Bill Sinkin’s Big Love Affair (Isn’t What You Think It Is)
Published: February 12, 2014
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.
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