Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year"
— American folk song
With a new year upon us, it’s again time to reflect on the notable deaths the old one left in its wake.
No doubt, plenty of publications have presented slideshows and roundups sending off everyone from Elijah Cummings and Gloria Vanderbilt to King Kong Bundy and Bushwick Bill. However, stepping away from national political figures and larger-than-life pop culture figures, we’d instead like to concentrate on revered local and regional figures we lost.
Some, like four-term San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell and Mi Tierra matriarch Cruz Cortez, are iconic, while others, such as Western artist Brad Braune and Latin music treasure Rita Vidaurri, may be lesser known to our readers. Our hope is that our sampling includes both beloved SA luminaries and the kind of eccentrics, mavericks and hellraisers our city loves to embrace.
While the list is certainly not exhaustive, these folks are among those we lost in 2019.
Influential, genre-spanning San Antonio horn player
June 21, 1936-October 6, 2019
In the ’50s and ’60s, Barnett also led the 20th Century Orchestra, house band for the East Side’s storied Ebony Lounge. He remained active in city’s music scene up until his death.
“Barnett was sort of the kingpin of the East Side sound,” said Hector Saldana, music curator for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. “He influenced Doug Sahm, he influenced Chicano musicians. He also represented a time when R&B was really hot and the sound was changing, where the big bands were becoming smaller jazz outfits.”
Although Chicano soul artist Sunny Ozuna wasn’t initially part of Barnett’s inner circle, Ozuna recalled watching the saxophonist perform so he could learn from a consummate professional.
“We were given a shot to work the Tourist Ballroom, and [Barnett] was on fire at that time,” Ozuna said. “I was anxious to see how he played, and my goodness, this guy was very, very talented.” — Chris Conde
Winemaker who helped put Texas on the map
August 27, 1940-August 5, 2019
Becker, who died of cancer in August, launched her business by bringing bottles of wine to potential customers. Eventually she found support among San Antonio restaurants, chefs and retailers.
Becker and her husband Robert originally purchased land in Fredericksburg to build a weekend getaway. Instead, the couple put down roots, opening a vineyard in 1992.
Under her watch, Becker Vineyards grew from a small-output project to one of the Hill Country’s most recognized vineyards, shipping more than 140,000 cases annually. Its bottles are available on the shelves of Texas grocery chains and have been served to three U.S. presidents and at 10 James Beard House dinners.
Becker was also a member of local culinary and wine-related organizations including Les Dames d’Escoffier. She was recognized for her achievements, appearing on two covers of Wine Spectator and winning the 2014 Tall in Texas Award for her leadership in the regional wine industry. — Lea Thompson
Western artist and art educator
July 14, 1951-February 28, 2019
“While his paintings are beautiful, I believe Brad’s legacy is really about his inspiration and teaching others about art,” McKenzie said.
Braune, who died at the age of 67, was a faculty member at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, Southwest School of Art and the Majestic Ranch Arts Foundation in Boerne. He also taught private lessons from his home studio.
Prior to becoming a full-time artist in 1978, Braune worked as an architect in the planning department of the San Antonio Development Agency. After his time at SADA, he went on to work at a series of local architecture firms.
A prolific watercolorist, Braune produced work for the Institute of Texan Cultures, Fiesta San Antonio and the Texas Folklife Festival. The latter commissioned him to design its first-ever festival poster in 1981. He titled the famous watercolor image of a longhorn with a balloon tied to one of its horns Cow Having Fun.
“Brad was one of the kindest and most genuine friends one could have,” McKenzie said. “What I remember most was his wit, sense of humor and wry smile.” — Kiko Martinez
Entrepreneur and San Antonio cycling community fixture
October 20, 1983-April 1, 2019
Bradshaw owned the now-closed Bottom Bracket Social Club, a popular meeting place for inside-the-Loop cyclists. He is remembered as a charismatic figure and tireless advocate for the cycling community.
In the days following his death, friends, family and community members came together to celebrate Bradshaw’s life with memorial bike rides, candlelight vigils and dedicated murals throughout the city.
