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Tue February 4, 2014
Bill Sinkin, Father Of Hemisfair, A Life Well Lived
San Antonio is mourning the loss of one of its brightest stars. An assistant said Bill Sinkin passed away peacefully Monday evening, to the tunes of The Beatles' “Here Comes the Sun,” surrounded by family and friends.
His many friends say Sinkin’s spirit will live on in them and in his widespread contributions to San Antonio.
In a couple of spots along W. W. White Road on the city’s East Side, tall Crapemyrtle trees stand strong in the grassy easements at both of Bill Sinkin’s former bank buildings.
“He loved Crapemyrtles," said retired businessman Charles Williams.
Williams said Sinkin had a vision of beautifying the boulevard with Crapemyrtles up and down the street, so he started with his bank. But the scope of Sinkin’s 100 years of accomplishments runs much deeper.
“I first met Mr. Sinkin as an active person in the community that was trying to make race relationships better for San Antonio, not just for the East Side," Williams said. "The thing that impressed me about him was that he put his money where his mouth was."
William R. Sinkin was born in 1913. After graduating from the University of Texas he went to work in his father’s clothing manufacturing business. On a sales trip to New York, Bill met the love of his life, Fay, and asked her that very night to marry him. They both spent the rest of their lives working for the good of San Antonio.
The River Walk, its barge rides, downtown hotels and tourism – all became possible because of Sinkin’s key role in developing Hemisfair. Integration and improved race relations in San Antonio? Solar energy? Think of Bill Sinkin. Aquifer protection and water quality awareness? Bill and Fay Sinkin did that too.
Bill Sinkin supported his wife’s fight against city hall in the 1970s to turn back plans for a shopping mall over the Edwards Aquifer. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros at that time was a city council member.
“And the public rose up and it was blown out of the water," Cisneros said. "The Sinkins were in the lead in that highly poisonous, toxic, contentious, political battle.”
“What Fay did is that she was concerned about available water sources for the City of San Antonio.” said Gregory Hudspeth, political science professor at St. Phillips College, who said the city was deeply fragmented during the '60s and Bill Sinkin reached into communities, building bridges that brought people together.
“I think his legacy would be one that would cut across racial lines, cut across gender lines, and ethnicities,” Hudspeth said.
Sinkin, who as a young boy suffered discrimination – he was once beaten by his classmates for looking different and for being Jewish – took on race relations as a personal mission. He opened the first bank on the East Side and hired black tellers even though some of his white depositors threatened to walk. He offered mortgage and small business loans to members of the community when no one else would, often lending not on collateral, but on personal relationships.
“He was kind of like a politician," Williams said. "He kept a pocketful of cards, you know, and would say, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Sinkin. Where are you doing your banking? If you’re not satisfied with your banker, come to Texas Bank, the bank with a heart.’ And that was also synonymous with Bill Sinkin because he was a man with a big heart.”
Local personality Ron Aaron interviewed Bill Sinkin just a few years ago about his contribution to civil rights at a time when black people were not served at white restaurants on the River Walk.
“He told me how he and an African-American friend went to lunch at Casa Rio," Aaron said. "They were sitting in the rear of the restaurant and weren’t served, weren’t served, and finally were served. They went back the next day and sat in the front of the restaurant, and from that day on, Casa Rio and the River Walk were fully integrated."
Cisneros said Hemisfair was the key event that positioned San Antonio as a vibrant, world-renown city with a viable convention center, the River Walk, hotels, and a strong business community. He called Sinkin a decisive player in bridging gaps among different movers and shakers to complete the Hemisfair project.
“People like Mayor (Walter) McAllister. And of course, we know that H. B. Zachry stepped in to save it because it was not going to be finished but for his construction expertise. And people like Marshall Steves, local businessman, (architect) O’Neill Ford and many others,” Cisneros said.
Through a soft-spoken manner, Sinkin motivated, led and participated, and became a “forever force” in San Antonio. He chaired The San Antonio Housing Authority and founded Goodwill of San Antonio. He played violin in San Antonio’s first symphony orchestra at the Municipal Auditorium. He campaigned for Democrats his whole life.
In his 90s, Sinkin started a new non-profit organization to promote solar energy. Former Express-News columnist Cary Clack says Sinkin was everywhere, always with his signature bow tie, always happy and always glad to see you.
“It’s amazing -- the energy and also the conscience -- because when you see him out there, it’s not just social events where he’s having a party," Clack said. "It’s always some cause or has a purpose, he’s trying to better people’s lives, trying to bring people together.”
It’s just not possible to chronicle a hundred years of such a well-lived life in a short radio story. But everyone that I interviewed liked and respected Bill Sinkin, no exception. Long-time San Antonio banker Tom Frost says a New Year’s card he just received from Sinkin a couple of weeks ago expressed his essence and the enduring message he left for all of us.
“He quotes C.S. Lewis and says, ‘You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.’ Now that, to me, that’s the epitome of Bill Sinkin,” Frost said.
Sinkin is survived by two sons. Fay Sinkin passed in 2008.