Friends And Family Say Goodbye To Lila Cockrell, San Antonio's First Woman Mayor | Texas Public Radio

Friends And Family Say Goodbye To Lila Cockrell, San Antonio's First Woman Mayor

Friends, family, colleagues and admirers celebrated the life and accomplishments of Lila Cockrell, the first woman to lead San Antonio and one of the first women to lead a major U.S. city. She died on Aug. 29 at age 97.

A public visitation was held on Tuesday at Mission Park Funeral Chapel North. Her private funeral was Thursday morning at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. A final public tribute was held later in the day at Lila Cockrell Theatre on Market Street.

About 100 people attended the tribute on Thursday afternoon. The event included musical performances and remarks from San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Manager Erik Walsh, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who sent his thoughts in a letter to be read to the crowd, and other political leaders. Also, Cockrell's daughters received the Texas flag flown over the Capitol building in Austin.

"She was a giant and a gift to us all," Nirenberg said. He declared September 5 "Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell Day" in San Antonio.

Cockrell served three terms between 1975 and 1981, and then a fourth term from 1989 to 1991. She also served nine years on the San Antonio City Council, from 1963 to 1970 and again from 1973 to 1975.

As a city council member, Cockrell worked to establish the first Mayor's Commission on the Status of Women.

The Texas Women's Hall of Fame reports the 1942 graduate of Southern Methodist University served on six state boards and commissions under four governors and was elected the first woman president of the Texas Municipal League.

She was an advocate for public green spaces and led the San Antonio Parks Foundation from 1981 until retirement in 2012.

Nirenberg also celebrated Cockrell on when she died on Aug. 29.

"If there were a Mount Rushmore for our city, Lila Cockrell would be on it," he said in a statement. "She was a consummate statesman. She exuded class and never involved herself in the pettiness of politics despite all of the years that she was in the center of political life in San Antonio. She was a stellar role model for young women and young men."

Nirenberg added to his remarks during TPR's "The Source."

“Her legacy in the arts and environmental stewardship and good governance and just the modern era of San Antonio will be permanent," he said, "and she will be remembered as one of the true icons of our city.”

Nirenberg said he became friends with Cockrell when he managed Trinity University's jazz music station and she led the San Antonio Parks Foundation. He remembered how she danced during a Jazz Alive festival when she was well into her 90’s.

Wolff, also a former mayor of San Antonio, said she brought diversity to city hall and civility to local politics, and she empowered women during her four terms in office. Wolff defeated her when she ran for re-election in 1991. He says they remained friends and worked on big city projects afterwards.

He said she set the bar high for future mayors. “She did a wonderful job," he added. "I think every mayor since then has tried to follow that standard.”

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, also a former mayor, also celebrated her accomplishments.

The public tribute to Lila Cockrell included a projected slideshow of photos of her with famous people, including President Jimmy Carter.
Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio

"Things like River Center Mall wouldn't have happened without her leadership," he said. "Valero coming to San Antonio. Things like her earlier work as a councilperson on HemisFair, the Lila Cockrell Theatre. Of course, all that physical legacy is real."

But Cisneros said her biggest contribution came from her efforts to build bridges and bring people together, as she did after the city elected its first council members from single-member districts in the 1970s, which was controversial at the time.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales noted Cockrell's achievements as a pathbreaker and leader.

"As the first woman Mayor of our city and the first female Chair of the CPS Energy Board of Directors," Gonzales said in a statement, "she opened the door of possibilities to many of us who have followed her lead in public service. Her warm and congenial demeanor belied a tough negotiator and that example still resonates in City Hall."

Precinct 1 Bexar County Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez commended Cockrell's contribution to San Antonio's South Side, particularly after she left the mayor's office.

“A tireless advocate, she always kept the southside at the forefront of her conservation efforts," he said in a statement. "Her support for clean drinking water, river preservation, the missions and the World Heritage designations are among the very important issues she took on with a big heart and a soul full of passion. A true jewel of the southside, she will be greatly missed.”

Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, noted Cockrell's foresight as a city leader.

"Her long-term vision for our City began our still active quest for securing and diversifying our water and energy future; led to the initiation of our recruiting corporations for job opportunities for our citizens; launched HemisFair, which put us on the national and international map; and nurtured San Antonio’s inclusive environment, where people from diverse backgrounds and different political views come together to do what is best for our beloved city, " he said in a statement. "Simply said, Lila put San Antonio on the map and developed the blueprint for today's success."

Despite her accomplishments, sometimes Cockrell had to defend herself during official visits to other cities. During an interview on "The Source" last year, she offered one vivid example. “I remember sitting next to a gentleman who said to me, 'And what do you do little lady?' And I paused a moment, and he said, 'What do they call you in San Antonio?' and I said, 'well, in San Antonio they call me Mayor Cockrell.' "

Early life

Lila May Banks was born on Jan. 19, 1922, at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth to Velma Thompkins and Robert Bruce Banks, a lawyer from San Antonio who fought in World War I.

Eighteen months after her birth, her father contracted hepatitis and died. “My mother was devastated,” she remembered in her memoir Love Deeper Than A River: My Life in San Antonio. “I regret not having the privilege of truly knowing my father.” In 1927, her mother married Ovid Winton Jones, who worked in the legal sector of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Lila came from a conservative family, and in 1928 the little girl even organized a community parade to support Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign.

Her grandfather was Prohibition director for New York and Puerto Rico. Her grandmother, Lila Caroline Banks, was a leading member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and she recruited eight-year-old Lila into her Loyal Temperance Union. The little girl signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol. “I kept the pledge until college days,” she remembered.

Their influence led to what Cockrell called a “firsthand lesson in diplomacy” she would never forget. The 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, and she wrote a poem celebrating its virtues and condemning attempts to repeal the amendment. She sent the poem to one of Prohibition’s leading critics, the governor of New York: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And the governor responded. He “complimented my poem,” Cockrell remembered, “but pointed out that while we both supported the cause of temperance, we favored different ways to achieve it. His response did not win him any points with my grandparents, but I still have the letter,” she wrote.

Cockrell had two brothers, Ovid Winfield Jones Jr. was born in 1928, and Andrew McCampbell Jones was born in 1930.

She attended school in Fort Worth, graduated early at age fifteen, attended one year at Ward-Belmost College in Nashville, Tennessee, and then in 1939 entered Southern Methodist University.

War and peace

In the summer of 1941, she met Sidney Earl Cockrell Jr., who she described as the “young man who was destined to become my husband, the father of my children, and my lifetime love.” He was part of ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and became an artillery officer after graduation.

World War II was consuming Europe and Asia, and it cast a shadow over the young couple’s hopes for their future as husband and wife.

One weekend in late 1941, she attended a lecture where the speaker shared his certainty the Japanese Empire would never attack the United States. That Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, she wrote, his assurance was shattered when the Japanese attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was at war.

Her grandmother had encouraged her to vocationally prepare herself to be a teacher, and she took her advice. She took education courses and earned a teaching certificate. Twenty-year-old Lila Banks graduated from SMU in 1942 and hoped to become a public school teacher.

Mayor Cockrell and the San Antonio City Council around 1978.
Credit Courtesy City of San Antonio

Three weeks after graduation, in June 1942, she and Sid Cockrell were married at the First Methodist Church in Fort Worth. They moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where she became an elementary school teacher, and later to Kansas City.

With the U.S. at war, Cockrell wanted to do more. Her original plan was to join the American Red Cross, but she was 21 and their minimum age to join was 25. So she turned to the U.S. Navy and trained to become an officer in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program, or WAVES. "I passed all the academic tests," she wrote, "and discovered that I really liked the marching, calling out those commands and singing along the way. …"

Upon graduation and commissioning as an ensign, she was assigned to the Navy's Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. She was appointed an education officer, and her duties included overseeing advancement testing of enlisted personnel and their correspondence college coursework.

