Local Knowledge

Herbert Kelleher, the Southwest Airlines founder who died January 3, 2019, at 87, played a key role in UTSA’s history.

Local Knowledge

A UTSA ally talks about the people who helped move the university from being just an idea to a piece of San Antonio history

[ This Q&A is an excerpt of an interview conducted by David R. Johnson, professor emeritus, Department of History, on January 6, 2009 ]

Herbert Kelleher, the Southwest Airlines founder who died January 3, 2019, at 87, played a key role in UTSA’s history. In 1966 he was a lawyer in John Peace’s law firm and had also worked on Gov. John Connally’s reelection campaign when he was made chair of the S.A. Chamber of Commerce’s education committee. From this position he helped to shape the chamber’s recommendations to the state agencies determining the future of higher education in the Alamo City and, thus, he helped to shepherd UTSA into existence. Later, he remained a loyal supporter of the university, including as a President’s Associate for nearly four decades. And his son, David N. Kelleher, is a UTSA alumnus, acquiring his B.S. in physics in 1995.

One of the things I'm trying to do is figure out where the idea for a local university came from. Obviously, I’m very interested in UTSA. Can you tell me about that?

John Peace was really the political powerhouse behind the UTSA movement, but I was the spokesman who was actually on the ground in the Legislature, openly lobbying for it. I was the one who held some seminal meetings in San Antonio to garner support for it, under John’s guidance.

I held one meeting that I got a particular kick out of. We were the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a state-supported university. The heads of all the other colleges in San Antonio were saying they were very supportive, but we knew behind the scenes that they weren’t. So I got them all together. I forget how we described the occasion; I don’t really remember. But I put it together and got all the presidents up on stage. Then I launched into this peroration on behalf of the four-year university, and turned around to each one of them in front of the audience and said, “Do you oppose it? Do you oppose it? Do you oppose it?” And they said, “Oh, no. We’re for it.” Then we had them on record.

I’m not sure that the newspapers reported that meeting.

I’m not sure they did; I just don’t remember. But I’ll tell you a funny question I was asked when I testified before the Senate committee about the appropriation for UTSA. A senator from Houston said to me—and this has always amused me in recollection. He said, “Mr. Kelleher, isn’t it true that San Antonio is the type of city that won’t spend a nickel to make a dollar?” And I said, “Yes, it is, Senator. And that’s why we need a state-supported four-year university.” He thought we were going to get into a big hassle, a big fight. No, you’re right; that’s why we need state money. I was vastly amused.

He was taken aback because that wasn’t what he was expecting.

No, he wanted to get into a firefight.

Mr. Peace led the Bexar County effort for Governor Connally.

That’s correct. And he was one of the people who entreated Mr. Connally to run for governor [in 1962].

In January 1965, Connally held a press conference and announced that San Antonio needed a four-year state-supported university. I’m curious about that because there’s nothing prior to that which indicated he was that devoted to San Antonio in particular.

Well, he had background and connections to San Antonio—the election results, his proximity to San Antonio. [Editor’s note: Connally was from Floresville, about 30 miles southeast of downtown San Antonio.]

Was Mr. Peace someone who was really interested in higher education?

Yes. Governor Connally preached—and I really mean preached, privately as well as publicly—that Texas was going to fall way behind other states if it didn’t improve its educational system and improve access to education for people of the state. And John [Peace] repeatedly professed that he thought that was the case, and that he owed a lot to The University of Texas at Austin because he felt that the university had really helped him to succeed and prosper. So they both, at least in my presence, always expressed a prime focus on education as the key to improving the lot of Texas and Texans as a whole.

That’s interesting because that view differs from what I’ve been able to find about attitudes toward education in San Antonio. What I’ve found was a keen interest in the community college, which was at that time just San Antonio College, and it was primarily focused on training a skilled workforce, which was a perfectly reasonable thing. But bringing in a four-year university is very different.

Absolutely, it is a different ball game, and frankly, John Connally and John Peace were interested in changing the ball game. That’s where they were coming from, because in so far as San Antonio is concerned you’re exactly right. They said how can you get industry to come here if we don’t have a large, complete state-supported university? That will attract people here. People will come here to go to school and stay here and make a contribution. High-tech companies won’t move someplace where there isn’t an opportunity for continuing education for their executives. All that talk was going about San Antonio and the state of Texas.

Who besides Mr. Peace in San Antonio was talking about that? Was the Chamber of Commerce involved?

The Chamber… You know, that’s interesting that you would mention that because the Chamber may have been supportive, but it wasn’t active. I think they were in favor of the mission, but there was probably a lot of pressure on them from other institutions. That would be my guess.

So they weren’t “out front”?

No, they were not. That I can tell you.

So it had to be Mr. Peace, you, and a couple of other people?

Yes, and John Connally held a couple of meetings in San Antonio and persuaded a number of people who were influential. They were not public officials.

Who were they?

They were basically people who had participated in Connally’s campaign. A lot of people in the San Antonio business community who didn’t attract a lot of publicity, had no aspirations to public office. He held what I thought was one seminal meeting at my brother-in-law Alfred Negley’s house. He talked about the educational system, how it had to be improved in both quality and accessibility.

And one of the questions, just to give you an exemplar of what comes out of that, when I was testifying before the House and the Senate on behalf of the university, I said, “I would like the members of this appropriations committee to tell me why Alpine, Texas, has a state-supported university, Sul Ross, and San Antonio does not.” It was the politics.

In political science theory it’s called distributive politics.

Distributive? [Laughs] I love that.

Do you remember anyone else who was at this meeting at Mr. Negley’s house?

I’d really have to search my memory.

One of the things I’m trying to do is identify and give credit to the people who understood the importance of getting the university for the city. There’s, of course, this huge controversy over the location of the institution. I’ve tried to talk to Mrs. Peace, and I’ve also tried to talk to Stanley Schoenbaum. What I’ve been told, and not by them, is that they are concerned that I wanted to talk about that whole controversy over the decision about the location of UTSA. What I’m really interested in is the idea of the university and who came up with it first, and then who supported it in the business community as well as anywhere else in the community. It was a revelation to me that there was this prior commitment on the part of Mr. Peace. While he’s given credit as a regent as the person who made it happen, the missing piece is what was going on that made [the university] possible. One of the senators gets all the credit in the newspapers for sponsoring the bill.

Lombardino. Frank took that as a cause. He made that his prime focus in the Senate. From the political standpoint he was out there. [Editor’s note: Lombardino was actually in the Texas House of Representatives at the time but did later become a state senator.]

Was he one of your reform people that you got into the Legislature at that time?

Not necessarily. He was new, and he took it on as a cause and worked hard for it. I talked to Frank innumerable times about it.

So he was really an important piece of it?

Yes. And having John Connally’s interest in San Antonio was important too.