The Remarkable Gift

When Albert Kronkosky Jr. died on Oct. 23, 1995 at 87, the newspapers called him a "chili powder heir" and indicated that the family fortune was built on the Gebhardt Chili Powder Co. That was true, but only partially so.

Chili powder contributed to the Kronkosky wealth. So did the San Antonio Drug Co. Both businesses were built by Albert Kronkosky Sr. and carried on by his son. Both were later sold to larger companies. The real source of the family's millions was stock in Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant. Early and continued investment in Merck more than surpassed chili powder and drugs in amassing the wealth that subsequently funded the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation.

Longtime family attorney Allan Paterson said that Albert Kronkosky Sr. "was one of the very original investors in Merck & Co." George W. Merck was a traveling wholesale drug salesman from New Jersey. He decided to start his own drug company and invited Kronkosky Sr. to invest, Paterson said. Kronkosky did invest.

When Merck became ill in San Antonio, Kronkosky was at his side and apparently was rewarded with more stock, including some for Albert Jr.

Albert Jr. was largest single individual stockholder when he died, with 5.9 million shares at about $60 per share. He held onto Merck through its ups and downs. Repeated stock splits added to his holdings.

The Kronkoskys became involved in chili powder through a brother-in-law, William Gebhardt of New Braunfels. Gebhardt, who married Rosa Kronkosky, learned to dry Mexican peppers in his mother-in-law's oven. Gerhardt established the business and invented most of the machinery to manufacture the chili powders. But he was not a businessman and Albert Kronkosky Sr. became owner and managed the firm's growth.

Albert Sr. had moved from New Braunfels to San Antonio at the age of 16 and began a startlingly successful business career as a grocery clerk. He then became a clerk in a retail drug store, which added a wholesale business. Eventually, he became chairman of the board of that business, the San Antonio Drug Co.

The Kronkoskys had a sense of their own being. They were very humble, regular folks. They ate what we ate, which often was very basic fare. People talk about the Kronkoskys' legacy. They left their money to what they believed was important.

Sister Susan Mika

After his father's death in 1944, Kronkosky Jr. was active in both the drug and chili powder companies, his cousin, Donald Kronkosky of New Braunfels, said. Among other things, Kronkosky traveled to Mexico and Latin America to buy chiles.

Gebhardt Chili Powder became an independent division of Beatrice Food Co. in 1959 and now is a part of Hunt Foods. San Antonio Drug Co. was sold to Southwestern Drug Co. in 1961.

Both sales were for stock, rather than cash, and Kronkosky Jr. thus was able to reduce taxes on the transactions. Family, friends, business associates and beneficiaries of the Kronkoskys all consistently describe Albert Jr. and his wife, Bessie Mae, as private people. Albert Jr. often made charitable gifts anonymously, through his bank's trust department.

The Kronkoskys maintained a low economic and social profile in San Antonio, friends said. "Politics was never discussed," Martha Lee Granato, a longtime friend, said. Alfredo Flores Sr., who knew Albert Jr. for almost 60 years, described him as "very, very modest, a simple, fine man. It was very hard to get close to Albert. Nobody could get close to him. He was self-contained and I think he was lonely." Flores was a golfing and traveling companion.

While not ostentatious, the Kronkoskys did share their wealth in a lasting fashion.

In 1961, Albert Kronkosky Jr. sold the family estate in Boerne, vacant for 10 years, to the Benedictine sisters in San Antonio. He sold it for $40,000, less than market value. It is now the home of the Benedictine monastery, a religious retreat center, and a home for ill children.

The Kronkoskys maintained an interest in the hilltop property, Sister Lucille Goertz, former prioress of the order, said. They visited frequently, staying in touch with the land. They funded pews for the chapel, fencing of the entire 30-acre property, food for a day camp for underprivileged children and other projects. One of Mrs. Kronkosky's pet Chihuahua dogs is buried on the grounds.

"The Kronkoskys had a sense of their own being. They were very humble, regular folks. They ate what we ate, which often was very basic fare," Sister Susan Mika said. "This couldn't have happened without God's providence and the early work of our sisters. We have a sense of what went before. We have a sense of history.

"People talk about the Kronkoskys' legacy. They left their money to what they believed was important."