Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The bells of the Laurel Heights United Methodist Church rang out for several minutes Thursday morning as San Antonio laid its first female mayor, Lila Cockrell, to rest.
They were used to signify to the city that “one its beloved daughters has fallen,” Rev. Paul L. Escamilla told friends and family who had gathered at the same church where Cockrell’s parents christened her in 1922.
Cockrell, who dedicated her life to public service, died last week surrounded by family. She was 97.
With prayer, hymn, and personal stories about her life, San Antonians remembered the trailblazing woman, the “glass ceiling shatterer,” “our other mother,” “our champion,” as colleague and friend Jane Macon called Cockrell during her eulogy.
Cockrell has been called a “transitional mayor” for overseeing San Antonio while it emerged into a more diverse and democratic era, leaving behind a corrupt, business-dominated political system, said former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros.
“Transitional doesn’t do justice to what Mayor Cockrell accomplished … she changed the spirit and direction of this city. It started with her and it continued to this day,” Cisneros told the audience, noting her accomplishments in economic development, aquifer protection, and diversification of city’s energy sources. “I assert that San Antonio has enjoyed its best days ever [since she became mayor], the longest, continuous period of inclusive progress – of growth, of progress – in [the city’s history] since Lila Cockrell. And that is not transitional. That is transformation.”
Cockrell was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1975, serving four terms after a decade on City Council beginning in 1963. But her public service didn’t start or stop there.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said a “strong thread” of public service was weaved throughout Cockrell’s life from her days enlisting as a WAVES U.S. Naval Reserve officer in World War II to engaging with the League of Women Voters before serving on City Council. After retiring from elected office, she was the first president of the San Antonio Parks Foundation and held that position for 13 years. She also served on countless boards and commissions.
“Few people in the history of our city have given as much through so many phases of their life,” Nirenberg told the crowd. “From the time she was a young woman, all the way into her 90s, Lila Cockrell contributed to the common good.”
Macon, San Antonio’s first female city attorney who was hired while Cockrell was mayor, said Cockrell was often called a “steel fist in a velvet glove,” for her leadership style. She was polite, but knew when to stand strong to get the job done, Macon said.
For Macon, however, Cockrell’s sense of humor will be her fondest memory. She recounted a story about traveling to a friend’s ranch many years ago, and Cockrell grew impatient after driving for 12 hours.
“Where are the facilities?” Cockrell asked politely.
“Lila, that bush has your name on it,” was the friend’s reply, Macon said.
After she used the bush, Cockrell simply said, “We need to talk about more infrastructure.”
Macon and the crowd laughed.
“As her friend, I was privileged to see the generous side and the humorous side of ‘Madam Mayor,'” Macon said.
During the service, Cockrell’s daughter Cathy Cockrell-Newton recited Isaiah 40:28-31, her granddaughter Annalee Gulley recited the poem “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou; and her daughter Carol Gulley played “Going Home” on the piano.
“The night before Lila died, her family formed a circle around her bed,” and they recited her favorite psalm, Psalm 23, Rev. Escamilla said. A week earlier, Cockrell recited it along with the reverend. But this time, she was only listening, he said.
“[She was] not offering up those words, but receiving them as a gift – an anointment of sorts,” he said as the crowd stood to recite the psalm in Cockrell’s memory one final time.
At the public memorial Thursday afternoon, Nirenberg delivered a formal proclamation that Sept. 5, 2019, would be Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell Day in San Antonio.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who defeated Cockrell in her last bid for mayor in 1991, said he was impressed with how graciously she handled the political loss – something she was not used to.
“When you lose in a political campaign, nothing tests your character more than that,” Wolff said to the approximately 100 people gathered in the Lila Cockrell Theatre for the memorial. “She remained positive. There was no vindictiveness in her.”
Later she would come to him for funding requests for the San Antonio Museum of Art and the San Antonio River improvement projects, which he found a way to fulfill.
Wolff recalled telling her that there was $500,000 in the budget for the museum.
“Well, Nelson, that will not do,” she said. “I need at least a million.”
“And I said, ‘yes, ma’am,'” Wolff recalled.
Cockrell, among others, inspired a generation of women to step up to their rightful seat at the table, said former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte.
“She’s a girl. I’m a girl. She’s a leader – so maybe it’s possible,” Van de Putte recalled thinking as a child when seeing Cockrell amid a sea of men in suits.
“Mayor Lila did not put up with whining or complaining … as soon as you complained about something, she’d make you be part of the solution,” she said, remembering that Cockrell placed her on a number of boards after airing her own complaints.
Irby Hightower, founding principal of Alamo Architects, served as co-chair of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee along with Cockrell. Their work guided the development of the river north and south of downtown.
Hightower remembered having her over for dinner one night. Another guest came to him, startled, and said, “Lila Cockrell’s in the kitchen doing dishes.”
“Well, oh yeah, go help her,” was Hightower’s response.
Her humble nature never allowed her to think she was above any tasks or any person, he said, and allowed her to “work behind the scenes to make things happen.”
She was okay to pass off credit to others, he said, and that may have been her “secret to success.”
In lieu of flowers, Cockrell’s family directed contributions to the recently created Lila Cockrell Endowed Scholarship at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Click here to donate.