HARLINGEN — City officials and Southwest Airlines employees paid tribute to the company’s late CEO Herb Kelleher with the official unveiling Friday of a wall-sized mural at Lozano Plaza downtown.

In 1975, Kelleher decided to add Harlingen’s Valley International Airport to its original triangle of destinations which consisted of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

Mayor Chris Boswell offered some historical context of just what Kelleher’s decision to bring Southwest to Valley International meant to the city.

“In 1962, you remember the Harlingen air base closed for the final time and it devastated the economy of this city,” Boswell said at the ceremony. “We lost population by about 20 percent, houses were empty, and we had a big campaign to sell houses. People forget the impact that base closure had on this community.”

Boswell said the vision of city leaders at the time was apparent as they successfully lobbied to convert the shuttered military air base into a commercial aviation facility.

It was the faith which Southwest, founded just 13 years before, showed in Harlingen that put the city on the national flight map, he said.

“Southwest Airlines did come and probably people didn’t realize the impact it had,” he added. “It was a new airline, called a startup company today, but obviously over time Southwest Airlines has been one of the great economic engines of this city and of the region, and has made a tremendous economic impact on this city and this region in ways we can’t quantify but we do know how important it has been.”

The mural, created by artist Angel Hernandez who was in the audience, shows Kelleher with lush green fields and palms behind him, and a Southwest Airlines plane overhead. In the background are citrus groves and in the foreground with him is a resaca.

A quotation from Kelleher completes the mural. It reads: “The essential difference in service is not machines or ‘things.’ The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits and souls.”

The mural is now added to the impressive artwork already existing in the downtown area. More than two dozen murals are now in place, and they have been a tourist draw appreciated by the district and its businesses.

“I’ve been privileged to be asked to speak on behalf of these folks and to thank you all — the city, Southwest Airlines and the Kelleher family — for bringing this mural to our downtown,” said Lars Keim, chair of the Downtown Improvement District board. “I think it’s a fantastic addition to the downtown and to the city’s mural program that people come to see from all over the place.”

With about 125 people in attendance Friday, Harlingen native Brad Hawkins, a Southwest spokesman and communications senior adviser, said Kelleher saw something in the city and its airport.

“Forty-five years ago, air travel to the Valley began a long love affair with Southwest Airlines,” Hawkins said. “It was historic, it was newsworthy, it was bold. …

Hawkins went on to say it wasn’t merely an airline taking a gamble on a city, but a city taking one on a relatively new airline.

“I want to reflect a little bit on the fact that you alluded to, mayor, that Harlingen took a chance on Southwest, it wasn’t just the other way around,” he added. “At that point we were emerging from a period of instability. We had just stabilized to own three airplanes and now there are more than 750.

“There were three Texas cities, there were 300 employees,” he continued. “And now with the largest fleet in the world, and by many metrics the largest airline in the world, the expansion that began here in Harlingen is what really Southwest can credit that chapter to.

“And of course most of that is because of the vision of Herb Kelleher,” Hawkins said.