From One Pioneer to Another: Henry Cisneros’ Tribute to Lila Cockrell

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Photos of Lila Cockrell are displayed in the lobby of the Lila Cockrell Theatre during the public tribute.

Into this church, in early 1922 Robert and Velma Banks carried their baby daughter to be christened. They christened her Lila May Banks in honor of her two grandmothers.

Banks family members lived in Laurel Heights and became active here at Laurel Heights Methodist Church. Grandmother Banks taught Sunday school and aunt Lucy Banks was the piano accompanist. Uncle Stanley Banks, a well-known attorney, wrote the history of Laurel Heights Methodist. Mother Velma Banks was a member of the Blue Birds, a service organization based at the church.

This sanctuary is the place where little Lila entered the Christian community which occupied a central place in her life and today 97 years later, we gather in this church to commend her to the Lord as a woman who lived the words of the Lord’s Prayer: to do His will on Earth as it is in Heaven.

When we review Mayor Cockrell’s extraordinary life of duty, of love, of principle, of patriotism, of service it is essential that we go beyond the well-known litany of her accomplishments. It is important to celebrate the essence of the person whose life touched so many others. There were turning point moments in her life when it seems as though providence intervened to guide the path and there were moments when her character shone through, when Lila Cockrell took her destiny to heart.

Courtesy / Cockrell Family

Lila Cockrell at a young age in New York.

The Banks family was a family known for its service. Stanley Banks, Lila’s uncle, whom she often proudly described as having practiced law until his 90s, taught her not only a sense of public service but pride in her community.  She remembered growing up in the years when the Tower Life Building was being built, when Olmos Dam was erected, when WOAI radio came on the air, and remembered her visits to Brackenridge Park.

When her father Robert Banks passed away, the Pastor of Laurel Heights Methodist described him in words that could well be the family creed: “I had come to estimate him highly as a man of strong and original thought, not simply in his chosen profession, but with regard to fundamental truth relating to the great future. Questions, which duty required him to consider and settle with regards to his Christian experience, were met with high, calm courage that moved him in all walks of life.”  Those words speak to the spirit of thoughtful judgment which Lila Banks acquired in her family home.

After her father’s death, Lila and her mother went to live with her mother’s parents. Lila’s grandfather was in charge of the United States Prohibition Office in Nebraska and later in New York City. He taught Lila a lifelong respect for America’s framework of laws and due process. He inspired her first entry into public affairs when as a student she wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in support of Prohibition. Lila later wrote: “Looking back, I am certain that the intense interest my grandparents had in governmental issues was a catalyst in my own development. As the years went on, I would hear many different views on issues and politics, and I would remember that my grandparents’ civic passion had prepared me for becoming a caring and participating citizen.”

When Lila’s grandparents retired from government service and returned to Ft. Worth, Lila decided to attend school in Ft. Worth. She traveled to New York to spend holidays and summers with her mother, her stepfather, Ovid Jones, and her two new brothers. At 12 years old, the family put her on a Pullman car, which had a transfer in St. Louis. She chafed at being put under the care of the conductor saying that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

Young Lila’s sense of independent thinking and self-reliance would manifest itself in accomplishments and leadership opportunities at Pascal High School in Ft. Worth, where she organized the Little Congress so that girls could be exposed to the same leadership opportunities as existed for boys. After a one-year stint at a women’s junior college in Nashville, Ward-Belmont, Lila enrolled at Southern Methodist University and plunged into her college studies. She joined the sorority Delta Delta Delta because it excelled in music and sports. As usual, Lila was in the thick of the competition to sustain that excellence. Her group won the school singing contest. Her sports were archery and table tennis and the Delta Delta Delta team took first place in seven out of 10 competitions. You think Lila was competitive: she remembered those details precisely 77 years later.

As you might imagine, she excelled in debate. A little-known fact: that year the administration of SMU conceded that the all-men’s cheerleader group could for the first time add women as an experiment. They debated the length of skirts for the girls and how high the girls could jump, but the administration agreed to add three women cheerleaders. You guessed it: one of those cheerleaders was named Lila May Banks. Who knew then that cheerleading skills would come in handy for a future Mayor. More to the point, Lila developed a life-long commitment to seeing women participate equally.

