Surrounded by friends and family at home, Bill Sinkin, 100, died Monday evening. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” aptly played while one of the most recognizable champions of civil rights and solar power in San Antonio slipped away.
Since word of his failing health was passed from family members to friends to colleagues several weeks ago, “it’s been a constant stream of wonderful people here (at home),” said Lanny Sinkin, the youngest of two sons Bill is survived by. “It’s been really beautiful seeing all the love poured out to him.”
“His face lights up around young people,” Lanny said, describing a recent visit from young Solar San Antonio staff members as we sat next to a resting Bill last week. Bill founded the solar advocacy nonprofit in 1999 and Lanny serves as executive director.
Under his and Lanny’s leadership, Solar San Antonio continues to pave the way for San Antonio to become a model city for roof-top and community solar. They’ve worked and lived closely for many years.
“He told (his young staffers) what a wonderful thing they were doing for the world,” Lanny recalled his father’s words. “To ‘find a bold vision and get people to join you’ … ‘make your dreams come true’ … (and) ‘I love you is always the right answer.'”
Lanny paused. His words are measured and heavy with emotion – those of a loved-one patiently prepared for this loss.
“He doesn’t use that word (love) a lot,” he said. “So when he does, he really means it.”
Though Bill may not have used the word often in his journey, he expressed his love of humankind in every step – regardless of demographics, before it was hip. He has recently been referred to as the “Sun King” for his solar energy advocacy, but Bill has worn many crowns (and bow ties) during his 100 years.
Chairman, banker, teacher, businessman, activist, community organizer, philanthropist, father, husband – the list could surely go on. Bill Sinkin was ahead of his time and certainly not one to waste it.
“He was the perfect bridge across troubled waters,” said former Mayor Henry Cisneros. “A great city needs advocates, it also needs people who are advocates in a way that can build to the other side … Jewish to Latino … business to advocacy … from the financial sector to the environmental sector. Bill Sinkin’s role as an honest banker and rock-solid ideas of social progress and fairness changed our city.”
By cultivating relationships across race, religion, class, and political affiliation, Bill transformed the idea of HemisFair ’68 into a well-funded reality; provided under-served, minority populations with banking, jobs, and small business loans; defended the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone from development with his wife of 65 years, Fay Sinkin (1918-2009); expanded public housing for low-income families; planted the seed of solar energy deep within San Antonio to become an industry mecca, and he was the oldest member of the San Antonio Symphony. He played the violin.
Growing up, Cisneros said his own grandfather and uncle had a “hero-worship” for Bill Sinkin. Bill was a respected business man who patronized local, minority-owned businesses and assisted them with loans when no other bank could – or would. With the backing of Tom Frost Sr. of Frost Bank, Bill bought Texas State Bank in the 1960s and hired some of the first African-American bank tellers. Despite the threat of violence, Texas State Bank was the first to open its doors to both blacks and whites in Texas.
“He was my antennae, or mentor, to what was going on politically,” Frost said of his colleague and friend. “We agreed immediately when he asked for help (to open Texas State Bank). It was a way for us … to have a bank that would really serve the Eastside.”
Bill was instrumental in getting local banks together to back the 1968 World’s Fair, HemisFair ’68.
“I regard HemisFair ’68 as my greatest contribution to the community,” Bill said during a 2005 oral history interview with the Express-News and Institute for Texan Cultures. “To this day, I still don’t know exactly how the dynamics came about.”
Hemisfair ’68 is often cited as the key to San Antonio’s arrival on the national stage, opening up the world to San Antonio and vice versa, Bill said. “San Antonio’s real growth began with HemisFair.”
Bill was far more than business and politics. He was only able to be an effective activist for projects and ideals because his heart was truly in it.
“His relationships transcended political and economic issues,” Frost said. And his energy was seemingly limitless. “Over all the years I’ve known him … he was never too old to dream and never too old to quit trying to do work for the community.”
This underlying respect for all mankind stems, at least in part, from his religious faith. Though Bill did not practice the formal aspects of Judaism, said Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Stahl of Temple Beth-El, he was an active member of the faith. “He represented the best of Judaism embodying social justice and community betterment … (his heritage) encouraged him to work on desegregation.”
During his many years presiding over the annual International Latke Society Luncheon, Rabbi Stahl said Bill always brought “tremendous wit and charm … and he’d ask every Jewish person on his list to bring a non-Jewish friend to the lunch – building a bridge between diverse groups.”
“His highest priority in life was to make San Antonio a city where people’s rights are affirmed and their dignity as human beings assured,” Rabbi Stahl said.
Bill was born May 19, 1913 in San Antonio to Nathan and Bella Sinkin, an immigrant couple from Russia seeking to join the small community of Russian Jews. San Antonio was not the inclusive city then that it is now.
Bill described his second day of school to me last year: He wore a velvet jacket and pants suit, the traditional attire of his homeland. He was six, his hair in perfect, dark curls around his face. He was taken out at recess by a few boys and beaten up.
“What those (inaudible) boys did … Sorry, I don’t like to use profanity,” he said as I leaned in closer to hear, “Made me (not) want to have to say that I was Jewish.”
As he recalled this experience to me in this quiet ballroom, later filled with more than 300 city dignitaries and friends, he didn’t speak of this time with tears in his eyes. “This experience led to almost everything else good (in my life),” he said.
While sitting by his side last week, Bill’s nephew, Steven Sinkin, a local lawyer, reflected on his uncle’s greatest success. “It’s an incredible gift to be respected by people of all political perspectives (and) religious beliefs.”
Close friend Janet Weiss and day nurse Eleanor Crawford sat with me in the kitchen while visitors came and left, both exhausted after a long day of in-home hospice care – but neither complained. They were eager to talk about the man, Bill Sinkin, resting in the other room. Weiss had been a friend for about 20 years through her event planning career and they became close in 2011. The two women began to reminisce of moments they shared with Bill.
Bill heard Crawford sing, he said, “Give me a little taste.”
She sang a verse, surprised at the then 99-year-old’s crisp order, and stopped.
“Keep singing!” he demanded. So she sang at his 100th birthday celebration last year and continued to sing him to sleep throughout his last weeks.
“He picked up a few swear words hanging out with me,” Weiss said, laughing. “But I can’t remember a time when he said an unkind work to anyone … he’s a diplomat all the way.”
Rabbi Stahl remembers sitting with Bill for his 90th birthday party – a grand celebration, as usual, this time at La Villita. As the guests began to fill the seats and their bellies, Rabbi Stahl noticed a file that Bill had brought with him from the office.
“Ninety years old and he has a file that says ‘Future Projects,’ ” Stahl said, laughing. That was Bill, always planning the next big thing.
I’d like to think that he took that file with him when moved to his new address, but surely he left a copy for us behind.
Bill Sinkin is survived by two sons, Richard Sinkin and Lanny Sinkin; three granddaughters, Patti Leigh, Katherine Hancock, and Amelia Sinkin; and three great-grandchildren, Justin and Jessica Hancock and Jennifer Leigh.
Funeral arrangements are being made by the family for this Friday, Feb. 7. Details will be added here when available.