The University of Texas at San Antonio paid tribute to the local entrepreneur this fall, naming a bike repair station at the main campus after him. His death also prompted local cyclists to demand efforts to keep drunk drivers off the road and for the creation of a bike lane on Houston Street in his memory. — Sarah Martinez
San Antonio’s first female mayor
January 19, 1922-August 29, 2019
Her time during World War II in the Navy WAVES, then a long life in politics — from heading the League of Women Voters in Dallas and then San Antonio to her service at city hall — turned out to be the opening acts in public service for Cockrell.
Cockrell, who died at 97, went on to lead even more transformations here, including as president of the San Antonio Parks Foundation, which she stayed involved with for nearly 40 years. In 2007 and 2008, Cockrell and former Councilwoman Bonnie Conner led the charge to raise $1.6 million to restore the lily ponds in the Japanese Tea Garden.
Besides breaking the glass ceiling as San Antonio’s first woman mayor, she also shook up the status quo of city politics then worked to heal divisions, ushering in an era of negotiations between councilmembers to move the city forward.
Even though she was a Good Government League candidate for council in her first run in the late 1960s, she worked on charter changes during a two-year hiatus from the council that would create 10 geographic districts and allow voters in each more control over the city’s destiny.
That change broke the grip of the GGL, controlled primarily by the white business establishment. However, with more Hispanic council members, tensions flared with divisive votes often breaking down along racial lines. Many credit Cockrell with having the steel, albeit wrapped in her genteel manner, to heal those divisions and work out differences behind the scenes. — Travis E. Poling
Restaurateur and downtown champion
May 2, 1921-May 30, 2019
Mi Tierra grew from a humble three-table eatery into a 24-hour dining destination for locals and visitors. The success allowed Cortez’s La Familia Cortez Restaurant Group to expand — launching other popular Market Square dining spots including La Margarita Restaurant and Oyster Bar, Mariachi Bar, Pico de Gallo and Viva Villa. A sixth restaurant, Mi Familia, opened earlier this summer, with a special altar dedicated to the late couple.
Though Pedro Cortez passed away in 1984, Cruz worked until the age of 90, laying the groundwork for a company that now employs 600, including multiple generations of her family. Her role as matriarch and her commitment to the San Antonio community have been recognized through the César E. Chávez Legacy & Educational Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and the Henry Guerra Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Cortez also worked tirelessly to champion the local culture and preserve the history of downtown San Antonio. Like the “American Dream” mural at Mi Tierra, she exemplified how hard work and love of family can accomplish great things. — Lea Thompson
Jim Cullum Jr.
Internationally renowned jazz traditionalist
September 20, 1941-August 11, 2019
As leader of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band he played all over San Antonio before opening The Landing, credited as the first Riverwalk nightclub, in 1963. It was from there that Cullum played with guest vocalists and musicians from the world over. On the nationally syndicated public radio show “Riverwalk Jazz,” Cullum introduced generations to the work of influential jazz artists such as W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.
“He was a person who made things happen,” said local jazz crooner Ken Slavin. “He had vision, very strong drive and he was ambitious.” That ambition took him from festivals around the world to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
San Antonio’s jazz community followed in Cullum’s footsteps in playing anywhere an audience could be found, Slavin added. “That’s the beauty of this city; it doesn’t have to be at a jazz club to be a jazz happening. There’s a legacy to his approach on how to make music happen in San Antonio. He was out hustling gigs like the rest of us.”
Cullum’s influence resounds in artists he influenced, but also in the band that was by his side — some members for decades. The group plays under the name River Walk Alumni Jazz Band and can be found at various restaurants and music venues around the city. Stanford University has 350 “Riverwalk Jazz” programs streaming at riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu. — Travis E. Poling
Wildcard chronicler of gay life in San Antonio
July 4, 1969-April 28, 2019
As a young creative, he managed Bonham Exchange founder Arthur “Happy” Veltman’s legendary local gay bar the San Antonio Country, ran a ceramics gallery on the River Walk and wrote and performed in the campy 1973 ballet Fairies Fiasco. In 1984, he curated the work of 100 San Antonio artists and 10 poets for a time capsule buried in the lobby of the San Antonio Museum of Art. He later joked that he’ll be featured in every SAMA exhibition until it’s unearthed for the museum’s 2181 bicentennial.