Her husband was stationed in Iceland and served as a general's aide. Cockrell, who grew up in a conservative Republican family, valued her time in Washington, particularly for the opportunity it gave to meet a wider variety of people than ever before and "gain some insights into how political parties differed in philosophies and positions on issues."

She intended to continue her service for as long as the war lasted ... but life had other plans. In the spring of 1944, she recalled in her memoir, "I discovered I was pregnant."

Cockrell was honorably discharged from the WAVES that summer, and she returned to Kansas City. The doctor predicted, "based on the sound of the heartbeat," that she was going to have a boy who she would name Robert, after her father. But the baby born on Jan. 25, 1945, was a girl, and they named her Carol Ann.

The Army gave Sid, now a major, the option to continue in the service but he declined, and he returned to a previous position as work secretary for the YMCA. By September 1945, World War II had ended, but the Cockrells' new peacetime lives were well underway. Sid Cockrell's professional life took them to New York City and Dallas. In July 1948, the couple had a second daughter, Cathy Lynn.

'In love with a river'

Cockrell was happy but she wanted more. "While I enjoyed being a homemaker and the mother of a toddler," she wrote, "I soon felt the need for some outside activity." She read about the League of Women Voters in the newspaper, and she joined the group. She soon began hosting group discussions of current and political issues with two dozen young mothers who craved and appreciated the intellectual interaction. She also joined the United Nations Society and the American Red Cross.

But her future as a leader in the Alamo City, she explained in her memoir, began with her husband in 1955, when he was appointed executive director of the Bexar County Medical Society in San Antonio.

They visited the city, and at one point they walked on a sidewalk along the San Antonio River. She remembered feeling "enchanted."

"A lush, tropical landscape surrounded us," she wrote, "a sharp contrast to the busy life at street level, and beautiful old stone pedestrian bridges crossed the river along the way. Mariachi music floated through the air from one of the colorful restaurants above. If it is possible to fall in love with a river, that's what happened on that November day in 1955."

She was equally enchanted with the rest of her new home. She loved the architecture, the Mexican food, the fashion and especially the music. "I now had two favorite types of music -- marching bands and mariachis, " she wrote.

'Gentlemen and Madam'

Cockrell remained involved with the League of Women Voters, and she soon began the first of two two-year terms as president of the organization.

"I was thinking about the future, too," she wrote, and a new group -- the Good Government League, or GGL -- caught her interest. By 1961, it was led by Walter W. McAllister, San Antonio's mayor and a local businessman. In 1963, McAllister and other group leaders asked her to be GGL's first woman candidate for city council. They pledged the group's resources to manage her campaign and fundraising, and they promised they would never tell her how to vote on any issue. Cockrell agreed to run.

She remembered that that was the first of three three campaigns in which she registered as a candidate with the name "Mrs. S.E. Cockrell Jr." "It was not until the 1969 campaign that I registered as Lila Cockrell," she wrote.

Cockrell enjoyed her first campaign. She was an experienced debater, and her time leading civic groups, she said, also sustained her self-confidence. "I enjoyed going to neighborhoods, meeting people in all parts of the city and trying to get my campaign message across," she recalled. "I spoke to many women’s organizations that wanted to hear from the first woman candidate." She faced only token opposition, someone "who filed fifteen minutes before the deadline," and she won the election.

Cockrell took her seat on the San Antonio City Council on May 1, 1963. She described the first moments in her memoir: "In the past, the meetings had opened with the salutation 'Gentlemen.' For the first time in San Antonio’s history, that was amended to 'Gentlemen and Madam.' I was proud and thrilled to be there, and I resolved to be a truly effective councilwoman, an example to other women who would want to serve on the council in the future."

In November, Cockrell remembered the excitement in the air as San Antonio prepared to welcome President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who were on a tour of a few Texas cities. On Nov. 21, the president spoke at Brooks Air Force Base.

The next day, Cockrell wrote, "I was at home doing housework when the telephone rang shortly after noon." A friend told her to turn on the television. Kennedy had been shot as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas. "I ran into the den, turned on our television set, and along with millions of other Americans watched with horror and sadness as the tragic news unfolded." An old friend from her Dallas days, Judge Sarah T. Hughes, administered the oath of office to the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on Air Force One.

