Interview with Henry William Finck Sr.
"Just Such Good Guys"
Interview by Mary Locke Croft, January 30, 1991, in San Antonio, Texas
Starting with your earliest family history, tell us about your great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather's name was Reinhold Finck. He came to San Antonio from New Orleans in 1852 that was sixteen years after the Alamo and he published a newspaper. As a matter of fact, he did two one in English and one in German and did that here for, I'd say, eight or nine years.
My grandfather was born here in 1856. Then they had a big cholera epidemic in San Antonio. My great-grandfather took his family and went to Vera Cruz, where he had a brother. When they got to Vera Cruz, they had a cholera epidemic there too. So, they finally went back to New Orleans, where they had a yellow fever epidemic. Two of the children died from the yellow fever there. That’s some of the old history of the South—cholera and yellow fever were big things.
- Photo to the left, Bill Finck at the Texas Legislature in 1965
[Reinhold Finck] came from Württemberg, Germany. It was an independent country at that time. It had a king. He came to New Orleans to work with his uncle. They had a bus business. A bus in the 1840s and '50s was a horse-drawn carriage with seats in it. Had a little cover over it. And that was what they did. He was a language...he spoke seven languages, and that was his big thing. New Orleans was full of people that spoke different languages. He kept the customers happy by talking to them.
He worked for his uncle, who was a bachelor; the uncle was the consul for the country of Württemberg. [My great-grandmother] must have come with him. I don't know much about her. My grandfather was born here, and they had eight children. It was a big family.
What was your grandfather's name and when did he come here?
My grandfather's name was the same as mine, Henry William Finck. They called him Henry. He was born in '56 and came here [San Antonio] in '93. He was [figuring] thirty-seven. That sounds about right.
- Photo to the right, 1861 newspaper published by Reinhold Finck
My grandfather grew up in New Orleans and learned the cigar maker's trade there and did different kinds of work for other people in the cigar business in New Orleans and other places. In 1893 he came back to San Antonio, borrowed $1,000 on his life insurance, and capitalized a business—all with $1,000.
So he didn't have his own business in New Orleans, and he started one when he came here.
He worked for other people there. As a matter of fact, he managed somebody's cigar factory down there.
Did he choose San Antonio because of the weather, the dry climate?
[He came to San Antonio because] they thought he had tuberculosis, which, obviously, he didn't. They told him to come to a dry climate, which, obviously, San Antonio isn't either. But whatever it was, he came back to where he was born. Came here and, after a period of time, recovered from whatever it was and lived to be seventy-seven years old. He didn't have tuberculosis.
- Photo to the top left, Reinhold Finck, great-grandfather of Bill Finck Sr.
San Antonio was a place people came when they had tuberculosis. They thought they got the gulf breezes up here.
Well, they did get that; they do have that.
Where did he start this business? Where was the building?
I don't know the exact address. It was out on Government Hill someplace. He lived upstairs and made cigars downstairs.
How did he get the tobacco?
Well, see, in those days, there were cigar factories everyplace you went. San Antonio being a big city, there were five or six cigar factories here. His old boss shipped him some tobacco. Someplace in my bag of tricks, I've got a letter from the guy which says, "We sent you a bale of stock," as he referred to it. "How did it work out? We miss you. Hope you do well there."
- Photo to the right, Henry William Finck, Bill Sr.'s grandfather and namesake, who started the cigar company
Is he the one who started the Travis Club? Or was that later?
The Travis Club was [founded] in 1890. It wasn't too much later. The Travis Club was a private club, and the old building is on our cigar box. If you remember back, it was the Elks Club downtown, cater-cornered from the St. Anthony Hotel. It was built in 1890; it was a multistory building, and it was the old-style club. It had rooms, like hotel rooms. And it had a ballroom. It had a swimming pool, a natatorium. In 1909 it must have been quite unusual. And, of course, a big card room, and a bar, and all the things that go with it.
And, of course, it was for men only, I presume.
Well, they had parties there, but I guess it was like a men's club. I can remember in my youth some of the old clubs, like the Fort Worth Club, had rooms. You stayed there. It had a dining room. Of course, there were, sure as the world, couples in the dining room, but they always had a card room, a men's card room and everything.
So Henry belonged to the Travis Club?
Charter member. He was a charter member of everything because everybody smoked cigars, and he got around with cigar-smoking people. He wasn't a charter member of the Rotary Club, but joined the first year that it was in existence. He came within a hair of being a charter member.
