Children’s Courts, now a national model. Overall she has raised $7.5 million for the Hidalgo Foundation.

Children’s Court Division & Programs Administrator Judge Peter Sakai presents Hidalgo Foundation Founder and President Tracy Wolff with a bouquet of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Children’s Court Division & Programs Administrator Judge Peter Sakai presents Hidalgo Foundation founder and President Tracy Wolff with a Yellow Rose of Texas bouquet. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“They are the Dos Lobos team, always planning, plotting, and looking for the next great thing that nobody thinks about,” longtime adman Lionel Sosa said. Though Sosa’s advertising firm had been hired to help opponent Maria Berriozábal’s campaign, Tracy met him with an embrace days after the election, overturning a tradition of snubbing opponents and their supporters.

“That set an image for me: This woman is special,” Sosa said. They have been close friends ever since.

“Nelson depends on her,” Sosa continued, “and she depends on him, and together they are this amazing team. I think Tracy kind of made Nelson whole, and she is the perfect partner for him because they like the same people and Nelson gets involved with so many things, whether baseball or poker or the San Pedro Creek. Sometimes it’s his idea, sometimes I suspect it’s hers, but once they get into it, they’re in it 1,000 percent. They click. They have the same point of view, the same goals and vision. I know from experience that a good partner is everything.”

Bexar County's third full-service BiblioTech branch on the East Side is officially open.
Bexar County opened its third full-service BiblioTech branch this year on the East Side. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Probably the Wolffs’ biggest accomplishment is BiblioTech, the first all-digital public library in the United States – ironic for a county judge who is a bibliophile with a collection of some 4,000 volumes. BiblioTech now has three branches in San Antonio with more than 100,000 e-books and myriad educational and community resources.

“I don’t think there’s anything Nelson does that’s not with her wholehearted support,” Sosa said. “Even though he got a baseball stadium named after him, he would not mind having another bigger one built with her name on it.”

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.