Bill Sinkin’s Big Love Affair (Isn’t What You Think It Is)

From big-name bankers to modest office maintenance workers, a steady stream of people, reflecting the diversity of lives he touched during his 100 years on earth, filtered in and out of the late Bill Sinkin’s home last week to wish their old friend a final goodbye and mourn the loss of one of San Antonio’s iconic community leaders.

The breadth and depth of Sinkin’s accomplishments and his role in SA seem almost fictional—a pioneer in solar energy, a successful businessman and a passionate, progressive and forward-thinking civic servant. Best known for bringing HemisFair to San Antonio in 1968 and for trailblazing alternative energy locally by founding Solar San Antonio in 1999, Sinkin’s dedication to improving the city didn’t stop with environmentalism and economic development. Sinkin, a liberal Democrat, championed civil rights and bridged racial and ethnic divides, pushing boundaries as somewhat of an iconoclast while remaining admired and respected by his community.

“I think he basically had a love affair with San Antonio,” Sinkin’s son, Lanny tells the Current. “He just gave himself to making this community a better place in every way he could.”

His love affair saw its first milestone with HemisFair, an idea catalyzed by former Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez and brought to fruition by Sinkin, who considered it his “greatest contribution” to the community, according to his memoirs, published serially in 2005. The idea captured his imagination and it soon caught fire; Sinkin delivered 250 speeches on the topic and wrangled funds from more than 30 banks to make it a reality. While Sinkin was driven to a near-stroke over the political controversy, the fair ended up being a huge success, attracting international visitors, expanding the River Walk and promoting unprecedented growth of the city’s tourism and creative arts industry.

But before he could fully endorse HemisFair, Sinkin thought the city he loved was ill-prepared to rightfully host a fair celebrating the confluence of civilizations.

“He was always concerned about injustice and prejudice and he became particularly concerned when HemisFair was coming,” says Lanny. “He thought people from all over the world would come to San Antonio and find it a segregated city and worried it would be a terrible experience for them.”

So, Sinkin, along with African-American leaders G.J. Sutton (SA’s first black state representative) and Rev. Claude Black set about integrating downtown, starting with restaurants, like Kress and Casa Rio. The men refused to leave before they were served, sometimes waiting until the second or third day before they saw a hot meal on the table.

“Having it done that way—just by being there passively, peacefully, but forcefully, it just let it all happen without a big uproar. And it was a beautiful thing,” says Lanny.

Desegregating diners wasn’t Sinkin’s first or final attempt at fostering accord between the Anglo population and minorities.

In the heat of the Civil Rights era, Sinkin, with financial aid from pal Tom Frost of Frost Bank, built the first integrated bank on the city’s largely African-American East Side—a move that cost him backlash, but that he didn’t shy away from. In 1967, Frost generously loaned Sinkin $1 million to start up Texas State Bank, a purchase he made from the majority owner.

“He said he wanted to help the African-American community and we were pleased to be partners with him,” says Frost. “It was a great effort on his part to finally bring blacks to the table.”

In another radical move for the time period, Sinkin staffed the Eastside bank with black tellers and two black board directors. Roughly 70 percent of its clientele was black. Some who walked in threatened to close their accounts because they didn’t want “any black people” handling their money, Sinkin recalled in his memoirs, but he was undeterred.

“I was impressed by how passionate he was about the projects he took on,” Charles Williams, a retired businessman and one of the two black bank advisory directors, tells the Current. “And he appeared to be an individual who was concerned about the plight of minorities, particularly black folk out here not privy to bank loans and things like that. So, he was very gutsy.”

“He was really focused on not only growing the bank but this area of town,” Williams continued. “[The East Side] didn’t have much support; the system and the developers that really run things didn’t appear to be that interested.”

When asked to join the board of directors, Williams came up around $10,000 short of the needed funds to officially take part, as he was starting his own business and strapped for cash. Sinkin stepped in, loaning Williams the money and spurring a decades-long moral and monetary support network.

The former owner of a barbershop, restaurant and catering business, Williams gives Sinkin credit for propping him up: “Bill was there financially in most instances. I don’t think some of it would have happened had it not been for his willingness to work with me on bank loans.”

Sinkin also founded the Urban Coalition of Metropolitan San Antonio, bringing Chicano, African-American and Anglo leaders together to discuss and resolve key issues facing the community.

“There were times when ... the black and brown and white communities weren’t talking together and Bill set up an organization were we could sit and talk and deal with one another and work,” says Frost.