One of Lila’s activities at SMU was the YWCA organization. In the summer between her junior and senior years, she attended a YWCA summer camp in Estes Park, Colorado. As Lila told the story, one morning after breakfast, she strolled over to the post office. She had just picked up some letters when a young man walked in. She turned to glance at him and they made eye contact. They did not speak but she was clearly smitten because she walked back to her room and said to her roommate, “I think I just met the man I am going to marry.” Lila remembers: “I didn’t even know his name. I didn’t know anything about him. And yet somehow, I just knew.” Of course, that person was Sid Cockrell, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, who was training in the YMCA section of the camp. They stayed in communication and about a year later, in June of 1942, they were married. Talk about a turning point moment; talk about knowing to follow her instincts; talk about leading with her heart.

Courtesy / Jane Macon

Lila Cockrell (right) with her husband, Sid Cockrell.

It was a natural connection of two smart, attractive, service-oriented young people. Sid was the picture of a wholesome, all-American man. When I got to know him years later, I thought he would make a perfectly good stand-in for Jimmy Stewart in a 1940’s romantic movie and later I thought a stand-in for Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. He was the love of Lila’s life, the center of her world. They had an old-fashioned romance that never ended and was obvious in the mutual admiration and support they gave each other, not to mention the doting smiles and girlfriend-boyfriend sweet nothings they exchanged until he passed. In the last days of her life, Lila’s bed faced a wall with a portrait of Sid. One day last week, she smiled weakly and said: “I am going to see Sid.”

As WWII intensified, both Sid and Lila had responsibilities in the war effort. Sid became an aide to General William Key, Commander of U.S. forces in Iceland. Lila became an officer in the Navy WAVES, assigned to the Bureau of Ships in Washington. Through the war years, Sid was able to periodically visit Washington and they had several interrupted honeymoons such as occur in the midst of a war.

After the surrender of the German forces in Europe in 1945, Sid completed his military service and returned to his job with the YMCA in Tulsa. Lila was a young mother raising Carol and helping organize the Tulsa League of Women Voters. For the next several years, Sid held positions with the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Kentucky, New York City, and Dallas. Together they were committed to the evolution of social progress in our country with an understanding of the need to end segregation.

In 1955, Sid was recommended for a position as Executive Director of the Bexar County Medical Society. Because Lila had roots in San Antonio, he agreed to an interview and asked her to accompany him. She wrote: “On a beautiful Autumn day we joined my Uncle Stanley Banks for lunch. … After our meal, Uncle Stanley led us down a stairway to a sidewalk along the San Antonio River. As we walked along that pathway, I became completely enchanted. … If it is possible to fall in love with a river, that’s what happened on that November day.”  She further wrote: “I remember saying ‘If they offer you the position, please accept; I love this place.’” Another turning point in which providence intervened; a turning point for Lila Cockrell and a turning point for San Antonio in ways neither could have foreseen.

Sid took the position and Lila settled into raising Carol and Cathy in San Antonio. Both excelled in middle school and high school. Carol had straight A’s, was president of her homeroom and won musical talent shows. Cathy was involved with the Brownies and Girl Scouts, dance classes, president of her class and a leader in Bible School.

Lila quickly engaged with the League of Women Voters of San Antonio and soon served two terms as President. In 1963, Mayor Walter MacAllister called Lila and asked her to meet with a delegation of business leaders. They had noted her civic capacities and knew that the time had come to include a woman on the City Council ticket of the Good Government League. She later wrote: “That evening, I discussed the invitation with Sid and the girls. Sid immediately understood that this was something I would really like to do. With Sid’s blessing, I called the Mayor and accepted the invitation.”