Beautification

Cockrell took a particular interest in beautification initiatives in San Antonio. She had always found inspiration in Mexican art and architecture. She was especially inspired by Miraflores, the private garden Mexican physician Dr. Aureliano Urrutia designed in 1921. "I became interested in the efforts of the Beautify San Antonio Association, founded by O.P. Schnabel, a prominent hardware store owner who refrerred to himself as Old Pushbroom," she wrote in her memoir.

She attracted the attention of Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady of the United States, Nellie Connally, the first lady of Texas, to a project to illuminate the trees in one block of the Riverwalk near the Arneson Theatre. The successful event convinced the council to allow Cockrell to organize an alliance of civic groups, government entities and private businesses to pursue more beautification initiatives.

Her enthusiasm for urban improvements inspired her to listen to U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez discuss how San Antonio could participate in Model Cities, a new federal initiative that would select five U.S. cities and institute a multi-million dollar redevelopment program to transform the cities into examples for other communities. Funding would go to "road improvements, housing, flood control, economic development projects, school projects, and more."

Mayor Cockrell and the San Antonio City Council between 1989 to 1991.
Credit City of San Antonio

Gonzalez, a friend of President Johnson, did not convince the entire council or the mayor, but Cockrell was behind him. The lifelong Republican wanted those federal dollars. "I did not let my own conservative opinions about national politics or partisanship stand in the way of going after money San Antonio needed," she wrote. But when the federal government announced the five selected cities, San Antonio was not among them. However, she remembered, because Gonzalez and Johnson were friends, San Antonio was added as a sixth Model City.

Cockrell credited the program with helping ease flooding problems near homes at Alazan Apache Creek and better fund school districts and small business community initiatives throughout the West Side. Most importantly, she wrote, citizens were given the opportunity to particupate in developing policies that directly affected their lives.

HemisFair '68

The community initiatives and redevelopment programs complemented another project that greatly excited Cockrell. San Antonio would mark its 250th birthday in 1968. In the early 1960s, she recalled, Jerome Harris, a local businessman, suggested that perhaps San Antonio should host a world fair as part of those celebrations. Cockrell and others mourned the loss of businesses that had left San Antonio for more vibrant business environments in other Texas cities, including Dallas and Houston. A bold project could remind both businessowners and tourists that the Alamo City still had a lot to offer them.

Gonzalez also recognized the potential, Cockrell remembered, and he asked businessman Bill Sinkin to lead the initiative. The world's fair would bring new construction to San Antonio, along with new visitors, new businesses and potentially millions of dollars in revenue. The project would place San Antonio on an international stage like none other. The ambition of the idea and the multiple once-in-a-lifetime benefits for the entire city dazzled the planners, and Cockrell joined the public-private/civic-corporate partnerships to realize the dream.

HemisFair's theme would be "A Confluence of Culturues in the Americas," and San Antonio, Cockrell wrote later, "was the perfect place to showcase this important message."

Cockrell championed the development of the Women's Pavilion. She helped convince the public to approve a $30 million bond issue to pay for construction, and successfully fought to preserve the lower level of the new convention center to save about $60,000.

"That floor, at river level, had rooms with windows that looked out at the turning basin for river barges," she remembered. "I felt this would be a big mistake." The space would later be named the Lila Cockrell Theater.

By the end of 1967, the recently re-elected councilmember stood with Gonzalez cut a ribbon marking the completion of "the river extension connecting the existing river bend to HemisFair area."

One day, Cockrell wrote, McAllister decided that he and the city council should take a construction elevator to the top of the still-unfinished Tower of the Americas to get a better visual perspective on the entire HemisFair park. "When we arrived at the site," she wrote, "several workmen told the mayor it was considered unlucky for a woman to ride in an elevator before a structure was completed and open to the public."

