Billy Joe “Red” McCombs

Member of the Executive Committee – San Antonio Fair, Inc. 1963 – 1968

In August of 2012 I had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. McCombs to hear some of his memories of the planning, construction, operation of HemisFair ’68. Below is a transcript of my conversation with Mr. McCombs.

How did you first get involved with HemisFair ’68 ?

When the Fair was announced I was the acting president of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. At the time the Chamber was the most organized civic type unit in the city of San Antonio, which is made up of local business leaders. As the plans for what would eventually turn into HemisFair ’68 developed those of us on the Chamber of Commerce became involved with almost very aspect of the Fair. Eventually I left the chamber to become a member of San Antonio Fair’s Executive Committee.

What do you remember about the level of involvement government have in HemisFair?

All though the Fair had its own governing entity with its own board of directors which handled most of the aspects involved in putting on a World’s Fair, the city of San Antonio had a lot of involvement This ranged from planning, to construction, operation in 1968, the demolition afterwards and beyond. The 92 acre property the Fair was built on for example was conveyed thru the city thru urban renewal processes, but the city had to be the sponsor. The county played a small role, but not much.

At the state level Governor John Conally played a significant role not only as the Fair’s Commissioner General but also in state participation in the Fair. One example was the stringent alcohol laws in Texas at the time, you couldn’t buy alcohol by the glass and what you could buy had to be brown bagged. The Governor understood that we couldn’t have visitors from around the world and not be able to serve alcohol in restaurant/bar atmosphere. The majority of the state representatives came from rural areas that were against having bars so getting new legislation passed to allow bars in the state as well as for HemisFair was no easy task. At one point a representative from Temple Texas told the Governor that he could not vote in favor, his constituents would never re-elect him if he did. The Governor replied I can help you with that, without this bill passed the funding for roads in your area may be delayed indefinitely. In the end the residents voted for the bill and they got their roads.

What do you remember about the recruitment of industry to participate in HemisFair ‘68?

One of the biggest things we learned the hard way was at the time the city of San Antonio had no image with most of the Fortune 500 companies. One of the BIE requirements was that we have a certain number of industrial participants, each with a pavilion staffed during the entire six month run of the Fair. Right away we got the first three: Bell Telephone, Eastman Kodak and a third whose name escapes me at the moment, however, after that we went a year and a half without anyone else signing-up. At the time we didn’t quite understand the reason for the lack of interest, it turned out only a few had heard of San Antonio and less had visited. Those of us who lived and worked here loved our city and its long history, therefore just assumed everyone knew of San Antonio. As we came closer to our deadlines for BIE certification and site construction for the Fair word got to then U.S. President Lyndon Johnson who was also shocked by our lack of reputation outside of Texas. The president stepped in and got on the phone to many of the heads of Fortune 500 companies, after getting a call from LBJ most of them signed-up and eventually exhibited at the Fair.

What are your memories of the site construction for HemisFair?

One big thing was we had a lot of out of town contractors working on the Fair, most of the local contractors stayed away from the site. Zachary Construction could not participate on the grounds being the company’s head H.B. Zachary was also the Chairman of HemisFair’s Executive Committee. However, by January of ’68 (two months till the opening) most of the construction was behind schedule and would not be done by the opening day in April. At this point Mr. Zachary told the board he would offer his crews to all the contractors on the Fair to do what was needed to complete construction on time at cost as to not be seen as taking any profits. After everyone agreed he reshuffled construction crews from projects around the world to the Fair site. The project he helped most on was the Tower of the Americas, even with help it opened a week after the Fair did.

Just off the fairgrounds on the corner of Market & Alamo Mr. Zachary pulled off another miracle with his construction of the Hilton Palacio Del Rio hotel in 202 days. Back during the summer of ’67 we still projected that we would not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the 7.4 million visitors projected to come to the fair, so Mr. Zachary said I can not put up a 1,000 room hotel in time but I can put up a 500 room hotel. The rooms were prefab modules (70,000 pounds each) built and fully furnished at his plant on the south side of town, trucked up to the site and hoisted into place like building blocks.

What was the atmosphere like on the grounds during the six month run of HemisFair ’68?

It was a holiday for six months. The entire city was involved: residents working the grounds, most of the local high schools marching bands performed at the Fair, etc…, the residents of San Antonio felt that it was our Fair. Everyday there was something different going on at the Fair; we had several dignitaries from various foreign nations visit. One neat thing was a lot of us offered to host dignitaries in our homes if the didn’t want to stay in a hotel, the Spanish Ambassador and his wife stayed at my house during their visit to HemisFair ‘68.

During the six month run of HemisFair ‘68 did you have a favorite pavilion or venue?

My favorite as well as for many others turned out to be a saloon called Golden Garter Club located on the eastern side of the fairgrounds. It was an expensive venue because first we had to build two story structure designed to resemble an old style saloon and then book acts for the entire six month run of the Fair, at first no one wanted to handle it because of the cost. At the time a partner and I were interested in getting the hot dog concession, but I was told no, being on the executive committee it would be a conflict of interest. Later on I was told that if my partners and I took on the Golden Garter venue we could have the hot dog concession, I said alright and built the lakeside pavilion. In the end the hot dogs broke even and the Golden Garter turned into a cash cow, partly because it was one of the few places which served liquor.

What role did HemisFair ’68 have on the introduction of sports franchises in San Antonio?

As I mentioned earlier outside of Texas the city was not very well known, during the Fair I began to think about how people were becoming mesmerized by professional sports on television, especially the big satellite out of Atlanta where people could watch Braves baseball 24/7. I felt after the Fair is over we should work on getting a major sports team for San Antonio as a way to promote the city nationally. The fact that we had the convention center arena built as part of HemisFair ’68 provided the city a great venue in the heart of downtown to house a new team. So in 1973 we acquired the ABA team from Dallas called the Chaparrals and re branded them as the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs did everything we ever dreamed they would, they really identified the city and put us on the map.