San Antonio City Councilman John Courage Makes Listening Part of Public Service

click to enlarge San Antonio City Councilman John Courage Makes Listening Part of Public Service
Jade Esteban Estrada
Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's political scene.

For San Antonio City Councilman John Courage, 68, the journey of leadership and volunteerism began as an only child growing up in his native Massachusetts.

He was 12 years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Texas soil. His mother was a big fan of the late president, and he remembers the event affecting him deeply.

“I wanted to be as much of a public servant to people in my community as he was as president at that time,” the District 9 councilman says during our interview in his small office at Plaza de Armas.

Over the course of his life, he’d have several opportunities to serve before he finally won public office. Courage arrived in San Antonio in 1971 when he joined the Air Force — one of those times when he devoted his life to the public good.

“I guess the biggest complaint some people have is that they think that I’m a liberal — way out there on the left or something,” he says.

Though he tries not to label himself, he does aim to be in tune with the needs of his constituency, which is something he thinks a council member should do regardless of their political leanings.

This year, San Antonio elected a female-majority council for only the second time in the city’s history. I ask him if the atmosphere on the dais feels different in any way.

“You know, I really don’t see there being a real difficulty with the new council,” he replies thoughtfully. “I think it’s a lot like what we’ve been doing. The biggest difference was that there was some political animosity because of a prior council person and their goal to become mayor.”

He is, of course, referring to former District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who garnered 49% of the vote in his bid to unseat Mayor Ron Nirenberg earlier this year.

Since then, Courage feels the dynamic has changed.

“This council I think is very good with talking with one another, listening to one another and trying to collaborate greatly,” he says.

Courage describes District 9 as “the thoughtful and considerate part of the city. I think [my constituents are] looking for a continuation of the stability in their district that they enjoy, but at the same time, they recognize that they’re a conscientious partner in the whole city.”

Recently, I ran into Courage and his wife Zada at a Bexar County Democratic Party event. How they met, he says, is a funny story.

“We actually met at a singles club,” he says. “Not a club — it was a group for singles with children. It was called Phoenix, kind of rising from the ashes of a previous relationship, so to speak.”

The first time he asked her out didn’t go as planned, however.

“She said, ‘I don’t date people in this group.’ So, it was a challenge, but I accepted that challenge,” he says with a smile.

This month, they’ll celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.

Zada’s last name before they married was True, her first husband’s surname. When she married Courage, she combined the names.

“So, she’s Zada True-Courage,” he says with pride. “And our marriage is a marriage of true courage.”

I ask Courage to share the best advice he ever received.

“I’d have to say it’s being a good listener,” he says.

“When I was younger and energetic and maybe looked to be more involved and do more things, I kind of wanted to share what I thought about things. I’d find myself getting ready to say what I wanted to say while someone else was trying to talk with me and tell me something. I learned, a long time ago, the importance of being in the moment and listening to what the other person has to say, and understanding where they’re coming from before you’re ready to go ahead and develop your own thought and express that.”

This practice serves him well as he taps into what he calls the “collective wisdom” of the city council. With all the talk of wisdom, I ask him what he recalls gleaning from his parents.

He explains that his parents divorced when he was a toddler. His father, who wasn’t involved in his life, died when Courage was 7. He lost his mother shy of her 50th birthday.

“So, I really never had a father in my life. My mom pretty much raised me on her own. It was very hard for her. She had been from a big family, never graduated from high school, never achieved a lot, and she had some physical and mental problems that really made it challenging for her.”

Courage, who was 30 at the time of his mother’s death, only fully realized its significance later.

“I lost my mother before I really had the opportunity to go back and call on her to help me understand more of where I came from and what kind of advice or wisdom she could give me,” he says. “And so, I just don’t have that kind of background to be able to give you a better answer. I was an only child and you know I pretty much made my way from when I was 20 and I left home and joined the service.”

The story helps explain why listening and being in the moment have helped Courage absorb the highs and lows of both his personal and public life.

With a combination of warmth and gentle statesmanship, he smiles and adds, “You never know what’s comin’ down the road.”

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