McAllister ignored their concerns. "Quite frankly," Cockrell recalled, "I would have been happy to accommodate the workmen's wishes, but I dutifully followed the mayor and other council members into the elevator."

Halfway up, she wrote, the elevator stopped. But "after a very long fifteen minutes our journey to the top of the tower continued."

HemisFair was scheduled to open its doors in early April, and excitement filled the air. But on April 4, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Cockrell and others watched unrest consume major U.S. cities, and HemisFair officials were worried any local demonstrations might affect the opening events.

But the schedule continued. President Johnson had planned to attend the opening festivities but he remained in Washington. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson headlined the ceremonies at the Texas Pavilion, now the Institute of Texas Cultures. The public entered the new world's fair the following day.

Cockrell regarded the event fairly. "While the fair did not generate the projected revenues or visitor count in 1968," she admitted, "it transformed San Antonio and empowered it to attract the booming national and international convention business that would ensure its future as a major city in the United States."

Mayor Cockrell

By 1969, Cockrell won a fourth term as a GGL candidate. The council then elected her mayor pro tem, the first time a woman held the position.

She tried to use her position to be "an agent for change in the city." She recalled trying to appoint more women and minorities to city agencies and commissions. She supported the new Mayor's Commission on the Status of Women. She tried to be a role model and example for other women who hoped to improve the San Antonio community through public service.

She left office in 1970, and attorney Carol Haberman replaced her, then ran as an incumbent in 1971. Two years later, Haberman ran for and won a county court-at-law judgeship, and GGL asked Cockrell to run again for her old council seat. Cockrell won, and she returned to the council in 1973. It was a very different dynamic, she remembered, because her GGL colleagues no longer dominated the council. By 1974, she remembered, its influence had dissipated.

The public tribute to Lila Cockrell included a projected slideshow of photos of her with famous people, including Queen Elizabeth II.
Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio

In the final months of 1974, supporters encouraged Cockrell to consider running for mayor in 1975, and the GGL formally made her their first woman mayor candidate. Despite everything she and her supporters had achieved up to that point, Cockrell had doubts achieving the mayor's office. "I was hesitant," she admitted. "Could a woman really be elected?"

Despite her doubts, she was willing to try. On top of that, she faced a new political landscape. In previous mayoral elections, the city council selected the mayor by majority vote. In November 1974, she wrote, the people of San Antonio would select their new city leader.

And she prevailed. In 1975, Lila Cockrell was elected mayor of San Antonio.

However, she said, the 1975 election "was the GGL's last gasp." It won only two council seats -- one for Rev. Claude Black and another for Henry Cisneros.

Cockrell began her new term determined to “work with the council to build a good working coalition of people who wanted to see San Antonio move ahead.”

Her first major challenge came in the form of a fundamental democratic change for San Antonio. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, she explained, “was designed to end racial discrimination in elections, and a decade later amendments were still being made to strengthen it.” That included making a crucial change to the city charter, she wrote. “Recognizing that our long-standing election of nine council members at larage did not provide representation of our entire city, we decided to adopt a districting plan.” The new system was in place by early 1977.

That year, she ran for a second term and won. “It was a colorful election,” she remembered, “and the first one that required me to raise my own money to campaign.”

Cockrell took her seat at the head of a new city council, which, she explained, “was expanded from nine members, including the mayor, to eleven. Ten members were elected from the districts they would represent, and the mayor was elected at large by the entire city.”

Seated next to her, she explained, were Henry Cisneros for District 1; Joe Webb for District 2; Helen Dutmer for District 3; Frank D. Wing for District 4; Bernardo Eureste for District 5; Rudy C. Ortiz for District 6; Joe Alderete Jr. for District 7; Phil Pyndus for District 8; Glen Hartman for District 9; and John Steen for District 10.

She was re-elected again in 1979.

By 1981, Cockrell was ready to run for a fourth term. But her husband Sid suffered from heart problems, and, she wrote, “I wanted to give him my full support. … It was my turn to reciprocate. I decided not to run for re-election in 1981.” She supported Cisneros as her successor, and he won the election, beginning what would be four terms as mayor. She considered him a friend and determined to keep her distance during his time in office.