Do you know any of the other things he was a charter member of?
San Antonio Country Club. The Casino Club. San Antonio Manufacturers Association. Whatever it was, he belonged to it. He was a popular, intelligent guy and successful. He was solicited to join everything.
- Photo to the left, First home of the Finck Cigar Company, c. 1880
It's really fun to try to imagine back to those times.
Oh, yeah. I walk down the streets of downtown San Antonio, and I wonder what it looked like when my great-grandfather was here, and then what it looked like when my grandfather came back in '93. Lots of the buildings that they've remodeled now were built in '93.
Tell about naming the cigar. Did he name the cigar the Travis?
They made a private brand; it was made for the Travis Club. It was their brand. This was 1909 they started. World War I wasn't too much after that. And the old guys that belonged to the club were very patriotic. They made the club available to the young officers and officer students that were training around San Antonio. So, two things happened: one is, they liked the cigars so much they went back out to the base and demanded they put them in the PX and Officers' Club and everything; and another thing was that they used the club so much the old guys didn't like it so much anymore and quit going. The club died.
It was a unique cigar. The blend, that was what made it....
I don’t know. I think everybody made about the same thing in those days. They were good.
But he called it the Travis Club, and for a while they could only get it down there.
Right. It was a private brand.
- Photo to the right, Label featuring Travis Club building
Do you know the names of those early cigars, other than the Travis Club?
Yes. The first thing he made was called Finck Cheroots. They were sold three for a nickel, and my father said he used to go on his bicycle and sell a hundred cigars for two dollars.
And how much does a fine cigar cost today?
You can buy dollar cigars and two-dollar cigars and five-dollar cigars. Most of what we make is in the forty-five- to fifty-cent range.
He made Finck's Commerce; he made HWF, which were his initials; he made Little Fincks; he made Finck's Puritano; he made one called Resados, which, of course, is "seconds" in Spanish—rejects. It was very successful; they did a big thing with that. But because it’s a common name instead of a fixed name, somebody else made exactly the same thing, copied his box, and made trashy cigars and killed that one.
Where did he get his boxes?
I guess that they made them here in town. My father always liked to do everything himself. So, right after World War I, he bought a junker cigar box factory someplace and moved it down here and established his own. So, since then we've always made our own.
Did you used to make them out of plywood or something?
Well, plywood is real wood. It was tupelo gum or cedar cut in thin pieces and nailed together and paper edging put on the whole thing.
- Photo to the left, Travis Club cigar box
Are they still wood?
No, they're cardboard.
I love cigar boxes. I think everybody has associations with cigar boxes. Who did Henry W. Finck marry?
I said I don't know about my great-grandfather. I do, too. I was mixed up. Let me go back and tell you about him. Reinhold married Elizabeth Donauer. He and his uncle were in this bus business down there [in New Orleans]. Miss Donauer was Catholic, and my great-uncle, his uncle, was kind of a bigot. He didn't like the Catholic Church at all. So he told my great-grandfather, "If you don't marry the girl, I'll give you a hundred thousand dollars," which was right smart money. But they were in love, and he wasn't going to do it, so he finally married her, and they gave him fifty thousand dollars for his part of the business, which is still right smart money. He and his uncle split over….
Her being a Catholic. He met her in New Orleans, then?
Uh-huh. And she came with him, of course. They came immediately from New Orleans after they were married because there was a cholera epidemic happening there.
So they left the cholera epidemic and came to…what was the epidemic here?
It was cholera again, but this was years after he came, about eight years. The epidemics followed people around. They happen; they come and go.
While we're back on Reinhold, is there anything else about the German paper that he started that we should put in here?
I'm looking for a copy. I never got it. I got a copy of the English one called the San Antonio News. The German one was called the Texas Stadt Zeitung. It was in German, the way I understand it.
- Photo to the right, Finck Cigar sign in early San Antonio
As far as we know, he hadn't had any history in the newspaper business.
I don't think so. He probably came here and found something that looked interesting and bought it. They didn't write the newspaper. They would subscribe to the newspapers from other places and copy the articles out of other papers. You see, they didn't have a wire service. They didn't have any way of getting anything, so instead of inventing, all they could do was just get it mailed in some way and rewrite it. In fact, they just copied a lot of it. They wrote the local news, of course.
Do you have any idea what kind of circulation the German- language one had?
