Most 91-year-old women don’t work 12-hour days, regularly attend social and civic functions, or have galas thrown in their honor. But San Antonio business woman and philanthropist Rosemary Kowalski is not like most women her age.
Through her catering and events business, she once personally served meals and cocktails to a number of worldly dignitaries including Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II, and is one of a select few women who have been inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame. Now, as Chairman Emeritus of the lucrative hospitality business she built, The RK Group, Kowalski maintains a strong, daily presence in the company's community efforts, placing her focus on philanthropic, nonprofit ventures. She's often found at events around town, usually with her best friend and former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell.
When you ask some of Kowalski's closest friends and business partners what makes her stand out among all the rest, her notoriety as a successful business woman comes second only to her sincerity and overall good nature that she has maintained with friends and strangers alike.
On Monday afternoon, when the Rivard Report visited The RK Group corporate headquarters on the city's Eastside, we learned firsthand how Kowalski's goodwill extends even to those much younger than her. She received a handwritten letter in the mail from a 16-year-old high school girl in Indiana who she met a few months ago at a convention. After exchanging information, the two kindred spirits have been corresponding via snail mail ever since, each learning more about the other with every letter sent.
After 91 years of life, Kowalski has her first pen pal.
"Imagine that," she said as she inspected the letter in her company's mailroom.
It's no wonder that after all of her years of success and humility, she was asked to be this year's Battle of Flowers Parade Grand Marshal. It will be only the second time that Kowalski, who was born and raised on the city's Southside, participated in the parade since 1938 when she rode through on her comptometry school float. She was still buzzing with excitement about it Monday afternoon.
"Not many people in the United States have even heard of Fiesta, but for a person at my age who has lived here my whole life it's an outstanding honor," she said.
And, rightfully so, the honors for Kowalski seem to never stop coming. This month, which also happens to be Women's History Month, is especially big for her. She was the keynote speaker at the San Antonio Business Journal's Legacy Leaders luncheon, and now the RK Group is hosting a tribute gala in her honor on Thursday, March 10 at the Stars at Night Ballroom at the Henry B. González Convention Center. The black tie gala, which will benefit KLRN's News and Public Affairs Fund, will feature an excerpt of a KLRN-produced documentary on Kowalski's life and legacy, "From Rosemary to The RK Legacy."
The full documentary will air on KLRN on Tuesday, March 29. For more information or to purchase tickets to the event, click here.
"It's overwhelming," Kowalski said of her notoriety. "We had nothing, it just all grew."
What started as a small barbecue shack called Uncle Ben's Diner, a venture of Kowalski and her late husband Henry that began in 1946, eventually grew to become Catering by Rosemary. The company got its big break when it won the catering contract for HemisFair '68, which exposed much of the community to its high-caliber culinary and event hosting expertise. Four years later, the company won the catering contract at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, a contract RK Group still holds.
When Kowalski's son, Greg, assumed control of the company in 1989, it became The RK Group, which provides a full range of catering services and event logistics for large-scale sports, entertainment, and cultural event venues. The RK Group employs more than 800 people and caters more than 3,000 events annually at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. And by the looks of it, there seems to be no sign of slowing down.
The most important lesson she has learned from running a business, Kowalski said, is to always show grace and gratitude, even through the hard times.
"There are three (things) that can make anybody's business, and that's work, and (saying) please and thank you," she said, adding that simple acts of kindness like that are not seen enough in today's business society.
Though she's come to be one of the more prominent success stories in San Antonio, Kowalski is not one to sugarcoat the truths and challenges of being a female entrepreneur.
"It's still a man's world in business, and some women activists don't like me to say that, but it's true," she said. Men used to give her trouble for driving a pickup truck in her early business days, something uncommon for women at the time. You just have to set them straight, she said.
"I used to tell 'em, 'I'm making an honest living, so what do you care?'"
But Kowalski spoke without a hint of bitterness. She maintains that sincere smile and gentle nature that have surely played an equal part in her success as her knack for business dealings and attention to detail.
While building her empire and raising her family, which she calls her "proudest accomplishment," Kowalski has been a role model for many women entrepreneurs who have been graced with her friendship, mentorship, or goodwill in passing.
“Rosemary always says, ‘Lila, you came in the front door, and I came in the back door,’ and it’s true,” Cockrell told the Rivard Report during a 2013 interview. Cockrell was elected to City Council in 1963 and served two different times as mayor, from 1975 to 1981, and from 1989 to 1991. “I remember when I was hosting the Queen of England and in comes Rosemary, personally, to serve the Queen her favorite cocktail, a gin and tonic. She always found a way to be in the thick of things.”
We reached out to former Mayor Cockrell for an interview for this story, but she was unable to respond due to a medical condition.
"(Kowalski is) just full of little nuggets of wisdom and is always so giving of her time," said Ana Tomita, former intern at The RK Group.
Aside from her impressive and unparalleled organization skills, Tomita added, Kowalski "always makes personal connections with anybody she meets."
JoAnn Boone, president and CEO of Rio San Antonio Cruises attributes much of what she's learned in her business ventures – and about life – to Kowalski during their more than 10-year friendship.
"Rosemary is the most phenomenal, humble human being you could possibly have the privilege of getting to know," she said. "She has definitely taught me that there's always going to be controversy or static, but the real success is coming out of it gracefully, and successfully."
Perhaps the overriding lesson from this Southsider is to never forget where you came from.
"I credit the San Antonio people for (the RK Group's) success," Kowalski said. "They're the ones who have promoted us and helped us grow so big."
*Top image: Rosemary Kowalski in the RK Group tasting room. Photo by Scott Ball.