For the next eight years, Cockrell remained a private citizen. She especially enjoyed her three years as executive director of United San Antonio, an organization focused on economic development and education led by Robert F. McDermott of USAA, Tom Frost and B.J. “Red” McCombs.

In 1986, Sidney Earl Cockrell Jr. died of congestive heart failure. “That was a very hard time for me,” she wrote. “There was never anyone else in my life, never of Sid's quality.”

In 1988, Cisneros announced he would not run for another term as mayor. Reporters asked Cockrell is she was interested in running again. “As I recall,” she wrote in her memoirs, “I responded that if Henry were sure he would not run, I would give it some thought.”

Cockrell did run again, and she won a fourth term in 1989. But it would be, she remembered, “a difficult term.” San Antonio was in a recession. A scandal had damaged public confidence in the city staff. And she admitted her dynamic with the council was problematic because, she explained, Cisneros had been “a strong leader type.” Cockrell described herself as “more of the consensus-building type.”

By 1991, eleven candidates campaigned to be mayor, she wrote, including four city council members. She came in third in the election, behind Nelson Wolff, the winner, and María Antonietta Berriozábal, the first Latina on the city council. Cockrell respected the new mayor, calling Wolff’s work on the city council “thoughtful and solid.”

“The only election I ever lost was in 1991,” Cockrell noted.

'Women are mayors'

In 2011, Cockrell was part of KLRN roundtable discussion of seven former San Antonio mayors. She shared a unique bit of wisdom that she developed during her time in city hall.

“I’ll tell you, that one of the things we did as women mayors and in networking," she explained, "we had a little slogan: ‘Texas: where men are men and women are mayors.”

For many of San Antonio's political leaders, Cockrell most significant legacy was how she inspired the women who followed the path she carved across the city's political landscape. It was certainly in the forefront of her mind as she looked back at her life.

“One of the things that was very important to me is that as a woman," she said, "having been able to be elected as mayor, to try to keep the doors open not just for me but for others behind me in various roles in the city. In particularly to keep doors open for Hispanics, for African Americans, for others who had not been able to move as quickly as they deserve to move.”

In 2014, another woman became mayor of San Antonio. Ivy Taylor was appointed to the office when Julian Castro stepped down to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. Taylor was also the city's first African-American mayor. She would be elected mayor the next year. She treasured the moments she spent with Cockrell.

“You know, I would run into her at a lot of events," she recalled, "and sometimes it felt like a camaraderie. We were girlfriends who had a secret, like we were the only chicks who had been in the big seat at city hall, and so it was kind of like a weird bond in a way.”

Taylor said she was always inspired by Cockrell's example.

“I drew inspiration from her every day that I served in the office, and actually it was quite surprising to me that so much time spanned between me and her. I hope it’s not that much time until the next woman.”

Cockrell explained in her autobiography that when she first ran for a seat on the city council, she was listed on the ballot with her husband's name.

Sharon Navarro, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Cockrell eventually created an identity for herself where she could be recognized by her own name in later elections.

“So that was a signifier for women that they can be these role models, have a very strong leadership and direction for a major urban city in San Antonio at a time where women weren’t very welcomed in governance.”

Berriozábal cherished her time with Cockrell on the council in 1989.

“She led with grace and with strength at a very pivotal time in our community," she said, "so I think she will be remembered for a very long time.”

Cockrell was also celebrated for advocating to increase San Antonio’s parks and greenspaces. After leaving office, she became the CEO of the San Antonio Parks Foundation.

Melissa Cabello Havrda is one of six current councilwomen who make up San Antonio’s majority female city council. She worked for Cockrell at the Foundation.

“She opened the door for us all," she said. " You stand on the shoulders of giants, and she’s one of those giants for a lot of us.”

For San Antonio women, especially those in politics, Cockrell was a trailblazer, carving a path through the city’s corridors of leadership that future generations still look up to and hope to follow.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.
Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.