Don't have any idea. I'd be overjoyed if somebody would find a copy of the paper, find anything about the circulation, have a picture of where the thing was. It was on Soledad Street, but I don't know the exact address or anything.
I was asking you about your grandfather Henry.
My grandfather married in New Orleans. Her name was Nellie Kennedy [ Mary Ellen Kennedy]. They had children there. I think the last one was born in San Antonio, but my father was born in New Orleans. There was Aunt Mildred; Uncle Ike; Betty; Aunt Rita; Aunt Laura, who was a nun; and Joe. There were six of them. All lived in San Antonio.
Were any of them involved with the cigar company besides your father?
Oh, yes. Uncle Ike was, and Uncle Joe. All the boys were in the cigar factory.
Do you have any sense, back in that beginning, what the aura was? If there were eighteen cigar companies in San Antonio, there must have been a lot of cigar smoking going on.
Everybody smoked cigars. There weren't any cigarettes.
- Photo to the left, Travis Club decorated vehicle in a Battle of the Flowers Parade
No. It was a man's thing. Everybody smoked cigars or a pipe or chewed tobacco; quite a few did all three. But cigars were probably the nicer thing.
So most men did smoke cigars.
Yes, probably. A substantial majority.
We talked before we started about three employees who had worked at the cigar factory for a long time. Who were they, and when did they begin?
As far as I go back, I think it was about 1916 or 1917. One is still working here. Rafaela Sanchez is still here. She's up in her mid-eighties, late-eighties. Works every day.
So they started as teenagers or even younger than that.
Oh, yeah, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old.
And then who were the others?
Rafaela Sanchez and San Juana Castilla. San Juana says she's coming back.
- Photo to the right, Travis Club delivery trucks
Was she sick?
She came back and worked for a couple of weeks. She rode to work, fell off the bus, and broke her arm, and so she's recuperating. She's coming back. Libby may come back, too, if she ever gets over her heart attack.
Liberata Fernandez, yes.
To what do you attribute the fact that your employees are so happy that they stay seventy years? That's got to be some sort of a record.
We're just such good guys. (Laughter)
That really is wonderful, though. How many employees do you have now?
I think we've got about seventy. We've always had people that worked here on and on and on forever. My old foreman retired ten years ago, fifteen years ago. He'd been here since he was just a kid. My box factory manager…we had a lot of people. At one time, I did a survey. I had a substantial number of people who had been here more than forty years, quite a few over fifty years. Libby and Rafaela and them, at that time, had been here close to sixty. We're all like a big dumb family that doesn't know any better than to make cigars. We just all sit around here and make cigars.
It used to all be by hand. Right?
Oh, yes. Everything was by hand. The ones over sixty, we didn't attempt to teach them to run the machines. We used them for examiners, for other hand things. Of course, they're excellent because they've been here so long—very loyal to the company. They were here when my father brought me here in a basket when I was a little baby. They make everybody else do right.
So there's a real sense of pride.
I hope so. We don't really talk about it, but everybody's still here. I used to have the two sets of sisters each. And then I've got daughters of those old employees; I've still got three or four of them here. And we've had a third generation.
- Photo to the right, Aunt Laura became Mother Helena, Secretary General of the Incarnate Word Order, in the mid-1930s
You've had third-generation workers?
Yeah. I don't think I've got any now. If I do, I don't know who they are. I can't think right off. I've got at least two girls whose mothers worked here, on and on. Girls—hell, they're my age, older than me, and I'm sixty.
When did the machines come in?
Daddy didn’t like the machines, so I did the machines.
Let's get the transition then, between your grandfather and your father.
Daddy, his name was Ed Finck. Edward Reinhold Finck was his real name. Everybody called him Ed Finck. He was probably the star member of the family. After he got out of the army, World War I, he came and was very active in the business. I'm not going to say he ran it. I think the old Germans ran it as long as they were around. He had a big lead part in it, though.
His father was still running it.
Right. My grandfather worked at the cigar factory, participated in it, until he...I think he had a stroke just before he died. Still, in '33 he was still here. And my father was with him [and] my uncle. My uncle's name was Oswald Henry, but everybody called him Ike, Uncle Ike. He was there, and he was close to Daddy's age. And then Uncle Joe, he was the kid. Everybody liked him real good. They had him out on the road selling all the time, stirring the salesmen up.
So where did you sell?