Following Veltman’s 1988 death, Elder became the curator and self-described “clip-and-file queen” of the Happy Foundation Archives — a gay history repository housed at the Bonham. Through the job, Elder became an eccentric librarian, chronicling gay life in San Antonio, filing away articles surrounding gay rights and the AIDS pandemic, and preserving belongings left behind by local AIDS victims. Despite its chaotic stacks and crammed filing cabinets, Elder somehow knew what and where everything was.
Beyond his life in the archives, Elder was a wildcard of the queerest variety. He drove a playfully tricked-out Volkswagen Rabbit that looked like a junk shop on wheels. He photobombed so many tourists in front of the Alamo that his antics landed him on the cover of the Wall Street Journal in 1999. He designated July as Political Art Month and championed the cause even when it didn’t stick. He filled friends’ inboxes with rambling newsletters and other unsolicited materials. And he quizzed local artists and personalities about UFOs and other unrelated topics for his Out In SA column “A View of Reality from a Chartreuse Couch.”
After being diagnosed with colon cancer, Elder underwent chemotherapy and radiation but ultimately decided to quit fighting. Speaking to the Current earlier this year, he told writer Sarah Fisch he was grateful to have the time to review his life “like an archaeological dig.” Oh, what a bizarre and amusing dig that must have been. Elder believed in an afterlife and is undoubtedly disrupting it with flying colors. — Bryan Rindfuss
Troubled musical genius behind the 13th Floor Elevators
July 15, 1947-May 31, 2019
Born Roger Kynard Erickson, the guitarist and singer dropped out of high school in the mid-’60s to pursue the rock ’n’ roll life. Before long, he ended up fronting Austin proto-psych band the 13th Floor Elevators, whose debut single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was largely defined by Erickson’s fervent opening scream.
The Elevators won a cult following but also became a target for the Texas cops, and after continued harassment, Erickson was busted for a lone joint in 1969. He pleaded insanity to avoid prison, but time in the mental institution left him a changed man. The Erickson who emerged mined a much darker musical territory, recording albums marked by horror movie odes like “Creature with the Atom Brain” and “I Walked with a Zombie.” Dallas DJ George Gimarc described Erickson’s eerie, overdriven sound from that era as “creature guitar.”
After years of increasing instability, Erickson succumbed to the demons in his head and retreated from music. In the early 2000s, his brother Sumner Erickson gained custody of the ailing musician and helped guide him back. New releases and tours followed, with Erickson eventually booked as the opening-night performer at San Antonio’s Paper Tiger. He also performed a one-night-only reunion with the Elevators at an Austin festival. He died at 71. — Sanford Nowlin
Bonham Exchange owner and gay nightlife pioneer
September 30, 1950-February 8, 2019
Under his watch, the downtown dance mecca thrived for nearly four decades, eventually adding a straight crowd to its clientele, drawn by thumping music, cheap drink specials and an accepting attitude. The building also houses the Happy Foundation, the city’s extensive LGBTQ+ archive.
Garrett inherited the Bonham from his longtime partner, real estate developer Arthur “Hap” Veltman, who died in 1988. The pair met 14 years prior, when Veltman owned San Antonio Country, a bar that served as the Bonham’s precursor.
Veltman gets the credit for opening the Bonham in 1981 in a stately downtown structure that once served as a German social club and gym. However, associates praise Garrett for keeping it vital, even as other nightspots closed. He also launched the Chili Queens Chili Cook-Off, bringing a needed bit of glam to Fiesta.
“First and foremost, he was a huge animal lover,” Chili Queens PMO Commissioner Joan Duckworth told the Current after Garrett’s passing. The club owner had six dogs and regularly “fed every stray cat that shows up at his back door.”
Garrett died in his sleep of a heart attack at age 69 at his home. Shortly before his death, he made the final mortgage payment on the 127-year-old Bonham, which is still in operation and listed with the National Register of Historic Places. — Sanford Nowlin
Influential outsider artist and musician
January 22, 1961-September 11, 2019
Johnston got his start in the early ’80s, selling home-recorded tapes of his simplistically performed, emotionally naked songs in between shifts working at a downtown Austin McDonald’s. San Antonio’s Michael Escamilla was among the group of musicians who coaxed Johnston onstage the first time, and despite his almost paralytic stage fright, the performance helped make him a local cult phenomenon.
