Who were the people behind San Antonio namesakes? KSAT Explains

You see names on local parks, landmarks, roads and more. So, who were those people?

SAN ANTONIO – Tobin, Madla, McAllister, Wurzbach, and affectionately, “Henry B.”

Those are names you see over and over again in San Antonio.

To tell you the stories of those people, we’ll first introduce you to a man whose name you may not know: David P. Green.

He’s an orthopedic surgeon by trade and a lover of trivia and history by trait.

“I was on the faculty of the medical school for eight years, and my office was on Floyd Curl Drive,” Green said. “And for eight years I asked people, ‘Who was Floyd Curl?’ And nobody could tell me.”

That curiosity launched years of research for his book, Place Names of San Antonio and Surrounding Counties.

Floyd Curl Drive is one of the main roads running through the Medical Center on the Northwest Side.

So who was Mr. Curl? Or rather, Reverend Curl?

“Turns out, he was a Methodist minister. He chaired the first meeting with some businessmen and medical people got together and said, ‘Let’s build a medical center,’” Green said. “And the first building out there was Methodist Hospital. And so they named the only street in the whole Medical Center for Floyd Curl.”

The Wurzbach Brothers

San Antonio has no shortage of streets bearing someone’s name.

But there are two that tend to raise a lot of questions, and not just about their namesakes.

“People always wonder why we have two Wurzbach Roads. Well, it’s a great story,” Green said.

William Wurzbach (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

William Wurzbach and Harry Wurzbach were brothers. William, the eldest brother, was a Texas congressman from 1895 to 1897.

“In 1904, William Wurzbach, and his father-in-law, Gustaf Schmelzer, bought 1400 acres of what is now the Medical Center,” Green said.

The dirt road that once led to Wurzbach’s home became Wurzbach Road, and later, Wurzbach Parkway.

From Ingram Road to Lockhill Selma, its Wurzbach Road.

From Lockhill Selma Road to O’Connor Road near Interstate 35, its Wurzbach Parkway.

Harry Wurzbach (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Harry Wurzbach was the first Republican elected to congress from Texas since Reconstruction.

“He had served in the Spanish-American War and was very involved in veterans organizations,” said Vincent Michael, Executive Director of the San Antonio Conservation Society. “So, he’s much beloved for that reason.”

“To his credit, on issues like civil rights, he voted for an anti-lynching bill, for instance, which was an act of great courage on his part, certainly in representing an area of the segregated South at that time,” said Dolph Briscoe IV, history professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

(And, yes, there’s a reason you may recognize his name, too. Briscoe is the grandson of former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr.)

Fans of Harry Wurzbach wanted to do something to show their support, so they asked the city council to name a road in his honor.

But the family and supporters of his brother, William, asked the council not to name a road for Harry because they believed that would cause confusion since a Wurzbach Road already existed.

“They lost and it is confusing,” Green laughed.

Henry B. Gonzalez (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Henry B. Gonzalez

A giant building downtown bears the name of a giant San Antonio legend: The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

“Henry B. Gonzalez is one of the most significant San Antonians, I would argue,” Briscoe said.

Gonzalez served in congress for more than 30 years, but started on the city council.

He was the first Mexican-American elected to the Texas Senate in 1956, and later, the first Mexican-American from Texas elected to U.S. Congress in 1961.

Gonzalez earned a reputation as an elected leader dedicated to fighting for civil rights and speaking out against the segregation of Mexican-Americans in the 1950s and beyond.

“He was seen as a person who cared about people no matter their station,” UTSA History Professor Lesli Hicks said.

Gonzalez’s political fame surged when he chaired the House Banking Committee and lead a series of intense hearings that led to reform in the savings and loan industry.

“He upset a lot of people, but the people who didn’t like him said, ‘At least he’s trying to get to the bottom of the crisis and make things better for everyday San Antonians,’” said Hicks, who covered Gonzalez as a print journalist.

Walter McAllister (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Walter McAllister

Walter McAllister was mayor of San Antonio from 1961-1971.

He was instrumental in helping expand San Antonio College.

Perhaps McAllister’s most famous contribution still in mass use today? Highway 281, also known as McAllister Freeway.

“The Conservation Society fought Mayor McAllister for most of his tenure in office because they were against the highway that was going to be built through Brackenridge Park,” Michael said.

“He had the vision that we needed a road from downtown to the airport,” Hicks said.

“Eventually, it was built,” Michael said. “But because of the Conservation Society’s opposition, the city was unable to use federal funds. So, (the city) did it with state and local funds.”

“Sometimes it’s called McAllister Freeway to honor him and sometimes, at least initially, it was called McAllister Freeway because some folks resented that that road plowed through their front yards and their backyards,” Hicks said. “And so they said he should get credit or discredit.”

John Tobin (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

The Tobin Family

John W. Tobin was mayor of San Antonio from 1923 until his death in 1927. Prior to that, he served as Bexar County sheriff for 21 years.

“When they built Olmos Dam when they had a big flood downtown, he was instrumental in doing that,” Green said.

Edgar Tobin (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Mayor Tobin’s son, Edgar, helped launch the family to local fame and fortune.

“He was a World War 1 ace pilot (and) came back and started an aerial photography company,” Green said.

“They were really not a wealthy family. Edgar Tobin is the one that created these aerial surveys and created a mapping company that all the oil and gas companies of the day needed to have,” said Bruce Bugg, Chairman of the Tobin Endowment. “So that’s where the family fortune really came from.”

Margaret Tobin (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Edgar’s wife, Margaret, had a love for the arts and founded the San Antonio Symphony in 1939.

She passed on her passion to their son, Robert L.B. Tobin, for whom the Tobin Center is named.

“Robert was a born collector. He probably has the biggest collection of theater arts in the entire world, and that’s now known as the Tobin Collection of Theater Arts, which is housed at the McNay Art Museum today,” Bugg said.

“When you think of something like the Tobin Center, you think of the arts, because these are the people that helped create some of our foundational arts organizations,” Michael said.

Robert Tobin (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Robert L.B. Tobin was also civically engaged. In his early 20s, he served as the youngest president of what is today the Children’s Shelter.

“He was also on the board of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He was on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” Bugg said. “And he took a lot of the ideas that he got from New York. And he always had a love of San Antonio. So he brought these ideas back to San Antonio.”

Frank Madla Jr. (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Frank Madla, Jr.

Education was a huge part of the legacy of Senator Frank Madla, Jr.

“His major dream was to bring a public university to the south side of San Antonio, and he labored literally for years to do this, to give this support,” Briscoe said.

Madla served in the the Texas House and Senate from 1972 to 2006.

He helped bring the Toyota Plant to San Antonio and redeveloped the old Kelly Air Force Base.

But he didn’t live to see his dream for a southside university become reality.

Madla died in a house fire the day after Thanksgiving in 2006.

TAMUSA became a standalone university in 2009.

“We view him as an iconic figure on our campus,” Briscoe said. “Our campus colors are silver and black and what we call ‘Madla Maroon.’ He was just really a constant voice for the people of this area.”

Those are just a few San Antonio namesakes in a city full of so many stories to tell.

“A lot of people don’t want to read a history book or hear about a historical event, but if it’s in a place or a place name, the park is named, the street is named, the building is named. Then it’s part of your regular everyday life,” Michael said. “It’s not this separate category of history. It’s just part of life. And it connects you to people who were there before.”

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About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.