Well, my grandfather sold all over. He went pretty far out. Daddy, during the depression, kind of drew it in and did most of the Texas market. And that's what we do our big effort on now, where we've always been, in Texas where we're known.
- Photo to the left, (Left to right) Rafaela Sanchez and Liberata Fernandez, employed by Finck Cigar Company for over seventy years
Didn't they go out into towns? Was there a distributor? How was that worked?
They did it both ways. They had distributors, and they did some of it direct. The way I was told was that the salesmen would get on the train, because they didn't have cars, and go out to Del Rio, Uvalde, and get down and rent a hack. Make the stores there and then go out in the outlying towns from there, in the hack. Call on them, book the cigars, and then they'd ship them from here.
What's your earliest memory of the cigar factory? You said your dad brought you in a basket down here.
I don't remember that. We used to have Christmas parties. I've got a picture of me at a Christmas party, and I guess I was five years old, something like that. I have some vague recollection of that. In summertime, Daddy would bring me down. I'd sweep the floor, put tobacco stems in sacks, be in everybody's way. You know, just kind of play and be around.
You must have a memory, not a clear memory but a "feeling" memory, of the smells, machines—but you didn't have machines.
Tobacco and the guys, the way the factory was laid out and everything. We had tobacco, and we had lots of people doing the hand-made cigars, like several hundred. We had a multistory building, and it was all full of tobacco and offices and people and a shipping room.
San Antonio had eighteen different cigar manufacturers early on. Do you have a sense of why you were able to be competitive?
My grandfather, when he started out, he was a craftsman, and he would build showcases. And he'd put the showcase in, and the guy would put his cigars in it. He was a salesman; he was a businessman. He knew how to make them and he knew how to get rid of them, too. Everybody liked him. He was an intelligent guy. He got out and.… [When] Daddy was a little boy, he said he used to go out on his bicycle and peddle his cigars. You’ve got to. If you’re going to survive, you’ve got to do it.
Where did he get the tobacco? When did your family start having to travel around?
I don't think my grandfather ever traveled to buy tobacco. My daddy liked to travel. Of course, he had been around during the war and everything, and he started going to Cuba and Puerto Rico. He would buy the tobacco there and supervise the processing there. He’d probably go off for two or three months at a time. They used to buy Sumatra tobacco that was sold in Holland, and he would go to Amsterdam to the auction. We've always used, and still do use, a lot of Connecticut tobacco.
- Photo to the right, employee of Finck Cigar Company for over ____ years
People don't think of Connecticut—New England—as being tobacco country. Are there different tobaccos for cigars?
Oh, yes. It's a different seed grown in a different place; a different kind of cure, a different culture. It's quite different. There was a lot of tobacco grown in the Northeast. They still grow it in Connecticut; they still grow it in Pennsylvania. There was tobacco grown in New York State, in Ohio. There's still tobacco grown in Wisconsin.
I would have named all Southern states.
Cigar types. The Southern states, they're flue-cured for cigarettes and burley and chewing tobacco.
When did you go on your first tobacco-buying jaunt?
Daddy took me to Cuba when I was fourteen.
What do you remember about it? Did you go out to the farms?
Yeah, we went around to some farms, but what I remember best is the Havana tobacco warehouses, the people we did business with, how everybody was down there.
- Photo to the right, 1936 Finck Cigar Company Christmas party with 250-300 employees
What's a tobacco warehouse like?
Well, the one I remember was a multistory building. They had the tobacco there, and it was stacked in bales, stacked five bales high. The guys would go through and take the ones from the bottom and put them in the middle. Like, about every three months, they would rotate them because they cured better that way.
You wanted a sample of tobacco, you'd go in the warehouse, and they'd get these bales down, open them up, and you'd look at the tobacco, make a cigar out of it, and smoke it. We still do it that way.
You said, I guess, it takes eighteen months [to make] a cigar.
That's probably the average.
- Photo to the left, Early wooden cigar mol
That’s because of the long curing time. That's after you cut the tobacco, after you've cut the leaves.
Right. After they harvest the tobacco, they put it in a barn and let it do its first cure. It turns from green to yellow to brown. And then they take it down, and they pack it up and sort it. That might be three or four months by the time it gets through the process. And then we ferment it. We put it in big piles, put a thermometer in it, and monitor it every day. It'll ferment; it will get hot.
You do that here?
