Edith McAllister, one of the greatest philanthropists and cultural leaders in San Antonio’s history, died Sunday at age 100 after suffering a fall in late May.
Hoping to reach her 100th birthday on Feb. 18, McAllister celebrated it humorously with a seated, black-tie dinner for 100 friends in the Witte Museum’s Hall of Dinosaurs. Speech-makers were her future eulogists: former Mayor Lila Cockrell, Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen, retired UTSA President Ricardo Romo, and Dr. Ruth Berggren who directs the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at UT Health Antonio.
“She loved it,” daughter Taddy McAllister said.
H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt called Edith “a unique force, unlikely to be repeated here.
“She charmed me, stimulated me, and poked me when I was slow to sign up for her latest project,” Butt told the Rivard Report. “Her distinctive, handwritten letters were always attention-getting. You knew that after ‘Dear Charles’ she was going to put forward some big idea of which you would want to be part.”
In tribute to her, Butt endowed a scholarship in McAllister’s name at the Southwest School of Art during its most recent capital campaign.
Edith served as founder, president, chair, or trustee of dozens of organizations locally and beyond spanning the arts, education, medicine, and children’s welfare. The walls and shelves of her home are filled with award plaques, statues, and certificates from groups including the State of Texas, the University of Texas, YMCA, the National Jewish Hospital, the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame, the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, San Antonio Youth Literacy, and her beloved San Antonio Symphony.
Raising crucial funds to transform many organizations, she was featured on the cover of Philanthropy in Texas magazine in 1997. She was the first woman in the United States to serve as a campaign chair of the United Way, in 1972, and she served as chair of the philanthropic San Antonio Area Foundation in 1981 and 1982.
In the field of science she was a founder and president of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center, now UT Health’s Mays Cancer Center, and the Cancer Center Council, as well as founder of the Advisory Council of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics. She also was the first person Butt invited to join the Advisory Council of the UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, where her coast home flowed with friends and parties every summer.
As recently as June 21, she was honored with the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s Legacy Award.
Growing up in Madisonville and Davenport, Iowa, her parents and older sister moved to San Antonio when her father purchased the still-active Hot Wells hotel and spa in 1929, Taddy told the Rivard Report. Hot Wells quickly met its end during the Depression, and the family moved to a duplex on Hays Street in East San Antonio.
“Mother was embarrassed to be driven to school by an out-of-work chauffeur because it made her look rich when in fact they didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Taddy said. “When Jefferson High School opened, she didn’t immediately switch over like most of her friends did because she didn’t have the money to get there.”
Against the advice of a Jefferson High School counselor who said her boyfriend, mild-mannered Walter Williams McAllister Jr., was too wild, Edith married him in 1940 after she finished up at the University of Texas at Austin. Her degree in business, unusual for a woman at the time, led her to serve as treasurer on many nonprofit boards in the future, Taddy said, because she knew how to read a budget.
The newlywed McAllisters moved to a historic home near downtown where they began their family of four children – Walter III, called “Bo,” Reagin, Taddy, and Eloise. But construction of an Interstate 35 overpass where the home sat forced them to move. For the next 68 years their landmark Alfred Giles-designed home in Terrell Hills was to become the site of countless meetings, fundraisers, and fun, including Edith’s lavish Christmas parties at which she greeted guests from a director’s chair on the front porch.
While Walter, who died in 1988, led his father’s San Antonio Savings Association, Edith began her lifelong career of voluntarism. She started as a Girl Scout leader, president of the Alamo Heights Junior School PTA, and other activities involving her children and social life including Mistress of the Robes for the Fiesta coronation of 1965.
Taddy said her mother and Edith’s father-in-law, Walter Williams McAllister Sr., liked each other’s spunk and attended many civic events together when he served as mayor of San Antonio from 1961 through 1971. Through him she met two lifelong friends, then-City Councilwoman Lila Cockrell, future mayor, and Rosemary Kowalski, whom Mayor McAllister selected to cater for the convention center. They continued to admire and learn from each other throughout their careers.
One of Edith’s greatest legacies that she herself called her life’s work was the Southwest Craft Center, now named the Southwest School of Art. She became involved from the start when Betty Urschel, part of a small group of women who founded it in anticipation of HemisFair ’68, called and asked her to be treasurer of the new board. She joined right away, trusting it would be something worthwhile.
Owen, president of the school for nearly 22 years, became a colleague and friend.
“I got to work with her for two decades and was always amazed at how forward-thinking she was and supportive of the grand vision rather than the status quo,” Owen said.
McAllister’s contacts and persuasiveness raised money for the school’s expansion from La Villita to the 19th-century Ursuline Academy, preservation of its buildings, and its growth in community education and becoming the state’s only degree-granting art college.
On April 29, McAllister attended the first-ever graduation of the Southwest School of Art’s BFA degree program in cap and gown to grant the Edith McAllister Prize, established by the Alturas Foundation. Owen was elated.
“Whenever she wondered if she would make it to her 100th birthday, I would tell her I wanted her to make it until graduation, and darned if she didn’t,” Owen said.
Edith also was involved in founding Club Giraud, a private dining club whose memberships support the Southwest School of Art. Her membership number was 1.
In tribute to her belief in the school, the ceramics studio – the first new building on campus – was named for her in 2015.
Edith explained her unceasing energy as coming from swimming laps every morning for 43 years, waterskiing at the coast, and ballroom dancing – usually with younger, handsome dance partners. After her 95th birthday party at the Southwest School of Art, she told a reporter, “My favorite parts of the evening were celebrating with lifelong friends as well as new young friends like Joaquin and Julián Castro, and dancing to Rick Cavender’s band with some of my special fellas.”
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She continued in all these activities until she developed congestive heart failure at 94, even waterskiing slalom in Port Aransas through her 92nd summer.
To Taddy, who moved home to be with her mother from Washington D.C. when her energy began to decrease, Edith’s social and civic desire to help came as naturally as breathing. Even in elementary school she wrote the school song. It is used to this day.
“She is a genuine extrovert,” Taddy said. “That coupled with the fact that she was born happy has made her a figure much loved because of her automatic response to people, her interest in the ‘other,’ her curiosity, and her boundless energy.”
Her children had to compete for their mother’s time and attention, especially when she chaired the San Antonio Museum Association. “We kids called her Myrtle Museum because she was practically living at the Witte Museum in 1963,” Taddy said. “She was deeply involved in the art museum and in the recruitment of Ann Rockefeller Roberts to give the Nelson Rockefeller Folk Art Collection to the museum. But she was a terrific mother who was adored by her children.”
Owen said she went to see Edith after her fall, realizing she was weak and couldn’t speak well. But Edith, ever the lady, rallied.
“She said, ‘Oh, Paula, I’m s-o-o-o happy to see you!’ She turned into this gracious host from flat on her back,” Owen said.
In addition to her four children, Edith McAllister leaves to carry on her legacy seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and four step-great-grandchildren.