San Antonio Political Pioneer Lila Cockrell Dies at 97

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Former Mayor of San Antonio Lila Cockrell addresses the audience during a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of San Antonio.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell speaks during a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of San Antonio in December 2018.

Lila May Banks Cockrell, San Antonio’s first female mayor who served four terms and helped usher in a city government that was more representative of its population, died Thursday morning. She was 97.

Cockrell, who had been in declining health, died surrounded by family at her apartment, where she had been in hospice care. She is survived by her two daughters, Carol Gulley and Cathy Cockrell-Newton, and their children.

A public visitation will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 3, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Mission Park Funeral Chapel North. A private memorial service followed by a public tribute at the Lila Cockrell Theatre was scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 5, but details were incomplete.

“If there were a Mount Rushmore for our city, Lila Cockrell would be on it,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “She was a great San Antonian.”

Cockrell’s affection for her city was absolute, said Robert Gulley, her son-in-law and a prominent water expert.

“She loves San Antonio, she loves the river, but she really loves the people,” he said.

The pioneering city leader should be remembered as a fierce advocate for San Antonio, said longtime friend and former City Attorney Jane Macon, who served while Cockrell was mayor.

Cockrell stood strong on issues and was a tough negotiator, Macon said, but she’d do it with a sense of humor. “She’d do it with that smile and that dimple … and a twinkle in her eye.”

Born in Fort Worth, Cockrell was a child of the Great Depression. Cockrell’s parents brought her home to San Antonio soon after she was born, but the death of her father when she was just 18 months old eventually led her mother to take Cockrell to New York, where her maternal grandparents lived.

Cockrell attended Southern Methodist University (SMU), where she pursued her teaching certificate, received a bachelors of arts, and honed her debate and archery skills. During that time, she met her husband at a YWCA conference. During World War II, she served as a WAVES U.S. Naval Reserve officer. 

An endowed scholarship at SMU has been set up in her name with an initial gift of $10,000 from fellow alumnus J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., chairman of the Bank of San Antonio and chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. Click here to donate.

Cockrell’s public service started with the League of Women Voters, and she first ran for City Council in 1963, serving for a decade. Upon being elected mayor in 1975, Cockrell became just the second woman to hold that office in a major city. 

In 1984, she was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. The list of boards and commissions she served on and other awards received is long.

She helped launch HemisFair ’68 as a council member and strengthened international relations by bringing to town dignitaries from around the world (Casa San Antonio was founded while she was mayor). During her time in the mayor’s office, she fought contentious water and energy battles that led to better protection of San Antonio’s water and diversification of the city’s energy sources. She oversaw political processes to build the $5 billion South Texas Project Electric Generating Station, a nuclear plant partially owned by CPS Energy.

Courtesy / Gil Barrera Photographs of UTSA (MS 27) - UTSA Special Collections

While serving as Mayor Pro Tem, Lila Cockrell (right) speaks during an annual meeting with the Alamo Council of Camp Fire Girls on Jan. 13, 1975.

“It was my goal to help San Antonio get more recognition,” she said in December 2018. “We were known at that time as a very quaint city, an interesting city, a charming city, but not all that important a city. We had the Alamo, and that was wonderful. But we did not have a lot of national recognition.”

Early in her tenure as mayor, Cockrell led an effort to sue LoVaca Gathering Company, which provided San Antonio with natural gas at increasingly high prices, said former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who served on City Council while Cockrell was mayor.

As the City negotiated with LoVaca about spinning off its natural gas operations, Cockrell wrote in her memoir that she “told the attorneys that we wanted the new company to be in San Antonio because we needed new industry.” 

The LoVaca attorney balked. 

“That’s when I said, ‘Then I will see you in court!'” she wrote. 

LoVaca relented, and the new company became Valero, now a Fortune 500 company based in San Antonio.

Like many people in local politics, Cisneros met Cockrell long before they served on City Council together because of her involvement in the Texas Municipal League and as president of the San Antonio and Dallas chapters of the League of Women Voters. He was elected to Council in 1975, the same year she became mayor.

The business-oriented Good Government League that had controlled City Hall for nearly two decades nominated Cockrell, but the group was unraveling under pressure from new amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to remove at-large City Council districts, a system that in San Antonio favored the wealthier and largely white North Side.

Some cities resisted the change, but Cockrell was supportive, and San Antonio implemented a new single-member district system.

“I don’t think she gets proper credit for ushering in an era of equal representation,” Nirenberg said. “She really did bridge the gap into the single-member district era. There would be no modern San Antonio without her leadership through that transition.” 

In 1977, San Antonio elected one black and five Hispanic Council members.

“This was a fight between the old money and new money in San Antonio,” Cisneros said. “Some people thought [single-member districts] would bring in anarchy. … Politics were far more volatile then.”

Cockrell was the perfect mayor for the time, he said.

“She was a matriarchal figure,” said Cisneros, who succeeded her as mayor in 1981. “A steel fist inside a velvet glove.”

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

San Antonio’s City Council from May 1977 through April 1979, Lila Cockrell’s second term as mayor.

While Cockrell played a part in shaping the physical and political landscape of San Antonio, her real legacy is intangible, he said.

“The style of honest leadership, consensus building, and respect across ethnic and racial lines,” he said, was something “San Antonio needed so badly. She prepared the way for the new era of greater tolerance and civility.”