They do it down there; we do it here, too. After that it's cut, sorted, fermented, and cured. After it gets up to a certain heat, they turn the pile, let it cool down. The outside goes to the inside, and then it heats up again. It depends on the type of tobacco and how hot you want it to get until it's cured. Then you take it out of the pile and pack it in bales. And then you store the bales, and they continue a slow cure that way.
And the curing is the natural process.
Right. All natural process. Fermentation. Natural fermentation. You don't put anything on it, maybe a little water.
That must be really fun to get to be an expert on knowing the smell, the texture.
I never did figure I'm an expert, but I'm getting so old now that I'm one of the guys who knows a lot about cigar types of tobacco.
- Photo to the right, Luis, an employee, moving the bins of tobacco at the factory
Skipping around chronologically, do you still travel to look at tobacco?
Yes. I go to Connecticut; I go to the Dominican Republic, Honduras. Brazil is so far. I buy Brazilian tobacco, but I don't go there but occasionally.
But you go to Honduras.
Honduras, once or twice a year; Dominican Republic, two or three times a year; Connecticut once a year.
What happened when Cuba got closed off?
All Cuban tobacco is used for filler; that's the biggest part of what you use. Daddy was getting old and forgetful. I came to help out. I didn't want to make cigars; I was practicing law. And I stayed longer and longer, and just about then it all happened. So I got busy and figured out what else I could use. We smoke tobacco from every part of the world. On and on, we developed our own blend, which used more Connecticut tobacco and Puerto Rico tobacco. I use some Jamaican tobacco. Then I got into Honduras and Brazilian.
So you smoke it, and then you kind of meditate on it.
That's the way I do it. I don't know what anybody else does. Different guys have a little different approach. But that's the way I do it. The first thing I do is I make a cigar out of 100 percent of the strange tobacco. If it's bad, I discard the idea. If I like it and it has possibilities, you smoke it a little bit more, and then you start trying to figure out what it will blend with, what will complement it. Then you try it, and you make a blend. Some tobacco you think is going to blend, to me is repulsive. You take two good things and you make something that's horrible, so you junk that one.
Actually, it's kind of an art that you have to have done a long time to develop.
I never did figure I was an expert or an artist or anything, but that's the way I do it. And people buy the cigars, so I don't know.
- Photo to the left, Ed Finck, Bill’s father, at his office in the cigar factory
So you're the one that switched to machines. Before we get to that, then, let's go back to you. You were born in San Antonio?
Born in San Antonio in 1930 [November 18, 1930].
And who's your mom?
My mother was Mary Fisher. Her father was in the wholesale lumber business here.
I want to remember these women. Your grandmother was…what was her name? Henry's wife?
Nellie Kennedy. She was from New Orleans.
So you grew up in San Antonio. And you grew up around the cigar company.
You don't envision yourself here for your life. Do you have other plans?
I do now—sixty years old—I got too many new plans now.
- Photo to the right, Bill, age 5, sitting on steps to right of center with other children at a company Christmas party in 1935
You went to Notre Dame. I read that.
Right. Went to Notre Dame, Texas University, and then I finally went to the law school at St. Mary's. Got out. My brother was going to be the cigar maker, and I was going to be…to do something. I didn't really want to be a lawyer either. I got a job as a cowboy when I got out of law school. It was my first job. Worked in the oil fields in the summer when I was in law school. And then I got me a job as a cowboy, and that's what I really wanted to do.
Where were you a cowboy?
In McMullen County—Fowlerton. I worked for Jess McNeal. He had a ranch down there.
When was it you went to Venezuela? Was that after law school?
I got out of law school. I finished working on the ranch, came up here, and worked for my daddy two or three years. Then I decided I wanted to go to South America, so me and an old boy went to South America. Bought us a car and took off driving.
Did you know you were going to go to Venezuela when you took off driving?
No, we really didn't. We got to Costa Rica, and we knew we couldn't drive all the way through. We had to ship the car from Costa Rica. The boat we got went to Maracaibo, so that's where we went. If it had gone to Colombia, I probably never would have gone to Venezuela. I had a high school friend down there working for an oil company. We moved in with him. Got the car hung in customs, so we were just fooling around there, sharp shooting. We decided we’d start us a hog farm. So we rented a farm, bought a truck, bought a bunch of hogs, and bred hogs for about a year.
- Photo to the left, Ed Finck buying tobacco in Cuba in 1955
Did you know anything about hogs?
My partner did. He went to Oklahoma A&M.