Independent-label releases won him a national audience that included other taste-making musicians. Kurt Cobain famously wore a Johnston T-shirt for a Rolling Stone cover shoot, bringing the Texan a brief taste of mainstream interest.
“Daniel was an outsider’s outsider, sort of an extension of the Austin tradition of folks like Townes [Van Zandt], Blaze Foley and Rich Minus with the pop sensibility of Roky Erickson, and sans the alcohol patina of the former,” said Jeff Smith, frontman for San Antonio cowpunk band the Hickoids and one of the first people to release a Johnston song on vinyl.
Johnston was an avid self-taught visual artist whose collaborators included San Antonian Jeff Wheeler. Despite Johnston’s lengthy battle with mental illness, his work “came from the most honest, sincere, loving place that art can come from,” Wheeler added.
Before his death from a heart attack, Johnston was able to witness the influence of his music on pop culture, as new generations of fans discovered his music and artists including Yo La Tengo and Tom Waits released covers of his songs.
A few weeks after his death, he was memorialized by a billboard along Interstate 35 in South Texas bearing the title of one his best-known songs, “True Love Will Find You in the End.” — Chris Conde
Philanthropist behind downtown’s Empire Theatre
October 17, 1928-December 12, 2019
San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs may be widely known for his philanthropic efforts, but observers say his wife of nearly 70 years deserves just as much recognition.
Through the McCombs Foundation, Charline McCombs provided financial support to nonprofits in the Alamo City and across Texas. Since 1981, she and her family were reportedly responsible for more than $125 million in donations.
In addition to serving as the lifetime director of Las Casas Foundation, an Alamo City-based performing arts nonprofit, McCombs’ name appeared on downtown’s Empire Theatre following a $1 million gift from the family to aid in its restoration.
“This is a spectacular woman, iconic in her own right, a matriarch of a wonderful family who has been a loving and caring person for many decades,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who has been close to the McCombs family since Red, the team’s one-time owner, hired him in 1988. “[Red] will be the first one to tell you that she called the shots, she was the boss, and she did it with love and with care, no matter who was involved.” — Sarah Martinez
Rick R. Moore
Linda Pace confidant and Ruby City champion
August 28, 1960-October 5, 2019
Moore began his career in Oklahoma City, working up the ranks to become partner at a large law firm. Over time, he became dissatisfied with practicing law in a formal setting and sought other work. But it wasn’t until he met Pace that he found his true calling.
After a fateful introduction in 2000, Moore began consulting with Pace and soon went to work with her full-time. Moore brought his expertise both as a lawyer and a CPA to the table, helping her establish the Linda Pace Foundation in 2003.
Ruby City would not be here without Moore, observers point out. He was involved in the project from its inception and had a hand in every phase, shepherding it from a dream Pace put to paper in red colored pencil into a 14,000-square-foot structure designed by renowned architect Sir David Adjaye. Even before its opening, media buzz surrounded the project. It landed a feature in Architectural Digest and was included on Time Magazine’s 2019 list of the World’s Greatest Places.
Moore died after a six-year battle with renal cell carcinoma eight days prior to Ruby City’s ribbon-cutting. Even so, he lived long enough to see the long-imagined project come to fruition. He was 59. — Kelly Merka Nelson
Beloved San Antonio visual artist and educator
May 4, 1965-December 21, 2019
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1987, Pell worked for a glass artist in grunge-era Seattle and met her husband Peter Zubiate during coinciding 1993 artist residencies in Colorado. Two years later, the pair moved to San Antonio, eventually converting a Southtown grocery store into a live-work space and having their daughter Bygoe.
Whether working in drawing, painting, sculpture or public art, Pell drew inspiration from nature, childhood memories, personal mythologies, identity, imperfection and reinvention. Her interest in creating something fantastical out of the everyday hit a high note with her 2006 Artpace residency exhibition “Bitchen,” a marriage of feminist concepts and lowrider culture that took shape in elaborately customized household appliances, including a hot pink, fire-breathing stove recently acquired by Ruby City.
A longtime arts educator who made lasting impressions on students at the Circle School, the Southwest School of Art, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Northwest Vista College, Pell became a tireless caregiver to her husband, who passed away in 2017 following an extended illness.
