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Lila Cockrell, the first woman mayor of a major U.S. city, served four terms between 1975 and 1991. She also served nine years on the San Antonio City Council, from 1963 to 1970 and again from 1973 to 1975.
As a city council member, Cockrell worked to establish the first Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame reports the 1942 graduate of Southern Methodist University served on six state boards and commissions under four governors and was elected the first woman president of the Texas Municipal League.
She was an advocate for public green spaces and led the San Antonio Parks Foundation from 1981 until retirement in 2012.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg celebrated Cockrell on Thursday.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for our city, Lila Cockrell would be on it,” he said in a statement. “She was a consummate statesman. She exuded class and never involved herself in the pettiness of politics despite all of the years that she was in the center of political life in San Antonio. She was a stellar role model for young women and young men.”
Nirenberg added to his remarks during TPR’s “The Source.”
“Her legacy in the arts and environmental stewardship and good governance and just the modern era of San Antonio will be permanent,” he said, “and she will be remembered as one of the true icons of our city.”
Nirenberg said he became friends with Cockrell when he managed Trinity University’s jazz music station and she led the San Antonio Parks Foundation. He remembered how she danced during a Jazz Alive festival when she was well into her 90’s.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, also a former mayor of San Antonio, said she brought diversity to city hall and civility to local politics, and she empowered women during her four terms in office. Wolff defeated her when she ran for re-election in 1991. He says they remained friends and worked on big city projects afterwards.
He said she set the bar high for future mayors. “She did a wonderful job,” he added. “I think every mayor since then has tried to follow that standard.”
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, also a former mayor, also celebrated her accomplishments.
“Things like River Center Mall wouldn’t have happened without her leadership,” he said. “Valero coming to San Antonio. Things like her earlier work as a councilperson on HemisFair, the Lila Cockrell Theater. Of course, all that physical legacy is real.”
But Cisneros says her biggest contribution came from her efforts to build bridges and bring people together, as she did after the city elected its first council members from single-member districts in the 1970s, which was controversial at the time.
Precinct 1 Bexar County Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez commended Cockrell’s contribution to San Antonio’s South Side, particularly after she left the mayor’s office.
“A tireless advocate, she always kept the southside at the forefront of her conservation efforts,” he said in a statement. “Her support for clean drinking water, river preservation, the missions and the World Heritage designations are among the very important issues she took on with a big heart and a soul full of passion. A true jewel of the southside, she will be greatly missed.”
Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, noted Cockrell’s foresight as a city leader.
“Her long-term vision for our City began our still active quest for securing and diversifying our water and energy future; led to the initiation of our recruiting corporations for job opportunities for our citizens; launched HemisFair, which put us on the national and international map; and nurtured San Antonio’s inclusive environment, where people from diverse backgrounds and different political views come together to do what is best for our beloved city, ” he said in a statement. “Simply said, Lila put San Antonio on the map and developed the blueprint for today’s success.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Lila May Banks was born on Jan. 19, 1922, at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth to Velma Thompkins and Robert Bruce Banks, a lawyer from San Antonio who fought in World War I.
Eighteen months after her birth, her father contracted hepatitis and died. “My mother was devastated,” she remembered in her memoir Love Deeper Than A River: My Life in San Antonio. “I regret not having the privilege of truly knowing my father.” In 1927, her mother married Ovid Winton Jones, who worked in the legal sector of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Lila came from a conservative family, and in 1928 the little girl even organized a community parade to support Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign.
Her grandfather was Prohibition director for New York and Puerto Rico. Her grandmother, Lila Caroline Banks, was a leading member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and she recruited eight-year-old Lila into her Loyal Temperance Union. The little girl signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol. “I kept the pledge until college days,” she remembered.
Their influence led to what Cockrell called a “firsthand lesson in diplomacy” she would never forget. The 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land, and she wrote a poem celebrating its virtues and condemning attempts to repeal the amendment. She sent the poem to one of Prohibition’s leading critics, the governor of New York: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And the governor responded. He “complimented my poem,” Cockrell remembered, “but pointed out that while we both supported the cause of temperance, we favored different ways to achieve it. His response did not win him any points with my grandparents, but I still have the letter,” she wrote.
Cockrell had two brothers, Ovid Winfield Jones Jr. was born in 1928, and Andrew McCampbell Jones was born in 1930.
