Lila Cockrell: Mayor, San Antonio Icon, Storyteller

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Lila Cockrell.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Lila Cockrell.

Ever since her death Thursday, the homages to Lila Cockrell have flowed like the San Antonio River she loved so much.

Lila, San Antonio’s first woman mayor and one of the first to hold that office in a major U.S. city, was many things: World War II veteran, much-loved wife and mother, political pioneer, lifelong river and parks advocate, and something else I have not seen mentioned this past week: an underrated storyteller.

 “I’m saving that story for my book,” Lila often remarked to friends.

In my years as editor of the San Antonio Express-News it frustrated me more than once to hear Lila tell a good story, only to turn to me as she finished to pronounce the conversation off-the-record. “You newspaper people don’t know everything,” she once told me, smiling, before recounting a story I’m about to retell here. “Don’t you dare write about this. I’m saving it for my book.”

For as many years as I can remember, Lila claimed to be at work on a memoir about her life in San Antonio. As she passed through her 80s and then reached the age of 90, many of us who appreciated Lila’s self-effacing storytelling style, wondered whether there ever would be a book. 

Friend and fellow former mayor Henry Cisneros finally convened a group of Lila’s friends who brought in San Antonio writer Catherine Nixon Cooke to help finish Lila’s memoir. Cisneros himself contributed a beautiful foreword and will eulogize Lila at her Thursday memorial service.

Shortly before Lila turned 97, Love Deeper Than a River was finally completed and  published by Trinity University Press. The Cockrell-Cooke team proved to be a very good one. As I wrote in this January 2019 review, the book is a “sweet love story” about family, career, and the city she called home for most of her long life.

Love Deeper Than a River: My Life in San Antonio by Lila Banks Cockrell.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Former Mayor Lila Cockrell’s memoir Love Deeper Than a River: My Life in San Antonio.

About that story: In 1974, Mayor Cockrell was escorting Mexico’s President Luis Echeverría back to the Hilton Palacio del Rio from the Convention Center, where the city was hosting a Mexico trade fair. Echeverría was a deservedly detested president, who as interior secretary presided over the massacre of hundreds of unarmed students protesting Mexico’s 1968 Olympic Games. Mario Cantú, a local restaurant owner and civil rights activist, approached Echeverría and Cockrell and began haranguing him.

It’s hard to imagine an era when a visiting president and big city mayor walked casually along the street without a security detail, but it was just the three of them when Echeverría, tiring of Cantú’s rant, suddenly threw a punch and knocked Cantú out cold.

“We just kept walking to the hotel,” Cockrell told me. “Thankfully, it never made the papers.”

Echeverría, by the way, remains Mexico’s longest living president at age 97. He was born Jan. 17, 1922, two days before Cockrell.

Here is another story untold, until now: Erin Jines was a young development officer and fellow UTSA graduate hired to work at San Antonio’s newly-opened DoSeum when we first met. I followed her career as she moved to the Dallas Children’s Museum, and later to a development position at Southern Methodist University.

Jines called after reading the Jan. 3 review of Love Deeper Than a River and learning that Cockrell was an SMU alumna. It seemed fitting, she said, for the university to find a way to honor Lila as a distinguished alum. There were about 1,000 SMU alumni living in San Antonio, Jines said, perhaps enough to raise $100,000 or more for an endowed scholarship.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Bruce Bugg

“Do you know someone named Bruce Bugg?” Jines asked. That drew a laugh and a brief history of the Tobin Endowment and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and the endowment’s support of the arts as well as the Texas Tribune, the Rivard Report, Texas Public Radio, and KLRN-TV.

Lila was scheduled to sign books at the Twig Book Shop of Jan. 24, just days after her own 97th birthday, so Jines came down to meet her and, as it turned out, Bugg. I still remember the scene outside the book shop as Bugg leaned down to ask Lila, who was in a wheelchair, if she would like a scholarship in her name at SMU.

Lila’s big smile was her answer. Bugg contributed the initial $10,000 to start the fundraising campaign. A letter to SMU alumni in the San Antonio metro area will go out soon. Attorney Jane Macon, one of Lila’s closest friends, matched that gift from a foundation she controls. Others in the city have pledged to contribute. Here is the link to join in and help make quick work of the endeavor.

The scholarship will allow future women leaders to come to know Lila’s story and take it as inspiration in their own lives and careers. How will we remember Lila in San Antonio?

How about a statue of Lila? There are no statues in San Antonio honoring individual women from any era in city history. None. Only men are cast in bronze in this city.

Sea World gave the City some statues years ago to clear out space for its water park. Those statues of famous Texans are now located upstairs at the Henry B. González Convention Center near the Lila Cockrell Theater. They include two women: the writer Katherine Anne Porter, who briefly attended private school here, and the Olympic athlete and LPGA star Babe Zaharias, who has no real connection to San Antonio.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Statues line the Hall of Texans in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

The city’s first woman mayor could now become the first San Antonio woman honored with a statue. Ideally, it would be situated on park land overlooking the river she loved.

Postscript: The deaths of Canary Island advocate and cardiologist Dr. Alfonso “Chico” Chiscano on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and jazz cornetist and band leader Jim Cullum on Sunday, Aug. 11, only add to the heavy loss so many are feeling as the city mourns the passing of three extraordinary individuals who helped define modern San Antonio in the post-Hemisfair era. 

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