Role Model: PR firm’s founder opened doors for minorities

Wyntress B. Ware

When Wyntress B. Ware arrived at nursing school in Fort Worth, she noticed that she was the only African-American there. So she did what any daughter would do. She called her daddy.

“I just don’t know if I can stay here,” she told him. He told her that he’d send her money so she could come back home to Beaumont any time she wanted. “But take all of those uniforms, because your uncle is the head of the janitorial department at Hotel Beaumont and I’m sure he can get you a job.”

She thought long and hard about putting that little white uniform on and going into housekeeping. But she didn’t go home. Instead, she finished her education in Tarrant County – a registered nurse degree from the now-closed St. Joseph’s Hospital and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas at Arlington. Ultimately she became the head nurse in a psychiatric unit at a hospital at about age 23.

Ware left nursing in May 1987 to set up what is now Ware + Associates, a Fort Worth-based public relations firm that provides public relations, public affairs, grassroots community outreach, marketing communications and airport advertising services. That was 30 years ago.

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That was around the time that Medicare introduced Diagnosis-Related Groups (DRG) as part of its payment system. One aspect of that was that insurance companies limited the number of days in a hospital they would pay for by illness classification.

“Too many patients were going home sick and it scared me to death and I decided I really needed to look at another industry,” she said.

Nursing to public relations/marketing might seem to be an unusual career path, but there is a connection.

After leaving nursing, Ware started as a recruiter to fill hospital administrator positions, including nursing positions. At the time, some hospital systems – Texas Health Resources among them – had their own insurance companies. THR wanted to bid on insurance coverage for the City of Fort Worth, but the bid required that one component be a Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE) plan, and THR didn’t have one.

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So Ware was hired on contract to develop a plan and administer it for five years. “At that time, they were doing less than $50,000 in business with women and minorities,” she said. “By the fifth year, they were doing more than $17 million with women and minorities.” The second major contract was with the Freese and Nichols engineering firm to handle public relations on a massive pipeline project with Fort Worth.

And that was the beginning of Ware + Associates.

“We are a small PR agency,” she says now, “and I guess the basis of our agency is to let our clients know that integrity comes first. We want to be competitive, but we pick and choose closely the contracts that we sign off on. Every dollar that comes through the door, we pray on it, and we get a feel for what it’s going to do to preserve the integrity of our community.”

She worked hard to be known. “When you’re hospital-based, your whole life is in the hospital,” she said. “Once I started the public relations company, I had to really get to know the community and the [city] council.” That meant serving on boards and performing other service that drew attention.

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“There was a big void in women and minorities participating at a level where we could express a will for the community,” she said. People wanted to know how they could participate and how they could work together to improve Fort Worth.

She tells a story of one organization that did not have women’s restrooms on the administrative suite floor. The nearest restroom was down a stairwell on another floor. “I came back and shared that with them,” Ware said. “They hadn’t thought about it.”

Ware has been married 45 years to Theodis Ware – she calls him T – a retired director of physical therapy at Cook Children’s Hospital. “He came on to do whatever needed to be done at Ware and Associates, and he’s played a terrific role in the job,” she said.

They have a 37-year-old daughter, Shannon Ware Stegall, and two grandchildren, 13-year-old SaRae Stegall and 10-year-old J.R. Stegall.

Ware was driven to succeed in part because she was aware early that she was a role model for others to see and in part because she was following in the footsteps of three older brothers who were all A students.

“I took everything seriously and I wanted to make sure that I was competent about everything I did,” she says. “I studied long and I studied hard. I was a B student. When I came in behind them, everybody expected me to really shine.” Her recollection is that her brothers “never opened a book,” but it was hard work for her.

People cannot dream about what they cannot visualize, and so it is important for minority women growing up in a white-male-dominated society to have visible role models. Ware recognized that early and has become a mentor both practically and spiritually.

She encourages those she mentors to first seek the love of God in their lives and then find love for themselves. “And once they’re able to do that, they’ll be able to really open themselves and to really see loving and passing that on to others,” Ware said.

She and her agency work with the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, initially started as a summer reading program for young men, to help students stay involved in learning over the summer break.

“We also work with youth programs and try to find role models to talk with kids and come in and show them examples,” Ware said, “and not just in February when it’s Black History Month.” The idea is to let children know that they can be a police officer or a firefighter or a teacher, and to emphasize the importance of education in being able to support themselves.

There’s no reason to dwell on the past, but it important to remember history. The Jewish people have made it a priority to make sure their children understand their history, but not so much with African-Americans, Ware said.

“We have not done that in the African-American family to let our kids know the blood, the sweat and the tears that have come before them,” she said. “We want them to be excited and proud of the liberties that they have now, but I think we’ve shielded them from really understanding what our forbearers had to go through in the ’30’s and ’40’s and ’50’s and ’60’s and ’70’s to really get us where we are.”

But she knows. She remembers when payment of a poll tax was required to vote in Texas elections, effectively limiting participation by poor people and minorities. The 1902 poll tax law remained in effect until it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, say articles from the Texas State Historical Association. (A historical note: The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified by the necessary 28 states in 1964, struck down use of the poll tax in federal elections, and that was later extended to state elections by the Supreme Court decision. Texas ratified the amendment in 2009.)

Ware’s mother helped others put aside the money they needed to pay the tax so they could vote. “We’d go out Saturday mornings and, from house to house, somebody would give us 15 cents and I’d take it and she’d write it down and next week we’d go and get 20 more cents,” Ware said.

“I stand on the shoulders of tons of ladies,” Ware said.

But she’s helping others to stand on her shoulders.

“I am the oldest individual at Ware and Associates. I think everybody else is at least 20 years younger than I am and I’ve really begun to bring in individuals who have more education in communication,” she said.

One is Trameika R. Vaxter, the firm’s executive vice president, with more than 15 years of general market and multicultural public relations agency experience.

For the last two years, Vaxter had handled the operations of the agency. “She is basically managing the role that I would normally do,” Ware said, “so that’s why I’ve been able to take vacations.” They’ve been connected at the hip, Ware said, and she’s trying to teach Vaxter “every single thing that I know.”

Vaxter says the work is exciting and that it’s a pleasure to learn from Ware’s experience and wisdom. “I’m really grateful,” she says.