08/04/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Rosemary Kowalski: Imagining Beauty

A while back I set out to tell the stories of leaders that inspire people to follow- not through celebrity or ego or fear, but through humanity. The book- Peerless: Defy Convention. Lead from the Heart. Watch What Happens has, as often happens with books, taken on a life of its own. And, quite honestly, writing it changed my life. What I found in this process was encouraging and inspiring. These servant leaders we spotlight have changed their world, and achieved amazing results through commitment and effort. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of their stories with you.

Rosemary Kowalski grew up with her city, and by serving its people she helped it become what it is today. For more than half a century she has served the leaders of government who have guided its steady growth, welcomed the dignitaries who come to visit its attractions, and fed the working people who make San Antonio, Texas their home.

She knows the back entrances to every theater and meeting hall as well as the elegant front lobbies where guests in black tie chat over cocktails. She served Queen Elizabeth II her gin and tonic promptly at noon, before lunch. She received the blessing of Pope John Paul II after serving him breakfast, lunch and dinner. She can make a convention center dining experience feel as intimate as a cozy French bistro, and then drive to a children's foster home and turn the leftovers into an elaborate feast.

Rosemary Kowalski got her start in 1946, when she and her husband opened Uncle Ben's Bar-B-Que, a beer and barbecue spot on North Zarzamora Street that became a favorite of college students, and lawyers and politicians from the nearby courthouse. Then in 1949 a customer asked her to cater the bazaar at St Peter's Prince of the Apostles Church. "What's catering?" she responded.

Soon she was packing up weekly to cater at Lions Club meetings; then she was catering social events in the homes of San Antonio's most prestigious citizens. She bought her own sterling silverware and a chafing dish, using them and not much else except her sense of beauty to make every event special and perfect for the occasion. Today, the business occupies six acres of downtown real estate in San Antonio. It operates under the ownership of Rosemary's son, Greg Kowalski, as the RK Group. The main housing is a 72,000 square foot warehouse to which they added another 48,000 square feet; it is a wonderland of every possible thing that goes into creating a magical event.

"She is who she is now, but she started off as nobody having nothing," says Dora Fernandez, who worked in the company for forty years. "She would take the silverware home at night because the restaurant was so tiny with no place to store such things. It was a big sacrifice in those lean days to spend money on a chafing dish. These things were her treasures."

Serving Leaders and More
Texas's best-known personalities have hosted a wide assortment of prestigious events over the years in San Antonio, and Kowalski has played an important part not only in the success of the individual functions, but also in helping to build her city's reputation for elegance, hospitality and enterprise.

At one point, the San Antonio Express News described Kowalski and former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell as "living their lives together." Cockrell, the first female mayor of a major city in the United States, often tells her friend these days, "Rosemary, you and I were on the same path. You were serving the people while I was entertaining them." Says Kowalski, "My stories - and I am full of them - are about people we served. Everybody here has put their trust in us."

She laughs about the National Petroleum and Refiners Association luncheon with two thousand people that was hosted by Governor John Connolly. Kowalski rented an 18-wheeler freezer where the employees assembled bowls of ice cream for dessert. "We were serving lunch and everything was fine," she says. "Then someone left the freezer door open, and all that ice cream melted. The governor announced over the microphone what had happened from the podium and everybody drank their dessert. No complaints!"

There was the dinner at the Alamo in 1992 with leaders from all over the world in attendance. There was the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987. "I was so nervous," says Kowalski. "He shook hands with each one of us and said in English, 'thank you and God bless you'."

She has frequented the homes of San Antonio's most notable citizens, serving ambassadors, presidents, members of congress and nationally known CEO's. David Pace, the creator of Pace picante sauce recipe, was among her many good friends.

Kowalski is known for her extraordinary commitment to making even the most difficult assignments work. She loaded dozens of boxes on the Concorde to cater a State Department event hosted by U.S. Ambassador Henry Catto in London. When the National Park Service banned food at a client's event at the Mission San Jose, Kowalski's ingenuity persuaded the government to change its mind, by compiling a menu that the settlers would have eaten when the mission was founded in the 1700s.

No Longer a "Mom and Pop"
The RK Group now comprises twenty-eight separate businesses, and on November 11, 2011 (11-11-11), the company celebrated 65 years of operation. A company "snapshot" recorded the following snippets of information: 500 employees, including 60 chefs, 6,000 parties catered in a year, 17,000 USAA employees served lunch daily, 32 trucks and 15,000 pieces of China. Its businesses have spread from San Antonio to Austin, Houston, Galveston and Phoenix, Arizona, and their diversity includes businesses such as Circa Texas which does destination management services; Illusions does party rentals and decors; and The Story of Texas Café which serves tourists at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin.

Kowalski credits the expansion to her son Greg, who took over the company's day-to-day management in 1989. "He was very smart at dividing these companies," she says. "Greg advised that we do so many different things, we should have different companies. I was always Mom and Pop, and with all this, we're not Mom and Pop anymore.

"He started working when he was six, and I am very lucky that he didn't burn out," she says. "Catering is harder than digging a ditch. It's with us 24/7.

At the age of 87, Kowalski values her friends, other women who have been serious about leading successful lives in business and government. She keeps tickler files to send out notes and birthday cards on important dates in the lives of others. "If you ever once tell me your birthday you will always get a card from me," she says.

She spends much of her time working in nonprofit pursuits. "I'm on the free side," she says, "and I have a little office here. I work mostly with children's groups.

She knows what happens in every inch of the company's 80,000 square foot facility, enthusiastically ushering guests through kitchens, storage areas, washrooms and assembly areas. Everything that goes into serving an elegant meal is there: a state-of-the-art kitchen of industrial proportions, giant refrigerators and freezers, dishwashers and laundry machines, a florist, a sewing center, dining chairs and tables, linens, thematic props and decorations, and scores and scores of silver, china and crystal. Deep inside at the heart of the building is a friendly, informal diner where lunch is served every day to employees and where San Antonio's police chief and fire chief often stop in for a mid-day break. Clients relax elsewhere in softly-lit, elegantly appointed, wood-paneled dining rooms where they plan their special upcoming events, sampling wines, locally-grown greens tossed gently with tart vinaigrettes, tenderloins blanketed with mushroom demi-glace, roasted vegetables tucked into buttery pastry, dark chocolate molten cakes and hazelnuts dusted with vanilla-scented sugar ...

"Now this is an interesting operation," she says, donning a hairnet and stepping into the frigid air of the "The Sandwich Factory," where three million sandwiches were made last year in three rooms chilled between 34 and 43 degrees and then shipped to convenience stores and vending machines throughout Texas.

Be On Time and Say Thank You
In 2003 Kowalski was named a Grande Dame of Les Dames d'Escoffier International, joining the ranks of the world's most respected contributors, including Julia Childs, to the fields of food, wine, nutrition and "arts of the table." She gets together regularly with other members of the Les Dames organization and is often asked by younger chefs and caterers for advice.

"I say you couldn't do it the way we did," she laughs. "We did meals for seventy-five cents. You paid twenty cents for a loaf of bread and it had twenty slices.

But there are basic values that haven't changed. "Unlike the game of tennis, you only get one serve in catering one event, one special occasion," she says. "You have to get it right the first time. You must always strive for perfection."

And as much as she loves to serve, she respects the people who serve others. "I'm as friendly to them as I am to George Bush," she says. "I've always told our people when you work here your best friend is the man who opens the back door ... because we go through the back door."