Who was your partner?
Was he a San Antonio man?
Yeah, he and I went to school together. He lives on a ranch out in D'Hanis now. I met my wife down there.
Wow, changed your life totally.
Yeah. She came up here to go to school. I went on and saw all of South America and then came up here. Decided it wasn’t worthwhile for her to go back home, so might as well get married. So here we are.
How old were you when you were doing this adventure?
- Photo to the right, Tobacco field, Cat Spring, Texas, 1970
Were your parents supportive of your pig farm adventure—hog farm?
They didn't have much choice. They were here, and I was there.
I just wondered if they had a real supportive attitude toward you seeking your fortune around the world, or if they wanted you to get on home.
Oh, no. My parents never groused at me about anything like that. My father was sure his whole life that I would come back and run the cigar factory. And I was just as sure that I never would. And look who turned out to be right!
Your brother was here, though.
My brother and my father fell out before he ever got out of college, so they determined that that was not the thing to do, to try to work together.
You came back, and you married the woman whom you had met in Venezuela.
- Photo to the right, Employee operating tobacco-stripping machine
Does her family still have Venezuelan connections?
A lot of her family has moved to Texas. She has a sister that lives in Midlothian. Her brother lives in New Mexico now. He lived in Austin for a long time. She still has some sisters in Venezuela.
You toured all of South America. Sounds wonderful. Did you drive all through South America?
We sold the farm, closed the pig farm. My partner didn't want it. He'd had all the Spanish-speaking Latin America he wanted. We did that, so I did my tour by jitney, bus, airplane, narrow-gauge railroad train, motor launch, went on a steamboat across Lake Titicaca. Anyway you could go I went, except burro-back.
For how long?
About three months. I never met anybody else who did that around South America, but it was kind of fun.
Then you came back and started working here?
I had a law office. And then the old man was starting to get forgetful; the lease expired on the old building; the Cuban thing happened; a whole bunch of different things. I thought I'd go and help out a little bit. I helped out at noontime, and then all afternoon, and then I moved my law office to the cigar factory. So, here I am.
Was your father still alive when you changed to machinery?
Yeah. But his memory was gone completely, so he didn't have any sensation. When we built the building, he didn't believe in buildings; he didn't believe in owning real estate. He didn't like it too much when I built this building. I think I brought him down here and showed him where it was.
- Photo to the left, Bill Finck family, c. 1970; (left to right) Bill holding Laura, Hilda, Caroline, Kathleen, Julie, David, and Billy
Did you name the street Vera Cruz?
No. Vera Cruz was already....
You said your grandfather went to Vera Cruz. I thought maybe he….
No. Vera Cruz Street, as a matter of fact, has been part of San Antonio going back to between the time when my great-grandfather left and my grandfather came back. Vera Cruz is an old street in San Antonio.
I read that you have some old machines that they don't make any more. Is that right?
Now they don't make any cigar-making machines. They are old, and they don't make any cigar-making machines anymore.
So, if these break down…?
We make parts for them. We have a good machinist. We make our own parts. I've got a real good mechanic. We keep them renewed; they'll run forever. We just march on. But there's no new cigar-making stuff to make this kind of cigars.
What about the social…whenever it was when people started talking about smoking cigarettes being bad for your health? Did that hurt the cigar?
The surgeon general's report, which was what, '63, '65, right in there, the first surgeon general's report said that smoking cigarettes would give you lung cancer, and smoking a pipe and cigars had the same health effect as not smoking at all.
- Photo to the right, Bill Finck in the Texas Legislature, 1971
Did he say that?
Well, that’s because people say they don’t inhale. But I don’t believe that. Do you not inhale?
No. I never knew anybody [who] got lung cancer from smoking cigars. I'm not going to get out and beat the tub for any kind of health thing, but that is what the surgeon general's research proved: smoking cigarettes would give you lung cancer; smoking cigars and pipes had the same health effect as not smoking at all. The consumption of cigars skyrocketed because people wanted to be healthy and still smoke. Pretty soon they found they didn't like them as much, and they switched back to cigarettes. From there the industry went to an apex, and since then it's been on a steady decline. And now the nationwide percentage is much lower than before the surgeon general's report.
Do you belong to a national cigar-manufacturing association or anything like that?
I don't belong to the association, but I communicate with them. I'm kind of independent.
I got that impression. What about women?
