SCHERTZ — At 82, Paul Ringenbach has not only witnessed history, he’s preserving it — including playing a pivotal role in getting the United Nations to recognize San Antonio’s 18th-century Spanish missions.
The retired Air Force colonel and professional historian recently was honored for his efforts as lead writer in the successful campaign to name the five colonial outposts of the former European empire — including the Alamo — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I was just one of a team of people who was working on this thing,” he said. “It feels good. Everybody likes to have a pat on the back.”
Officials said the designation raises San Antonio’s visibility both in the international community and with tourism trade.
Ringenbach, who also has been lauded for volunteering at Specht Elementary School in Timberwood Park, received the Dr. Joseph W. Schmitz Award for Excellence in Dissemination of History to International Audiences, and a Bexar County Commissioners Court Hidalgo Award.
The team mentioned by Ringenbach includes Virginia Nicholas, Bexar County Historical Commission chairwoman and former president of the San Antonio Conservation Society; Felix D. Almaraz Jr., a University of Texas at San Antonio history professor; and Paula Piper, a society board member and past president.
During the process, which involved working with the society and San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, the team stayed united through “thick and thin,” said Ringenbach, who is on the society board and chairs the neighborhood liaison group.
“He’s really smart, he knows how to write history. He brought in lots of international expertise to make sure it was the best nomination,” said society Executive Director Vincent Michael.
Nicholas and Ringenbach collaborated for 22 years as chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, for the county’s Historical Commission.
In pursuit of UNESCO approval, Ringenbach and his associates labored for eight years nominating the missions, finally succeeding in 2014. The chain of religious and imperial military fortifications received formal recognition in 2015.
“With Paul organizing and putting it all together, the World Heritage organization said this was the gold standard of World Heritage applications,” Nicholas said.
The missions became the 23rd World Heritage Site in the country.
When Ringenbach isn’t immersed in world affairs, he visits Connie Munoz’s second-grade classroom at Specht.
This spring, the Comal County Independent School District presented him with the Mentor of the Year Award.
“To be honest, he does it because he loves it. He doesn’t do all of these things to get an award or anything, so that was very surprising to him,” Munoz said.
The two met when Munoz was 5 and had just emigrated from Vietnam with her family. She was crying in school, and Ringenbach, who was working with Indochina refugees, gave her a book as a diversion.
Ringenbach has been mentoring her students for 15 years. Munoz said he teaches character traits and responsibility while encouraging and motivating. To most of the kids, he’s simply “Grandpa.”
“He just dedicates his time, makes the school better, makes the community better. Every time you talk to him, he’s helping somebody,” Munoz said.
Reared in Lynbrook, New York, Ringenbach was first interested in being a chemical engineer. He soon decided it wasn’t the right fit and changed his college major to history, eventually becoming a teacher.
“It turned out for me that history unlocked a lot of doors for me,” the octogenarian said.
He received degrees in history from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and as a serviceman, traveled the world, including a tour in Vietnam.
There, he wrote three monographs for Project CHECO, Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations, published by the Air Force.
His military career included six years on the United States Air Force Academy faculty; a doctorate came from the University of Connecticut.
The historian has penned several books, including his dissertation turned published work in 1973, “Tramps and Reformers, 1873-1916.”
After retiring from the armed forces in 1986, he worked at USAA as assistant vice president under chairman and CEO, Gen. Robert F. McDermott, and in public affairs.
“(McDermott) always used to say, ‘God gives everybody a gift. Your job is to figure out what your gift is, and then use your gift to not only help yourself, but to help the people around you,’” Ringenbach said. McDermott died in August 2006.
While at the insurance giant, Ringenbach wrote a corporate history on the company, “USAA: A Tradition of Service” and “Battling Tradition: Robert F. McDermott and Shaping the U.S. Air Force Academy.”
The Schertz resident also serves on the board of the city’s Historical Preservation Committee. He credits his wife, Sally, for making his volunteerism posible.
“You can’t be a successful volunteer unless your family supports you,” Ringenbach noted.
The couple, married nearly 60 years, have four children and 15 grandkids.
“I believe everybody should pay back to the community, or do stuff for the community,” said the veteran.