Edith McAllister, Iconic San Antonio Philanthropist, Dies at Age 100

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Edith McAllister with Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen.

Courtesy / McAllister Family

Edith McAllister with Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen.

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.

A memorial service will take place Monday, July 9, at 4 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church (404 N. Alamo St.). To sign the guestbook, click here. 

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 McAllister with Abraham Verghese a best-selling author and founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the UT Health San Antonio.

Courtesy / McAllister Family

Edith McAllister with Abraham Verghese, a best-selling author and founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at UT Health San Antonio.

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 McAllister water skied until the age of 94.

Courtesy / McAllister Family

Edith McAllister waterskied until the age of 92.

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."

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.

Edith attended her grandson Wyatt Spalding McAllister's graduation from the University of Illinois with her daughter Eloise (right) and her spouse Adrienne Braswell (left).

Courtesy / McAllister Family

Edith McAllister attends her grandson Wyatt Spalding McAllister's graduation from the University of Illinois with her daughter Eloise (right) and her former spouse Florence Spalding (left).

 

21 thoughts on “Edith McAllister, Iconic San Antonio Philanthropist, Dies at Age 100

  1. Each of us – and the entire community of San Antonio – was blessed to have had Edith McAllister with us for more than 100 years. She will be missed, but her legacy will continue to touch the lives of countless numbers of us for years to come.

  2. I had the privilege of meeting Edith shortly after moving to San Antonio in 1973. During the time I was Chamber President (1887-2007), I could always count on Edith to be among the leaders supporting every school and City bond election and anything else that would make our community a better place for all who lived her. She truly was a bright jewel in San Antonio’s crown and a dear friend who I will greatly miss.

  3. I was blessed to spend an evening with Edith recounting her memories of living at The Hotwells Hotel (now Ruins) just weeks ago. She was so full of life and spunk. Edith did so much for this community and her achievements will live on for generations. She will be dearly missed.

  4. Dearest Edith,

    You made this city better forever. And every person who knew you became happier too. Thank you, we love and honor you always.

    Thank you, Nancy, for this very beautiful tribute.

  5. My late wife and I met Edith at the San Antonio airport where a small group of us had gathered to launch on a museum-sponsored trip to Istanbul, the Black Sea and Ephesus. I realized I had a hole in my right front pocket; Edith told me to turn it out, whipped out a needle & thread and made a speedy repair. Subsequently we traveled with Edith and Taddy with one memorable trip to Denmark and Norway. Edith told to save the second night in Copenhagen as we were having drinks and appetizers with the American ambassador.
    I said, “How did you manage that?” and she replied, “I changed his diapers.”

  6. Yes Edith in addition to being a personal friend was an inspiration to be around all the time.

    There is a parking lot at the Southwest school of Art and club GIraud only because of the stamina, originality of fund raising and the sheer force of the personality of Edith McAlluster. She sold every square foot of those 2 parking lots – largely by the sheer force of her personality. You did not hang up the phone on Edith McAllister-ever.

    Dancing, waterskiing or swimming at the Club – regardless of the season- pitta mise this huge personality that left us today. She will be greatly missed by the many organizations which she touched and by her many friends who came to her annual Christmas party at her home on Terrell Road each December 21.

    Want to feel young? Just bring up a water skiing video of Edith McAllister on YouTube. She was a Woman for all Seasons.

  7. Edith was a role model to people who lived and worked in San Antonio. She used her talents, connections, and generous gifts to create a better community.

  8. As a young development officer at San Antonio Academy, Edith was incredibly kind to me. I would bring her letters and she would edit them in a red pen. We would sit in her home and I always marveled at the walls full of awards, plaques and photos. Edith helped so many causes with genuine passion for making San Anronio better.

  9. A remarkable, driven and very kind lady. She truly care for non-profits in San Antonio. Many of the longstanding institutions are there now and thriving because of her commitment, because she believed in them and because she was a true pioneer.

  10. My late wife, Merry Nell Van Fleet Drummond, was a close friend of Edith’s daughter, Taddy – since about the third grade! She had been a guest in their Port A home during summer visits since Junior High.
    The lovely comments above all share moving (and accurate) tribute to a great Lady and their whole large large family!
    Edith McAllister was a true one-off! The very definition of grace and one of Texas’ best leaders – in every thing she did. She leaves a clan that is following her singular example. Rest In Peace dear one.

  11. I admired Edith. Two things come to mind…. once I was seated next to her at a dinner…. she asked if I would trade places with my husband, as she preferred to sit next to a man. Another was when I told her I wanted to be just like her ….her reply was “keep trying, honey”

  12. Big gifts come in small packages and Edith McAllister was most certainly one. Her civic involvement provided a tremendous impact on our community…Edith was the “Energizer Bunny”! Besides that, she could swim/ski circles around us all. We should all aspire to be as agile and sharp at 100 as she.
    Our heartfelt condolences to the entire family.
    Carol & Rod Black

  13. How blessed are all of us in San Antonio that Ms. Edith love this city so. Edith also served as a great role model for so many of us. She taught us the meaning of Philanthropy and lead by example. She always encouraged us to do more and give more for those who had less. I honestly don’t think I ever heard her complain about anything including any aches and pains. She was and will always be an amazing lady! Rest in Peace dear Edith! Carry on Ms. Taddy!

  14. Thank you for this beautiful memorial capturing the life and legacy of an amazing human being who I was proud to have known. Her passion and commitment to advancing arts, culture and scientific research made a real difference to our San Antonio. May she rest in peace.

  15. Nancy, what a special article and most fitting. Edith and I were friends for many years and she was all you said. I hope I am lucky enough to have you do my “review” someday.
    Margaret King Stanley

    • Margaret, thank you for your kind words but I rue the day I would be asked to write your, uh, review, as you say. In fact, let’s get started on a biography….!

  16. I arrived in San Antonio in 1970 and joined the craft center, soon to be on it’s board for one year. She was the only welcome I received but a lovely one with a smile and saying my name, eyes to my eyes. Furthermore, she supported my idea for visiting craftsmen. I always looked up to her for being the most inclusive person in the city.

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