I like them. They're nice. (Laughter)
- Photo to the left, Bill Finck in the Texas Legislature, 1971
No. Women and cigars. If they're so good for your health and all, there should be some way to make women want to smoke cigars.
I have never tried to make women want to smoke cigars. A lot of companies have, but I think they are all full of prunes. Smoking cigars is a man's habit. If women want to be men, fine, let them smoke cigars. I haven't got any objection to it.
Why a man’s habit, other than that men have done it?
It’s tradition. I would be overjoyed to see women want to break the tradition and walk up and down the streets smoking cigars, but I'm not going to waste my time trying to sell it. Smoking cigars is a man's habit, and it has always been kind of a sign of affluence. It's a pleasant thing to do. Maybe women don't enjoy them. I’m gonna tell you something: men and women are different. Anybody wants to make them all the same (they work on it real hard), it's all right with me.
Men more naturally like cigars. I really agree with you, although in history there have been some famous women who have smoked cigars.
I understand that in Denmark women smoke cigars. I've been told that.
If you wanted to smoke and you didn’t want to smoke cigarettes, that would be an option. So, your children, are they involved?
My son is; Billy is here. He must be twenty-eight years old. I can't believe he's that old. He's been here with me several years. Likes to make cigars. Some of my girls have worked here, off and on, but he's the only one that seems to be permanent. My other boy, David, works for the state in Austin. I've got six kids. One of my girls is a lawyer in Dallas, Caroline works for an interior decorator here in San Antonio, and Julie works for the MGM studios in Los Angeles. Laura is about to finish Texas Tech. I'm going to get the sixth one out of college.
We were talking about what cigars mean. You're really right, it is really a man's thing. What is it about cigars? What feeling does it give you when you smoke a cigar?
Well, a cigar is a very enjoyable experience. It tastes good; it's pleasant. It's also a symbol of affluence. When I was growing up, all the successful bankers, lawyers, and judges all smoked cigars. You'd see them enjoying a cigar and think, I'd like to try that.
- Photo to the right, Bill Finck runs for Bexar County Treasurer and wins
And you said that judges even smoked on the bench?
Oh, yes. Judge Quinn smoked cigars on the bench; Judge McCorry, the criminal judge, used to smoke cigars on the bench.
Once, weren't you a judge somewhere?
I was a city judge in Municipal Court, called the Corporation Court then. I was an alternate judge for about a year. They called me down there to substitute and everything. I always smoked cigars. Nobody thought a thing of it.
Do you see it on the wane now, cigar smoking? Do you see that changing?
Yeah. You can't smoke cigars anyplace. They've got an ordinance against smoking cigars, a rule that you can't smoke in the courthouse.
You know, I think there's still a sense of it being a symbol of something.
There's some symbolism about it. I can't tell you exactly what it is, but it's there.
I wanted to talk about when you decided to run for the legislature. You had worked on John Connally's campaigns.
Yeah, I worked on Connally's campaigns. He came here and complained we should have a better delegation from San Antonio in the legislature, and I thought, "I think I'd like to do that."
- Photo to the right, Scene in San Antonio drug store c 1930 (Travis Club cigars in case)
So, you just ran.
I just did.
That was in 1966?
And then, how long were you in the legislature?
'66 through '72. Six years.
How long a term is it?
So, you had to run two more times.
What was it like? Did you like being up there?
Oh, yeah. Most interesting thing I ever did in my life. I loved it.
Does it seem like a long time ago?
Ah, the older you get, the shorter-time-ago anything was.
- Photo to the left, Factory workers hand-rolling cigars
Was there anything significant about that time in the legislature? Did you work on anything?
I don't know. I was into the water business. I was on the Water Commission. The Appropriation Committee was my big thing, where the money gets spent. For a brief period of time, I was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which is probably why they have the Finck display in the Institute of Texan Cultures.
That was when they were building the…
Oh, no, it was already built. They added me in after I became chairman.
But you said you knew Henderson Shuffler.
Well, I knew him from me being in the legislature and being the Bexar County member of the Appropriations Committee. And he, being Director of the Institute, he came knocking on my door.
So, he would have to come and get the Committee to pass it if they wanted any more money. Who was governor at that time?
Connally was governor. Then Preston Smith was governor. I think Connally was governor the first session I was up there, and the next two were Preston.
What's your memory of, your impression of, the legislature as far as a body of people trying to do well and do right for the State of Texas?
