Shared from the 5/25/2020 San Antonio Express eEdition


Skycap ‘Herb from the Curb’ brightens days

Kin Man Hui / Staff photographer

For more than 20 years, skycap Herb Watts has helped passengers with luggage at San Antonio International Airport.

About the author


A 22-year veteran of the Air Force, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. Observing and listening across San Antonio, he finds intriguing tales to tell about everyday people every Monday morning.

Gray clouds blanketed the skies when Michael Miller, 76, was dropped off at the San Antonio International Airport.

Wearing a purple face mask, he lugged his bag to the Southwest Airlines curbside check-in station, where skycap Herb Watts greeted him as if he were an old buddy. He went over Miller’s flight itinerary and radioed ahead for wheelchair assistance.

“This is all-leather interior here,” Watts said, patting the wheelchair back as he got it into position for Miller.

As the traveler settled into the chair, REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” blared from a radio along the empty dropoff point.

“We’re not us without you,” Watts, 51, said as airport assistance arrived to take Miller the rest of the way. “I appreciate you, my brother.”

“I appreciate you, too,” Miller replied, as the employee pushed the wheelchair through the doorway.

“Stay safe and come back and visit,” the skycap called out after Miller, “many blessings to you.”

Over the last 26 years, thousands of travelers have received the red carpet treatment from Watts, who is known as “Herb from the Curb.” He coined the nickname after meeting one of his earliest supporters, the late Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher. The airlines founder always made it a point to stop and see him on visits to the San Antonio airport.

One day a woman asked Watts if he was the CEO. “No ma’am,” he said, “I’m Herb from the curb. Big Herb is the boss.”

The skycap said it was refreshing to meet someone of Kelleher’s stature who was so down to earth. In Watts’ second year on the job, Kelleher presented him with the Southwest Airlines’ Presidents Award in Dallas for customer service and job excellence.

David Salinas, 59, and Johnny Edwards, 58, have worked with Watts for more than two decades. They have witnessed travelers who arrived early before a flight just to talk to their co-worker.

“He’s the No.1positive guy,” Edwards said.

Airport spokeswoman Tonya Hope said Watts embodies the great customer service that is the goal at the San Antonio International Airport.

Watts’ helping-hand philosophy has its roots in childhood experiences and the kindness of strangers.

He grew up on the East Side in a household plagued with drug abuse and alcoholism. Watts was 8 when he wrote, “Do the right thing,” on a piece of paper and taped it to the refrigerator door for his father to see when he went to grab a beer.

The note worked. His father apologized and told him he appreciated the gesture. Watts credited his father for his beliefs in faith and forgiveness, tenets he said always set him free.

But it was a roller-coaster childhood; by the 10th grade, the boy who was quiet and reserved had attended 12 schools because of deep family issues.

After school he’d play basketball and then hurry home to watch afternoon television alone. Home was the latch-key boy’s refuge from gang members who tried to recruit him into their ranks.

His life changed in high school when scouts from the Texas Military Institute chose him to run track and play on their basketball team. One of four African American students in his classrooms, he felt out of place. The curriculum was challenging and the culture different. Missing his parents, he worried about their welfare.

Distraught, he ran away to stay with his former coach Wayne Dickey and enrolled back at Sam Houston High School. His mother and father thought he was still at TMI.

After two weeks, Dickey, TMI coach Randy Hicks, and counselor Lynn Hicks persuaded him to return to the military school. Reassured that TMI’s teaching staff and counselors believed in him, Watts’ confidence soared.

Hicks, who believed that Watts had a promising future, became like a second mother.

“You don’t have to be blood to be family,” he said. “They were my angels more than I ever knew.”

In 1988, he joined the Army and served in the 1st Calvary Division at Fort Hood. After separating from the military in 1991, he worked at an H-E-B warehouse loading groceries on trucks.

It wouldn’t be the last time that the grocery chain was in his life.

In 2002, Watts and his family ran a barbecue stand on wheels in Floresville along U.S. 181. His wife, De Havalan, cooked the family’s secret barbecue sauce and their two children helped after school.

He called his wife, who he’s known since second grade, his rock.

“She makes me who I am today,” he said. “It all stems from a God-sent wife.”

Watts said his grandfather William Watts inspired him to try the barbecue business. His first foray in selling the sauce came in 2008, when he visited restaurants and stores to interest them in his product.

Watts’ hard work landed his sauce in a few stores, but his big break came in the summer of 2019 after a chat with a traveler checking in at his curbside station.

Turned out Ed Salas worked for H-E-B and he put Watts in contact with Mark Bradshaw, a grocery business development manager at H-E-B.

“Come over on August 12,” he recalled Bradshaw wrote in an email. “Bring your product and let’s talk sauce.”

The date was changed to a special day — Aug. 22, Watts’ 29th wedding anniversary. During the meeting, he learned that his family’s “All natural, sweet & tangy mesquite barbecue sauce,” would be sold in 150 stores.

“It was a very emotional experience,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Because of the pandemic, the product isn’t on store shelves yet, but the deal is still on.

Watts credits his angel investor and a multitude of people for helping him go from mason jars bearing handmade tags to commercial bottles with professionally-designed labels featuring a photo of Watts on the front, his wife on the back cooking the sauce and the story of the family recipe.

But spreading goodwill is his main job. He’s still enhancing travelers’ airport experiences with playful ploys such as having them unwittingly read out letters for flight confirmations that spell L-0-V-E.

Because of the novel coronavirus, there aren’t any handshakes. There aren’t hugs. But there’s still one thing that hasn’t changed — the smile behind the protective mask.

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