Councilwoman Cockrell found San Antonio adjusting to the Civil Rights movement nationally, struggling with how to address the long-term poverty and low incomes, which were crushing San Antonio. Councilwoman Cockrell championed public housing for San Antonio when the majority of the Council wasn’t sure federal funds should be accepted. She supported the Model City’s Program, which President Johnson and Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez championed even though the city leaders were seriously considering not even applying for the program. And Councilwoman Cockrell was an important voice in capturing the catalytic effect Hemisfair would have for the city’s economic progress. She also understood the importance of appointing African Americans, Hispanics, and women to the city boards and commissions. On one occasion, a fellow councilmember responded to her push by asking: “Oh Lila, do we have to?” And she responded, “Yes, you have to. I don’t have anything against Anglo men, I am married to one, but we need opportunities for women and minorities.” Lila’s independence of thought and sense of fairness allowed her to see that modern San Antonio needed to change.

After sitting out several years, the Good Government League asked her to rejoin the ticket in 1973. She won and served with then-Mayor Charles Becker. In 1975, the GGL asked her to be the candidate for Mayor. She became the city’s first directly elected mayor. She became the first woman Mayor of San Antonio. And she became the first woman mayor of a top 10 American city. The list of her accomplishments over two periods as Mayor is profound and she continued her work in the years after public service.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The San Antonio City Council of May 1, 1977, through April 30, 1979.

Some analysts have called Mayor Cockrell a transitional mayor. By that they mean transitional between the style and ways of old San Antonio and a newer more diverse San Antonio; transitional between a city dominated by business decision-makers out of tune with the advent of Civil Rights and a city of greater diversity, demanding respect for multiple cultures, and a real seat at the table for every section of the city.

I believe to describe her tenure as transitional doesn’t do justice to what Mayor Cockrell accomplished. In truth, she created a towering legacy, profoundly different from what was there before her and created a new consensus on how San Antonio should be governed that continues today.

  • Her legacy is physical monuments to progress: River Center Mall with a Federal grant; massive river improvements; the Lila Cockrell Theatre for the arts, a product of Hemisfair; the largest petroleum refiner in America headquartered here because she insisted on it; unprecedented protection of the Edward Aquifer; diversified reserves of electric power; new parks and cultural attractions; and how about the Spurs who moved to town and into Hemisfair Arena on her watch.
  • Her legacy is modern governmental systems: best of class city managers, city staffing, citizen involvement in local government as never before. She presided over the transformation of the city’s government when the Justice Department intervened, and an election was held to create single-member districts.

I remember the aftermath of a vote we cast together to terminate a city manager who was meeting secretly with the development companies to undermine water protections. A business delegation came to a Council meeting to berate us. They said: “You are not even good enough to carry that man’s briefcase.” I responded: “The day has passed when you can come to City Hall with cigars the size of telephone poles dangling out of your mouths and attack the City Council for disrupting your personal pipeline to the public trough.” I glanced at Mayor Cockrell thinking maybe I had gone too far. She was enjoying it.  She was holding back a mischievous smile, but her eyes said it all: “Go get’em, kid.” And after the meeting, she told me: “As Mayor, I couldn’t say what you did, but I am glad you said it for us.”

The simple truth is this, her legacy is this: she changed the spirit and direction of the city. It started with her and continues to this day. She was not somehow a holdover from the Greatest Generation. Not at all. She made the Greatest Generation’s values relevant to us and to our times, she taught us how to bring our city together. And those lessons have lasted as the dominant way of governing San Antonio for 44 years now, since 1975, when Lila Cockrell became our Mayor. I assert that San Antonio has enjoyed its best days ever — the longest continuous period of inclusive progress, of growth, of prominence — in its history. That is not transitional; that is transformational.

Lila Cockrell was a pioneer, she was an independent thinker, she was the genuine article, an original. She set an example of leadership that was wise and fair. She was a tenacious negotiator when she had to be; a nuanced peacemaker when it was appropriate; a formidable political adversary when confronted; and the city’s articulate and gracious representative always. In these last years, she was a good friend to many; comfortable that her legacy was secure, she allowed herself to enjoy those friends and be a loving grandmother to an entire city.

As I said at the outset, thank God for the key turning points and key decisions which brought us her natural talents, the talents of a trusted leader.

There were turning points; there was instinct, and there was wisdom in her life. But we know there was also providential intervention to let us see what one good woman can do: with faith in her God, with love in her soul, with justice in her heart, with principle in her thoughts, with kindness in her voice, with clarity in her eyes, with courage in her spirit. That is the Lila Cockrell we will always know and love.

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