In 2018, South Carolina’s Columbia Museum of Art mounted what Pell described as her “first solo show at a major American museum.” The exhibition showcased many of her visual and conceptual hallmarks — she celebrated ’70s rock idol Peter Frampton as a Jesus-like figure, referenced her formative years in cartoony illustrations set in the woods behind her childhood house, riffed on the outward selves we project in charcoal recreations of awkward yearbook portraits and invited visitors to harness their inner stars by snapping selfies in front of backdrop-like “adoration drawings” bordered in woodland creatures.
When Pell transitioned out of cancer treatment and into hospice care, we offered to record a conversation with her — highlights from which will be published in the Current. During our talk, one of Pell’s favorite personal quotes emerged as a poignant refrain that echoes her belief in everyone’s ability to become something magnificent, despite whatever deck they’ve been dealt: “Don’t pity me. Don’t try to save me. Each day I’m stealing what God never gave me.” — Bryan Rindfuss
San Antonio opera impresario
April 25, 1968-April 28, 2019
Inspired by Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Placido Domingo’s Three Tenors, Richter first appeared on the scene in 1992 when he founded San Antonio’s Three Tenors alongside George Cortes and Jacob Cantu. The trio performed together until Cortes’ death in 2003.
Then, in 1995, Richter launched his first opera company, Pocket Opera, establishing what would become his niche: staging small, intimate operatic productions around the city. Eventually, the Pocket Opera rebranded as the Lyric Opera, then the San Antonio Opera. Richter also played a key role in drawing talent to the Alamo City, bringing in luminaries such as Placido Domingo, Roberta Peters, Andrea Bocelli and Patti Lupone.
Although the San Antonio Opera filed for bankruptcy and dissolved in 2012, Richter was undeterred, soon founding a new company called Opera Piccola. Most recently, Opera Piccola transformed into the Alamo City Opera, known for innovative productions from 2016’s Star Trek-themed version of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio to this year’s performance of As One, a 2014 opera centered around a transgender protagonist. As One was ultimately ACO’s final production. After Richter’s death, the company voted to dissolve. — Kelly Merka Nelson
Eccentric roadside museum curator and ‘King of the Commode’
May 25, 1921-July 23, 2019
Born in the rural Texas town of Eastland in 1921, Smith worked a diverse assortment of jobs — pastor, illustrator, master plumber and volunteer firefighter among them — before turning his Alamo City garage into a quirky home museum circa 1991.
A labor of love that eventually amassed more than 1,400 embellished toilet seats that covered his garage walls in precarious, clanking layers, Smith’s unusual collection earned him local and regional press and mentions in niche travel sites such as roadsideamerica.com. The museum also landed TV spots on the The View, Montel and The Tom Green Show and even led to a coffee-table book chronicling much of his life’s work — 2018’s aptly titled King of the Commode.
On any given day, Smith could be found sharing colorful anecdotes about all of the above and plenty more as visitors snaked through his maze of curiosities. Although the unassuming San Antonio icon died in July at the age of 98, a significant chunk of his idiosyncratic artwork remains in the public eye thanks to Dallas-area bar owner Jason Boso, who purchased Smith’s signature collection to decorate his Truck Yard beer garden. — Bryan Rindfuss
Latin music legend who made a late-life comeback
May 22, 1924-January 16, 2019
Born on the West Side in the 1920s, Vidaurri began singing as a pre-teen in local talent contests and later in saloons owned by her father.
She gained regional fame in the ’40s and ’50s thanks to her contributions to the ranchera genre. Nicknamed “La Calandria,” or the Lark, she won over audiences with her powerful voice and often-risqué stage banter.
As her fame grew, she became the first Tejana to sing at Madison Square Garden. Her resume also included duets with legendary artists including Nat King Cole, Celia Cruz and Pedro Infante.
Vidaurri retired in the late 1950s at the insistence of her then-husband.
In 2001, she resumed her career with a performance at San Antonio’s Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. Her final public performance — in late 2018 — was alongside fellow Latina groundbreakers Blanca Rodriguez and Beatriz Llamas in a supergroup called Las Tesoros de San Antonio. — Chris Conde and Sanford Nowlin
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