by: Claire Osborn / Austin American-Statesman
The most popular man in Round Rock wears a ball cap and sits in a tiny automotive office full of fading photos. Gail “Big Boy” Hester stands 5 feet 6 inches tall, but his grin can fill a room.
Hester, the owner of Hester’s Automotive, has been involved in nearly every aspect of the city’s civic life for the past 50 years, including barbecuing pigs for fundraisers, taking local businessmen on an annual fishing trip and helping bring Dell Diamond and the Round Rock Express to town.
Local politicians of all stripes even forgo more glamorous digs to sit in Hester’s unassuming garage on election nights to wait for results.
Round Rock Mayor Alan McGraw said the 76-year-old Hester, who has lived his whole life in Round Rock, is a “huge part” of keeping a sense of community in the fast-growing city.
“I don’t know how much more small town you can feel than going to an election party in an auto repair garage,” McGraw said. “It’s literally like stepping back into Mayberry. … Everybody knows everybody, and you don’t have to deal with the stress of the busy life we have all created for ourselves.” McGraw said that when he first ran for the City Council in 2001, “I was told that you got to go and sit down and eat with Big Boy.” McGraw now tells that to other newcomers, including officials with Bass Pro Shops whom he took to meet Hester, he said.
Round Rock City Council Member George White said Hester is “one of the foremost reasons that everyone in town gets along as well as they do. He fosters good will among people.” Hester likes gags and has been the target of them, his friends said. White said he promised to bring Hester a puppy once but instead arrived with an armadillo he had harnessed.
Hester still laughs about the framed photos in his garage of the jokes that pitching legend Nolan Ryan played on him. One shows Ryan asking for Hester’s autograph. In another, Ryan and Hester are standing by a cooler that Ryan had chained up so Hester couldn’t drink any beer.
Hester got to know Ryan after Hester helped form a group of residents to support the construction of Dell Diamond in the late 1990s. The Chamber of Commerce gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2009 and named a small-business award after him.
Hester is humble about his influence in Round Rock. He still shows up for work every day at 7 a.m., and he’s never had to advertise to get enough business. “I like to do things for people,” he said. “I always take the time to talk to people, not only about their car but anything you want to talk about, like how the fishing’s going to be in June.”
Hester is taking 48 people to Seadrift on the Gulf Coast in June for his annual fundraising fishing trip for the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Williamson County YMCA.
“Big Boy has taken everybody from the Baptist preacher to the mayor down there,” said Jon Sloan, a retired bank president who has been on many of the trips. “What’s unique about him is that everybody is his best friend.”
Hester said he was born and raised on a farm in Round Rock. Life back then was harder. “I don’t think those were the good old days,” he said. As a child he had to milk cows at 5 a.m. on freezing winter days, Hester said.
His parents named him “Big Boy” because he had a twin brother, Dale Hester, whom they named “Little Boy.” The late “Little Boy” Hester was mayor of Round Rock in the 1970s.
“Big Boy” Hester graduated from Round Rock High School and married his high school sweetheart a year later, he said. They have four children.
He opened his auto repair business downtown 54 years ago. Hester said the town had about 1,600 residents then and the nearest doctor was in Taylor. When he moved his shop a few years later to some farmland his family owned by Interstate 35, cars passed by only every five minutes on the freeway, he said. “Starting out, it was tough, tough times,” he said. “But it finally worked out. … Maybe it was the parties. I’ve had 35 parties over the years.”
Hester said he started throwing parties for his customers and friends in his garage in 1965 because he “always liked a little country music.”
One of his friends brought a little-known fiddle player named Johnny Gimble, who later won two Grammys. Gimble, who died May 9, played 16 times at the garage, Hester said with tears in his eyes.
But he smiled again when he talked about Round Rock. “We have it all,” he said. “Restaurants, universities and hospitals, and we are very fortunate to get these big businesses like IKEA and Bass Pro. I like the way it is now.”