Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell at age 96 has completed her first book, a memoir aptly titled Love Deeper Than a River, conveying her long devotion to the San Antonio River and the city it has shaped and defined for 300 years. Cockrell’s book gives readers a window into her experience over 60 years in private and public life here, fully one-fifth of the city’s existence.
This is a book about politics, but also a book about family. It’s no stretch to call it a sweet love story.
In a city where its most memorable leaders are affectionately known by their first names, Lila’s life story is offered up in fresh detail with something new even for those of us who claim to know her. Love Deeper Than a River, for me, is the story of a true pioneer woman whose frontier was male-dominated urban politics and society. Lila is from the fast-disappearing Greatest Generation largely defined by men who fought in World War II.
Lila May Banks Cockrell was no bystander to her times. She was a child of the Depression and a graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas who then served as a WAVES U.S. Naval Reserve officer during World War II. She and the only love of her life, Sidney “Sid” Cockrell, a handsome U.S. Army officer who served as chief of staff to a general, were married days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She went on to serve with distinction as a civic leader, first in Dallas and then in San Antonio, for more than four decades.
Sid, the longtime executive director of the Bexar County Medical Association, died in 1988. Lila had suitors and good friends, but she never remarried.
“I was so fortunate to marry a man whose love for me was deep and extraordinary,” Cockrell wrote. “I loved him in the way I still do; our love continues.”
Lila’s life in politics belongs in Texas history textbooks.
With one exception dating to the 1920s in Seattle, Cockrell was the first woman to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city when she was elected to the first of four terms in San Antonio in 1975. That must strike women serving in public office today as nearly unbelievable, but it’s true.
“If you look back at pictures of me when I was first in office, I am wearing a hat and white gloves, traditional dress for a lady during those times,” Cockrell wrote. “I registered for my first two City Council races as Mrs. S. E. Cockrell Jr. It was not until my third race that I ran as Lila Cockrell.”
And there is more. Cockrell was the first mayor in San Antonio elected by popular vote. Prior to 1975, the Good Government League, largely controlled by white business leaders and old-money families, many of whom lived outside the city limits in the enclaves of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills, hand-picked a slate of white men to serve as City Council members. The council then elected one of its own to be mayor. By the 1970s, allowances were made for a Hispanic and black candidate to occupy council seats, but Lila can rightfully claim to be the first democratically elected mayor of San Antonio in contemporary times.
In the years as a city councilwoman that predated her election as mayor, Cockrell witnessed the peaceful desegregation of the city, and the advent of HemisFair ’68 and the birth of the city’s multibillion tourism and convention industry. Single-member districts were adopted in San Antonio when she was mayor, and the poll tax, designed to suppress minority voting, was eliminated.
USAA and its visionary and charismatic leader, Gen. Robert McDermott, came to San Antonio in 1968, the same year as HemisFair. McDermott was a driving force in the formation of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and the pursuit of other major employers that established headquarters here.
Much of Cockrell’s memoir and her life could be described as nearly unbelievable. There are 10 men and women living today who have served as San Antonio mayor. I came away convinced she is the most under-appreciated public figure living in San Antonio today.
Love Deeper Than a River was released this week by Trinity University Press. An invitation-only party to a reading and signing by Cockrell will take place at the Pearl Stable on Sunday, Jan. 13, while a reading and signing that is free and open to the public will be held at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 5 p.m.
Cockrell served four terms in two separate stints as San Antonio mayor in the era before term limits made such service impossible, from 1975-81, and after an eight-year respite, from 1989-91 before losing her bid for a fifth term to then City Councilman Nelson Wolff (D8).
The book, however, is much more than a political memoir. Its most compelling narrative thread tracks the life of a young girl whose first memories were formed in the years after World War I and the Mexican Revolution, who married during World War II, and who saw her husband and herself, he as an officer in the U.S. Army and aide-de-camp to a general, and she as a U.S. Navy WAVES officer, assigned to different and distant posts.
Love Deeper Than a River offers a quiet and self-effacing portrait of woman called to a life of public service in a world where only men were presumed to be able to occupy such leadership positions. Cockrell enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing during and after the Great Depression, one grounded not in material surroundings but in family values with expectations of a strong work ethic, academic achievement, and adherence to faith and community service. She made the most of the opportunities provided by her family.
From her life in Fort Worth, New York, Dallas, and San Antonio, Lila grew into a worldly, confident, and in the best sense of the word, ambitious young woman. Former Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who succeeded her in the mayor’s office and wrote the book’s Foreword, likened her formative years to a “Norman Rockwell tableau of earnestness, manners, studiousness, and growing awareness.”
Cisneros, himself a published author, continued: “As long as I have known Lila Cockrell, I have thought of her as a quintessential member of the Greatest Generation. Everything about her affirms our love of country and of America’s core values, a sense of duty. … Lila showed from early life the natural intelligence, lively curiosity, and well-placed confidence that would serve her in good stead throughout her life.”
Lila’s book was co-written with San Antonio author Catherine Nixon Cooke, who no doubt gave it a more compelling narrative flow. Interestingly, Love Deeper Than a River is the third book by a former San Antonio mayor published in the last four months. Readers transplanted to San Antonio who would like to learn more about the city’s growth, politics, and leadership have an unusual opportunity to read three different contemporary accounts.
Former Mayor (2009-14) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro published An Unlikely Journey in October 2018, the story of his and twin brother and U.S. Congressman Joaquín Castro’s rise from San Antonio’s Westside barrio to national political prominence. The book is seen as a prelude to Castro’s expected announcement to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
Wolff, mayor from 1991 to 1995 and now Bexar County Judge, published The Changing Face of San Antonio in December 2018, the third volume in a trilogy covering nearly four decades of his life and leadership roles in San Antonio politics.
In 2013, at the age of 91, Lila retired as the president of the San Antonio Parks Foundation after serving in that position for 15 years. Yet she hardly disappeared from public life, and today is often seen out and about in the company of fellow nonagenarian and pioneer businesswoman Rosemary Kowalski.
“I suggest to any young reader – or readers of any age, for that matter – that you devote time to nurturing deep friendships,” Lila concludes at the end of her book. “You will find they amplify your joy in happy times and sustain you in darker times. The mutuality of friendship has been a true blessing as I have moved through life.”
Monika Maeckle, my wife, and our two boys, Nicolas and Alexander, ages 5 and 2, moved here in December 1989. Having succeeded Cisneros, Lila was serving in her fourth term as mayor when the city was still reeling economically from the savings and loan banking collapse and the recession it triggered. The City couldn’t even find money for its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display at Hemisfair.
Cockrell herself raised the necessary funds from Dennis and Carol O’Malley, then the owners of the Miller beer distributorship here. My family bundled up on a very cold night on our balcony perch at the Plaza San Antonio Hotel and joined tens of thousands of others who came downtown to enjoy the annual tradition. I’ve always thought that it was Lila Cockrell who welcomed us to San Antonio.