Along with Cockrell’s humor and grace, Macon said she remembers the former mayor’s masterful command of parliamentary procedures.

When then-Councilman Bernardo Eureste refused to remain quiet after Cockrell repeatedly ordered him to stop hopping out of his seat during a Council meeting in the late 1970s, she directed the chief of police to escort Eureste out of the chambers, Macon recalled. He was able to return to the meeting, quietly, after they exchanged notes.

When he later challenged her authority to have him removed, Macon recalled that Cockrell replied: “It’s a little late now, isn’t it, Bernard?”

Her last term as mayor began in 1989 after she took a break from the office to care for her husband, Sidney “Sid” Earl Cockrell Jr., who died in 1986. 

“I don’t think many people appreciate just how close she was to Sid,” said Carol Gulley. To say he was the “love of her life … I don’t think that’s enough. He was a tremendous man himself and was very important to her. … Even in the last few weeks, she’s talked about him.”

Cockrell never remarried.

Courtesy / Cockrell Family

Lila and Sidney “Sid” Cockrell

“She was a wonderful mother – a kind and loving, supportive person,” Cockrell-Newton said, despite whatever tumultuous political issues were going on. “She was always there to be our cheerleader and enforcer. … We were a normal family and we ate dinner together every night.”

Carol Gulley said the most enduring lesson she learned from her mother was “inclusion and respect for all people. “Mother listened to all voices to understand fully the point of view and considered the counsel of many thinkers in her assessments of situations and policy decisions,” she said.

Cockrell’s last mayoral term was difficult, she wrote in her memoir published in January, titled Love Deeper than a River. “I had inherited most of Henry’s city council, and my style was different from his. Henry was more of a strong leader type, always out in front, setting the pace. I was more of the consensus-building type.”

San Antonio was mired in a recession, banks were failing, and controversy surrounded the police and fire union contracts, Cisneros said. 

When she ran her last re-election campaign in 1991, she came in third out of 11 candidates, behind Nelson Wolff and Maria Berriozábal. Wolff, now Bexar County Judge, won the runoff election.

Still, Cockrell was able to build consensus and lead the city through difficult times, Gulley said, because of her personable approach and ability to keep a “steady hand” and a sharp mind.

They used to call her “Cool Hand Lila,” Cockrell-Newton said. “She always landed on her feet.”

After serving as mayor, Cockrell became the first president (and the first paid staffer) of the San Antonio Parks Foundation, where she served for 14 years. She retired in 2013 to write her memoir.

“A lot of people have [a public] office and then after they’re out, they just go away,” Macon said. “But the mayor continued to be active. … We were very lucky that the mayor had such a razor-sharp mind.”

Cockrell had worked on a draft of her memoir for several years, but progress had stalled a little, author Catherine Nixon Cooke said. Cisneros and Macon suggested Cooke lend a hand with the writing process. 

She needed very little help recalling details, Cooke said. “Her memory is phenomenal. … I could ask her a detail from the past and she’d remember the exact date and what someone was wearing.”

The working title for Cockrell’s memoir was San Antonio, I Love you, Cooke said, but Cooke and others were concerned that people would think it’s just about the city. “It’s bigger than San Antonio,” Cooke said. 

Cockrell’s openness to new ideas and the ability to work across ideologies were some of her most valuable traits, Cooke said.

“I was impressed with how savvy she was and able to always have nice manners … but she always got things done,” Cooke said, personally and professionally. 

Rosemary Kowalski, the catering entrepreneur, became acquainted with Cockrell in 1967 when Catering by Rosemary (now the RK Group) won the contract for the Henry B. González Convention Center. 

“Lila was a strong, female presence in a sea of male counterparts and she thrived,” Kowalski said in an email. “I admired her ability to lead our city with intention, tolerance, and foresight – she worked hard and made significant positive change as one of the most influential and remembered women in San Antonio history.”

Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley worked closely with Cockrell on several projects, mostly related to the San Antonio River.

“I highly admired Mayor Cockrell for so many things: her tenacity to do what is good for San Antonio; her being the first female mayor;  and her commitment to San Antonio even after she left office,” Sculley said. “We worked on the river extensions and she was determined to ensure that we had the locks on the Museum Reach. So much so that we fondly referred to the locks as ‘Lila’s Locks.’ Mayor Cockrell was first class. She cared about the city, the river and in promoting women. She was all about San Antonio until the very end.”

Because of her dedication to the city, none of Cockrell’s friends were surprised when she refused to let an administrative hurdle stop her from voting in the recent mayoral runoff election, Robert Gulley said.

When she arrived at the polling station to vote, she had forgotten to bring a proper form of identification and was turned away. Nirenberg himself drove her to a polling station the next day, and she cast her vote.

“I’ve missed very few elections,” Cockrell told the Rivard Report.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg helps former mayor Lila Cockrell out of a vehicle to so she can place her vote at Lion's Field Adult and Senior Center. Mayor Ron Nirenberg helps former mayor Lila Cockrell out of a vehicle to so she can place her vote at Lion's Field Adult and Senior Center.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg helps former Mayor Lila Cockrell out of a vehicle so she can cast her vote at Lions Field during the 2019 runoff election for mayor.

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