Robert Tobin and the fight for the Medical Center

Young Robert Tobin with his parents, Edgar and Mag. UTSA Libraries Special Collections.

 “Here was a very dignified gay man, who, by today’s standards, never discussed his sexuality in any kind of open environment.”


In Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the composer’s Romanticism was both idealistic (infinite longing) and fatalistic (inevitable disappointment). The moral of the opera–“attempting to hold onto what we cannot keep causes hurt and is ultimately futile”–foretells the lamentable conflict and loss of San Antonio native Robert Tobin’s epic life. The dual nature of great power is the shared reality of pain and triumph. For the Tobins of San Antonio–especially for son Robert–the price of altruism was a near complete severing of ties to his hometown, a consequence of Tobin’s own disappointed idealism and of underlying forces even his wealth and social stature could not overcome.

The recent opening of the Tobin Performing Arts Center downtown has led to an increased interest in the establishment namesakes, their tale of operatic drama and intrigue and–this being another of those heralded Texas families of vast wealth, stature, and notoriety–the inevitable wrongheaded assumptions that follow.

Act I. Like so many old Texas clans for whom noblesse oblige was an assumed provenance, the Tobins of San Antonio orbited in a highly rarified universe. Edgar Tobin was a World War I flying ace who started the Tobin Aerial Mapping Company (later Tobin Aerial Surveys) when no comparable business even existed. His first customer was Humble Oil, which later of course evolved into Exxon. His wife, Margaret “Mag” Batts Tobin, was the daughter of Robert Lynn Batts, a former University of Texas law professor and UT board of regents chairman, as well as a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Batts Hall on the U.T. Austin campus is named for him).

Robert, their only son, was born in 1934, a descendant of both Pocahontas (!) and the Canary Islanders who founded San Antonio. Very few locals could match his inimitable pedigree. In 1954, when he was just 19, his father and Braniff Airlines founder, Tom Braniff, were killed in a plane crash in Louisiana. Remarkably, Robert took over operation of his father’s company at that young age and led it to unprecedented growth (eventually introducing color aerial photography, among numerous other innovations). Diligent, accomplished, assured–and, yes, some would say entitled–Robert Tobin was not a man accustomed to being told no. His mother, Mag, a passionate opera devotee and arts patron, not only served as president of the McNay Art Museum, but also sat on the board of directors of the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1984 she funded the McNay’s Tobin Wing.

Son Robert, no philanthropic piker himself, donated his extensive theater-arts collection to the McNay, including more than 8,000 rare books–some published in the early 16th century– 20,000 stage maquettes, and unsurpassed drawings, paintings, and posters, all acquired via  an inveterate collector’s matchless taste and discretion.

Robert Tobin, April 1963. San Antonio Light Photography Collection. UTSA Libraries Special Collection.

Robert Tobin, April 1963. San Antonio Light Photography Collection. UTSA Libraries Special Collection.

The Tobin Foundation for Theatre Arts, established shortly before Robert’s death, has donated rare costumes and design materials to UTSA among other gifts, and published a history of stage design and technology. Months before his death in 2000, Robert donated more than 30 paintings by Robert Indiana, Paul Cadmus, Joan Mitchell and other notable American artists to the McNay.

Act II. Such unbounded largesse from one San Antonio family would seem to imply harmonious relations with the city fathers. In reality, this was not always the case.

When Robert was only 20 he was asked to serve on the local Children’s Service Bureau. In addition to becoming a member of the boards of the Worden School of Social Service at Our Lady of the Lake University, the Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the advisory board of the San Antonio Council for Retarded Children, Tobin served as a member of the National Budget and Consultation Committee and the Santa Rosa Hospital Advisory Board. He also put in his time in the upper echelons of San Antonio’s exclusive social clubs: the Order of the Alamo, the Argyle, the German, the Christmas Cotillion, the San Antonio Country Club and the San Antonio Club.

One couldn’t ask for a more civic and socially engaged citizen, and with his towering stature, swarthy looks, a thick mane of prematurely graying hair, and a penchant for theatrical dress, Robert was a striking, memorable presence wherever he went. But soon after he became the youngest chairman of the board of managers of the Bexar County Hospital District, amicable feelings between some San Antonio city burghers and “Young Tobin” noticeably transformed.

To this day, many San Antonians who were around for this now antique dustup still speak in hushed whispers about who was right and who was wrong. The fear of offending long-dead players–betrayed by an impassioned plea of, “Now, don’t quote me!”–prevails. This is a town where it still matters on which side of Main Plaza your Canary Island ancestors dwelled. Sacred cows die slowly in San Antonio. Old squabbles even slower.

“In many instances, it was exaggerations to say the least, and lies to say the most.”

In the late ’50s there was a long-running debate about where to locate a new University of Texas medical school. Local developers such as Edgar von Scheele and the McCrelesses stood ready to gain significantly if the facility was moved north to the hinterlands adjacent to the Oak Hills Country Club. Tobin fought long and hard to keep the new school downtown next to the county’s chief medical facility, the Robert B. Green Hospital.

Tobin reasoned that the new facility’s primary audience would be the large indigent and impoverished citizenry that had long utilized the aging Robert B. Green facility. That those patients would now have the added expense and inconvenience of traveling extra miles into the then pastoral suburbia above Loop 410 made no sense to him. In his mind the primary need was for a facility to serve downtown, West Side, and South Side residents, not those who could seemingly already afford their own medical care.

Columnist Paul Thompson led a months-long vendetta in the pages of the San Antonio Express against “Young Tobin,” as he nicknamed him, calling him “self important,” “autocratic,” “stiffish,” and a “one man show.” In yet another column, he accused him of being a mere puppet for some other party.