For instance, the organization worked to get a black marching band in the Fiesta parade when African Americans were barred from the march. One of the most serious agenda items was tackling the use of excessive force by SAPD, a particular problem in the black community. The group determined the issue was a result of a handful of bad apples tolerated by upper leadership, and once they ushered in a new police chief and ridded the department of the corrupt cops, the streets got a little more just. The group also put an end to the ‘Whipping Bridge’ on the East Side, a site where police would arrest African Americans, take them to a bridge and whip them before they booked them for trying to escape.

“It was a very explosive issue; we caught a lot of flack for even raising it,” says Lanny.

Sinkin’s fight for social and racial justice stemmed from his own battles with prejudice and discrimination. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sinkin faced intolerance during his childhood and was even beat up for his heritage, or as the schoolyard aggressors put it, for “not belonging,” leaving an indelible mark that allowed him to empathize with the struggles experienced by those of other races and religions.

In his mission to cultivate dialogue among cultures, Sinkin and local Palestinian poet and author Naomi Shihab Nye hosted Jewish-Arab potluck dinners at the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Mexican Cultural Institute, featuring music, traditional food and a seating arrangement that purposefully mixed the families together. (“You never know anybody, really, until you break bread with him,” Sinkin previously wrote.)

“We urged everyone to sit at tables with people they did not know and visit, as friends,” recalls Shihab Nye in an e-mail message sent from overseas. “It just mattered to both of us that people meet one another as human beings more often and share their likenesses and similar hopes—all about mutual respect.”

Shihab Nye and Sinkin shared in the notion that “peace is far too important to be left to politicians” and she says the gatherings helped give them both hope that peace among the groups could someday be achieved.

“Bill Sinkin was a positive force field. He beamed optimism and possibility. He didn’t shy away from hard labor to get something done. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he loved solar energy because he was such a massive beacon of light himself,” says Shihab Nye. “… And someday if there is more peace, it will bounce off his light panel.”

Sinkin’s reputation for reaching across the aisle found its way into the political sphere as well. With a deep love for politics, Sinkin worked for the Democratic Party on every presidential campaign since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, and served as a precinct chair in Alamo Heights for most of his life.

Close family friend, former U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez (son of Henry B. Gonzalez) says Sinkin not only supported their campaigns financially, but offered precious policy guidance, especially in the areas of finance, economic development and public projects.

“It was his advice and counsel that was invaluable. You could always count on Mr. Sinkin to sit down with you and give you his opinion of things, knowing you’d come out with greater insight. In fact, I don’t know very many elected officials that didn’t have Bill Sinkin on their Kitchen Cabinet [an informal circle of political advisers],” Gonzalez tells the Current.

“If you knew him personally or not, I guarantee you his advice found its way into public policy,” says Gonzalez, “I can assure you, Mr. Sinkin had tremendous input.”

Aside from being in the ear of local officials as an informal adviser, Sinkin took on his own major public works project. Dubbed the “Sun King” by admirers, Sinkin early on encouraged solar energy, having the foresight to understand its potential to loosen our dependency on fossil fuels.

In the early ’80s, Sinkin got his first taste of the renewable energy source when he installed a solar hot water system at Texas State Bank. Sure, it ended up breaking and he couldn’t find anyone to fix it, but it was then that Sinkin knew he wanted to make solar power real for as many people as possible.

By age 86 he sought to educate SA about its potential, securing a grant from CPS Energy and spending time coordinating workshops and classes to encourage residents to adopt solar power. In 1999, Sinkin founded Solar San Antonio, a nonprofit that offers affordable renewable and alternative energy options. And in 2001, Sinkin founded the Metropolitan Partnership for Energy, now known as Build San Antonio Green, an organization that promotes resource-efficient building methods.

The results of his passion for solar are clear—Sinkin and Solar SA’s education campaign prompted CPS Energy to install 45 megawatts of centralized solar, sign a contract for another 400 megawatts and dedicate two solar farms in Sinkin’s name, accomplishments that his family relished seeing him take pride in. “It was very heartwarming to see him enjoy the fruit of his labor,” says Lanny, who now helms Solar San Antonio. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t attribute San Antonio’s standing as a national leader in solar energy to Sinkin’s influence. In later years, says Lanny, Sinkin became deeply concerned about climate change, an increasing passion during his final days.

With his own impressive record as a community activist (netting awards from this very paper), Lanny follows in his father’s footsteps but at the same time, realizes the bar is set pretty damn high.

“I learned long ago I wouldn’t even think of trying to fill his shoes,” he says. “But that I could do my best version of him.”

Even in Sinkin’s final moments, when most would kick back and call it a day, he was still dreaming and encouraging others to dream big as well. Roughly two weeks ago, Frost received Sinkin’s New Year letter expressing his gratitude for such a wonderful 2013 and his anticipation for 2014. In the letter, Sinkin quoted novelist and poet C.S. Lewis, reminding his friends and family one last time, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

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