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In 1968, San Antonio’s World’s Fair Changed The City Forever – But It Almost Didn’t Happen

Crowds at HemisFair '68.
Courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collections at ITC
Crowds at HemisFair '68.

From Texas Standard.

This is the second story in a three-part series about HemisFair ’68. For part one, click here.

50 years ago this week San Antonio kicked off its world’s fair – HemisFair ‘68. Thursday, we brought you the story of how HemisFair turned San Antonio into the city we know today. It’s no small miracle that the fair even happened in the first place.

On July 4, 1968 – a hot, windy Independence Day in San Antonio – dozens of foreign dignitaries were seated in front of the United States pavilion at the San Antonio World’s Fair, waiting to hear a speech, when a Texan came to the podium.

“I am pleased that these distinguished guests from our neighboring nations have been able to travel down here to visit with us and to take advantage of our invitation to see the HemisFair and to spend an old-fashioned Fourth of July with us in Texas,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said.

The fact that there was even a world’s fair for Johnson to attend in his home state was the product of years of hard work, careful planning, and luck.

See, to be an official World’s Fair, there are certain requirements a city must meet. And in San Antonio in the mid-1960s, civic leaders were having a tough time hitting the mark. One requirement was to have at least 20 companies present industrial pavilions at the fair – and they’re expensive. You have to pay people to design, build, and staff each one.

In San Antonio, of the people responsible for securing industrial pavilions was Red McCombs, a car dealer and philanthropist. One of the people he called up was Lee Iacocca. At the time, Iacocca who was president of Ford. Sterlin Holmesly, former managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News, says Iacocca wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

“‘No, I’ll give you a quarter million dollars for art. We don’t need a pavilion in that damn, dusty little old town.’ So Red called Connally. Connally called Lyndon Johnson, the president. President called Henry Ford and explained to him the importance of San Antonio and the World’s Fair to Ford Motor Company,” Holmesly says.

That’s when Iacocca called McCombs back and told him that Ford would, in fact, sponsor a pavilion at HemisFair.

For the organizers of HemisFair ’68, it must have been nice to be able to call up then-Texas Gov. John Connally and ask him to help solve a problem, and then have him call the president of the United States. But that’s one of the only reasons the fair even happened.

“Who would’ve thought that a city with about 700,000 people give or take, that had no real economic base, that didn’t even have a convention center prior to this would hold a world’s fair?” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says.

Putting on a world’s fair requires capital and clout – two things San Antonio was in short supply of in the 1960s. It did not have the international profile necessary to persuade foreign governments to make an investment in the project. Tom Frost is the chairman emeritus of Frost Bank, and served as one of the fair’s vice presidents.

“We would rather have you look us over than overlook us,” Frost says. “And I think we were being overlooked.”

But having a Texan in the White House changed the equation. He was almost always happy to help Connally, his advisor and political protégé. Connally was especially enthused about the project. One of his goals as governor was to advance an image of Texas that wasn’t just cowboys and cotton. HemisFair did that. But Johnson was the fair’s ace in the hole. When the HemisFair plans hit a bump in the road, Tom Frost found that a call to Johnson took care of it.

“Magically kinda doors opened and carpets were rolled out,” Frost says.

The idea for the fair germinated after San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez pitched the fair as a way to modernize the city. In order for it to happen, Congress and the Texas Legislature had to give the go-ahead and allocate some money to the project. But even among Texans, HemisFair didn’t get unanimous support. Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, for one, pushed back against the idea.

“We had to go to Lyndon Johnson,” Frost says, “to sic Yarborough off of stopping the HemisFair bill that Gonzalez had started in the House. And we had to sic Connally on getting us started because the lieutenant governor didn’t want to start the legislation for it.”

Both bills passed. The fair received $7.5 million from the federal government and $10 million from the state. Without the support to get the fair off the ground, which helped launch San Antonio’s tourism industry, what would San Antonio be today?

“It’s really hard to imagine,” says Sarah Gould, lead curator at the Institute of Texan Cultures. “I think we would be a much smaller city. Our population growth would have not even been close had we not had HemisFair because we wouldn’t have had the jobs to provide all of those people.”

But it wasn’t just powerful friends that made the fair possible – it was also good timing.

HemisFair was one of the last world’s fairs in North America. Mass media made them less valuable as a marketing tool, and cities caught on to the fact that fairs were mostly financial losers. But with a Texan in the White House, San Antonio in 1968 was the right place and the right time.

Archival audio courtesy of Sounds of HemisFair ’68, HemisFair ’68, UTSA Special Collections.

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