Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Move over, Dos Equis Man. Phil Hardberger might be the “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
The former San Antonio mayor has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, re-created Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris, sailed across seas, served a high-ranking post in the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration, and is a chevalier – or French knight.
Hardberger’s extraordinary life story is the subject of a Lee Cusenbary musical called An Adventurer’s Journey that will be performed Tuesday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. It’s the first time the production will have been put on since January 2017. County Judge Nelson Wolff and his wife, Tracy, and the Family Justice Center conceived the idea a few years ago as a way to honor the San Antonio statesman’s contributions to the city. The play also served as a fundraiser for the justice center, which provides assistance to women and children in abusive homes.
Hardberger was hospitalized with pneumonia prior to the last performance of the musical, although he was able to see the show live. However, no video recording was made, and Hardberger wanted another chance to see the humorous, semi-biographical stage production featuring more than a dozen actors singing and dancing to familiar tunes – but adapted to Hardberger’s life.
This time, the show will benefit the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy, over which Hardberger presides. The conservancy’s next big project, a land bridge for both wildlife and humans connecting two parts of Phil Hardberger Park divided by Wurzbach Parkway, is expected to open in summer 2020.
“I’m looking forward to enjoying myself,” he said.
Hardberger was born in Odessa in 1934. He joined the U.S. Air Force and flew the B-47 bomber. Nicknamed “Tex” in the Air Force, Hardberger completed 7,500 hours of air travel without a safety violation, earning him the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award in 2007.
He was living in Mexico around the time John F. Kennedy was elected president. Inspired by his call to young adults throughout the United States to join an upcoming global service program, the Peace Corps, Hardberger flew to Washington, D.C., to witness JFK’s inauguration.
A year went by after Hardberger applied for a volunteer post. Then he got a call from D.C. It was the Peace Corps. He was not tapped to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, Hardberger would join the newly formed program’s staff. Over time, he rose to the seventh-ranked official in the Peace Corps, traveling to 18 countries throughout his time and meeting JFK on several occasions.
All the while, Hardberger was completing his law degree. He moved back to Odessa to practice law but never lost the taste for adventure.
In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight in a single-engine plane from New York City to Paris, Hardberger did the same – only this time he flew from San Antonio to Paris, making a stop in Greenland for fuel and Ireland for rest. He did it all subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches his daughter Amy, then in third grade, and her classmates made for him. For recreating Lindbergh’s flight, Hardberger was knighted in France.
In the 1990s, still a decade before his run for mayor, the avid adventurer phoned San Antonio lawyer Ted Lee after reading an article in the Texas Bar Journal about Lee’s mountaineering travails. As they carried on a conversation about mountain climbing, Lee invited Hardberger to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with him and a team of climbers. Hardberger accepted.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I had never done any mountain climbing.
“He and I started training. We trained a long time. He was in good shape; I was in terrible shape.
Lee and Hardberger trained two hours a day, running up and down the stairs at Alamo Stadium. Hardberger got stronger. The two successfully reached the summit later that year.
Lee said Hardberger was a great climbing partner and friend over the years. He remains astounded by the former mayor’s ambitious drive, but there’s one adventure Hardberger never took Lee up on.
“I’ve done some spelunking – Hardberger drew the line there,” Lee said with a laugh. “He was never interested in going below the surface.
“We enjoyed our times together.”
Cusenbary – an attorney, playwright, and performer – said Hardberger inspires others to do. His lust for life is contagious, Cusenbary said, and he hopes to impart that on the audience Tuesday night.
The musical is just more than an hour of musical numbers and several special guests, including Linda, Hardberger’s wife, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
In addition to spotlighting Hardberger’s life before his time as mayor, Cusenbary told the Rivard Report the play highlights his achievements as a public servant.
“The additions that Phil Hardberger has made to the city have raised billions of dollars,” Cusenbary said. “He was just a visionary.”
Hardberger served two two-year terms as mayor, from 2005 to 2009. When he left office, he had an 86 percent approval rating, cementing himself as one of the city’s most popular mayors.
Hardberger, who has traveled to 68 countries altogether in his 84 years, has fond recollections of his adventures on land, in the air, and by sea, but it was the time he served at City Hall that was the most gratifying, he said, even though it was a tough job that commonly demanded 18-hour workdays.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a really great life, and I’m aware of it,” he said. “One of the greatest adventures in my life was being mayor of San Antonio.”