Finally, in 1961, after years of acrimonious wrangling, the UT board of regents–on whose board both Tobin’s maternal grandfather and mother had once served–settled on the suburbs, where today’s South Texas Medical Center now sprawls.


Act III. Robert Tobin was exhausted and mortified. Not only because he felt the solution was wrongheaded and an obvious sweetheart deal for a few business cronies, but because he had personally been dragged through the mud. One source, who asked for anonymity, confirmed that for years local hearsay was that Thompson was harnessed as the attack dog for the Oak Hills proponents, and threatened to out Tobin as “homosexual” in his column if Tobin didn’t drop his fight to keep the facility downtown.

Richard Goldsmith is a founder and general counsel of the San Antonio Area Foundation. According to an official history of the battle written by Wilbur Matthews, Goldsmith’s father Nat resigned from the San Antonio Medical Foundation over the fight to put the hospital at the Oak Hills site. Richard Goldsmith claims Thompson’s harangue against Tobin was largely based on unsubstantiated “tips” from Thompson’s rumored circle of paid informants.

The rumors may be unsubstantiated, too, but Thompson’s bosses at the paper had a class conflict of interest. Storied SA attorney Jesse H. Oppenheimer was one of Tobin’s allies in the medical-center fight. In an oral history he recorded with the Institute of Texan Cultures in 1998, Oppenheimer explained that a member of the Huntress family–who owned the Express Publishing Company at the time–was married to Merton Minter, a physician who was on the UT board of regents and served as chairman from 1959-61. (Not some distant cousin, either–Katherine Minter was daughter and sister to two of the company’s directors.) Merton Minter also served on the board of the San Antonio Medical Foundation. The foundation was originally created to bring a teaching medical facility to the city, but it evolved into the land bank for the future complex–managing land donated for the site, and raising funds to acquire even more acreage.

“When developers buy some land, they often donate some certain portions of it for school or for a church, and that sort of thing makes their land more valuable and it also complies with the public needs,” Oppenheimer said. For unknown reasons, he said, Minter “became extremely interested” in locating the new medical facility at the Oak Hills site.

“Through that connection, and I believe it must have had a lot to do with it, the Express Publishing Company through its newspapers which was the The Express and The Evening News, became deeply involved and aggressively involved in seeing to it that the medical school and its supporting facilities and the new county hospital were to be built out at what we considered to be the ‘country club site’ or the developers’ location,” Oppenheimer recalled for the interviewer. “And Paul Thompson then began running column after column about the Robert B. Green board and it was many … in many instances, it was exaggerations to say the least, and lies to say the most.”

(Oppenheimer, piqued by the injustice, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the paper’s sale to Harte Hanks; the Express Publishing Company eventually donated a modest five figures to the medical foundation. In yet another twist, an Express Publishing Co. director at that time, Leroy Denman Jr., later became a trustee of the Tobin Endowment.)

Family friend Candes Chumney–who identified herself in our interview as “the daughter Mag Tobin never had”–believes the Medical Center battle soured Robert on his hometown.

“Here was a very dignified gay man, who at the time never discussed his sexuality in any kind of open environment. Family and close friends knew, of course, but that kind of personal, frank disclosure simply wasn’t the norm back then. And when his opponents continued to make thinly veiled insinuations and slurs, well, it was all pretty deplorable,” Chumney said.

Whatever the final straw was, Tobin slowly withdrew from San Antonio’s social and philanthropic scene. Obligations and interests in New York, Santa Fe, Spoleto, and European capitals made his local appearances ever rarer. Of course business and family kept him tethered nominally, but certainly not to the extent he was involved before the medical-facility ruckus.

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Menjivar.

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Menjivar.

Did San Antonio lose what Santa Fe gained–a globally acclaimed opera facility and program that Tobin poured his heart, soul, and finances into with unabashed fervor? Iris Rubin, a close confidante and U.T. college chum of Robert’s, declares that Santa Fe was in the offing for Robert regardless of the Medical Center fracas. “Robert was blessed with taste, intelligence, and the ability to apply it all successfully. He was a citizen of the world. We were lucky he was from here and especially fortunate that he graced our city with the gifts that he ultimately did,” Rubin said.

Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz is the daughter of Pic Swartz, former head of the Tobin Endowment. She says that Robert seemed to always “need a bigger pond.” It wasn’t so much that San Antonio stifled his artistic aspirations–on the contrary, San Antonio was never meant to be the end game for Robert. The world became his venue. Former manager of the Argyle and Opera San Antonio Board Chairman Mel Weingart was a close confidante of both Mag and Robert Tobin’s. He lived for a time in the Tobins’ side-by-side Manhattan townhomes on Park Avenue and managed their New York dealings. “I think Robert Tobin would be in seventh heaven about the new Tobin Performing Arts Center,” Weingart said. “He was a very misunderstood guy in some ways. He was humble. He would have never sought out name recognition on his own. This is a way to acknowledge the person, the family, who for a significant part of time really represented the city in the art world in a very noteworthy way. For somebody from San Antonio, Texas, to have been a managing director of the the Metropolitan Opera for some 20-odd years, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, president of the Spoleto Festival and Glyndebourne and progenitor of the Santa Fe Opera is, well, something quite remarkable for any town, anywhere.”

Indeed. Visionary, aesthetic, discerning, a consummate patron, Robert Tobin gave, and continues to give, more to his hometown than even he could possibly conceive some 14 years since his passing. As the Biblical verse, Matthew 13:57, cautions: “A prophet is without honor only in his hometown.” And sometimes the oversight is warranted. But in Robert Tobin’s case the prophet has unquestionably, and at long last, achieved exceptional honor in the city of his birth.




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