They were a bunch of real good guys there. Of course, there are always a few that aren't so slick. But we had a bunch of real good guys. Almost everybody was trying to do what was best for the state.
So you did feel it was a civic project and not a personal project for most people?
Right. It's an ego trip, too. Any politics [is]. Anybody tells you different is a liar. Vanity is a big inspiration for being in politics.
But once you get in there….
You just get vainer.
- Photo to the right, Factory workers at a vintage cigar-rolling station. Machines are used but considerable hand work and skill is required.
(Laughter) Did you get beat, or did you decide not to run again?
Yeah, I got beat. Once you get beat, there ain't no use in bloodying your head twice. Running is quite a chore. There is some fun to it. Getting beat is pretty tough.
Well, now, I don't know about then, but it costs so much now.
It's not supposed to be your money.
How long before you decided to be the county treasurer?
'82 I ran and got elected. They appointed me before I ran. The old treasurer resigned.
What is a county treasurer?
Something that everybody should do is stop and think what is every political job that's out there. Because people think we've got all these jobs and they're all important, that they're always there, and they vote for them. Most people don't have any idea what anyone does.
The [office of] county treasurer was part of the original Constitution of the State of Texas, a constitutional office. And it was really provided to handle and guard the money that belonged to the county, which was all money. They didn't have many banks and didn't have checks. They probably had gold bullion.
They had actual money.
The treasurer's office in all the old county courthouses and the treasurer's office in the original state capitol building all had big vaults to keep the treasure in. That's what the treasurer's office was. They don't carry much cash anymore. What the treasurer's office did when I was there was, we gathered the deposits from all the different county agencies and prepared the deposits. And then we kept books on the warrants that were written and the bank account, kept track of the bank account. The big argument was with the guy that was running the computer down there, the county computer. [I wanted him to] put all of that on the computer. "Oh, yes, we'll do it," but a whole term went by, two years, and they never got around to it. But it's all on now.
Did you run on the platform that you would?
Oh, yes. My platform was that I would make my best effort to abolish the office, and I wouldn't take any pay for doing the job.
Oh, so you didn't take any pay?
Oh, that was the most famous thing I did. They all picked around at me so much about that. Someone asked me something about it, and I said, "I'll just light a cigar with the first paycheck I get." He issued the paycheck. I tried to get him not to. So, I called a press conference, stood on the back steps of the courthouse, lit me a cigar with a $2700 check. The press loved it. I was on every news story on the television, all the newspapers. I've got a big picture of me standin' there with my big cowboy hat on lightin' a cigar with the check.
- Photo to the left, Close-up of cigar rolling machine.
So what did you do with the next check? Did he quit [writing them]?
No. We had a big fight about that.
He had to write the check. What you did with it was your business.
He insisted he had to, but I kept telling him he didn't have to. So finally, what we did was, I got a bill passed in the legislature, said you don't have to take pay if you don't want it, provided the method to do it. Meanwhile, I think he’d stopped issuing, and I finally got him to issue me one for the whole amount, and I deposited it and wrote a check back as a contribution to the county. He did me a W-2 for it. I had a horrible time. I paid income tax on it. Messy as hell.
Did you get rid of the office then?
Right. I went to Austin. I know how Austin works. I got me a sponsor, and I got a resolution to a constitutional amendment introduced; got it passed; put it on the ballot—statewide ballot—to abolish the Treasurer's Office of Bexar County and assign the duties to the county clerk. And we passed it.
And the county clerk can keep these books?
Did any of the other counties follow suit?
Yes. Quite a few of them. Certainly not the majority, but I'd say eight or ten.
Interesting. I think people might come up with ideas but don't have the energy to pursue them. It takes a lot of energy to run for an office that you are going to abolish.
It takes some doing. It was just as hard to win that as anything. I had seven opponents in the Democratic primary and one in the general election. I had to run the primary race, the run-off primary race, and the general election race.
What are your political aspirations, as we speak?
I don't really want to be anything. I wouldn’t mind abolishing something else.
Have you thought of something to abolish?
Somebody suggested the Commission of Internal Revenue Service. (Laughter)
You’ve had a really interesting history. Do you think you'll keep working here? Be like your father and your grandfather?
And you're practicing law, too?
I've got about four clients.
Is that all you want?
I wouldn't mind having another really good one. I represent industrial water utilities, of which there ain't many. It's differentiated from a governmental entity or a cooperative. I have a nice group.