She attended school in Fort Worth, graduated early at age fifteen, attended one year at Ward-Belmost College in Nashville, Tennessee, and then in 1939 entered Southern Methodist University.
War and peace
In the summer of 1941, she met Sidney Earl Cockrell Jr., who she described as the “young man who was destined to become my husband, the father of my children, and my lifetime love.” He was part of ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and became an artillery officer after graduation.
World War II was consuming Europe and Asia, and it cast a shadow over the young couple’s hopes for their future as husband and wife.
One weekend in late 1941, she attended a lecture where the speaker shared his certainty the Japanese Empire would never attack the United States. That Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, she wrote, his assurance was shattered when the Japanese attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was at war.
Her grandmother had encouraged her to vocationally prepare herself to be a teacher, and she took her advice. She took education courses and earned a teaching certificate. Twenty-year-old Lila Banks graduated from SMU in 1942 and hoped to become a public school teacher.
Three weeks after graduation, in June 1942, she and Sid Cockrell were married at the First Methodist Church in Fort Worth. They moved to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where she became an elementary school teacher, and later to Kansas City.
With the U.S. at war, Cockrell wanted to do more. Her original plan was to join the American Red Cross, but she was 21 and their minimum age to join was 25. So she turned to the U.S. Navy and trained to become an officer in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program, or WAVES. “I passed all the academic tests,” she wrote, “and discovered that I really liked the marching, calling out those commands and singing along the way. …”
Upon graduation and commissioning as an ensign, she was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. She was appointed an education officer, and her duties included overseeing advancement testing of enlisted personnel and their correspondence college coursework.
Her husband was stationed in Iceland and served as a general’s aide. Cockrell, who grew up in a conservative Republican family, valued her time in Washington, particularly for the opportunity it gave to meet a wider variety of people than ever before and “gain some insights into how political parties differed in philosophies and positions on issues.”
She intended to continue her service for as long as the war lasted … but life had other plans. In the spring of 1944, she recalled in her memoir, “I discovered I was pregnant.”
Cockrell was honorably discharged from the WAVES that summer, and she returned to Kansas City. The doctor predicted, “based on the sound of the heartbeat,” that she was going to have a boy who she would name Robert, after her father. But the baby born on Jan. 25, 1945, was a girl, and they named her Carol Ann.
The Army gave Sid, now a major, the option to continue in the service but he declined, and he returned to a previous position as work secretary for the YMCA. By September 1945, World War II had ended, but the Cockrells’ new peacetime lives were well underway. Sid Cockrell’s professional life took them to New York City and Dallas. In July 1948, the couple had a second daughter, Cathy Lynn.
‘In love with a river’
Cockrell was happy but she wanted more. “While I enjoyed being a homemaker and the mother of a toddler,” she wrote, “I soon felt the need for some outside activity.” She read about the League of Women Voters in the newspaper, and she joined the group. She soon began hosting group discussions of current and political issues with two dozen young mothers who craved and appreciated the intellectual interaction. She also joined the United Nations Society and the American Red Cross.
But her future as a leader in the Alamo City, she explained in her memoir, began with her husband in 1955, when he was appointed executive director of the Bexar County Medical Society in San Antonio.
They visited the city, and at one point they walked on a sidewalk along the San Antonio River. She remembered feeling “enchanted.”
“A lush, tropical landscape surrounded us,” she wrote, “a sharp contrast to the busy life at street level, and beautiful old stone pedestrian bridges crossed the river along the way. Mariachi music floated through the air from one of the colorful restaurants above. If it is possible to fall in love with a river, that’s what happened on that November day in 1955.”
She was equally enchanted with the rest of her new home. She loved the architecture, the Mexican food, the fashion and especially the music. “I now had two favorite types of music — marching bands and mariachis, ” she wrote.
‘Gentlemen and Madam’
Cockrell remained involved with the League of Women Voters, and she soon began the first of two two-year terms as president of the organization.
“I was thinking about the future, too,” she wrote, and a new group — the Good Government League, or GGL — caught her interest. By 1961, it was led by Walter W. McAllister, San Antonio’s mayor and a local businessman. In 1963, McAllister and other group leaders asked her to be GGL’s first woman candidate for city council. They pledged the group’s resources to manage her campaign and fundraising, and they promised they would never tell her how to vote on any issue. Cockrell agreed to run.
She remembered that that was the first of three campaigns in which she registered as a candidate with the name “Mrs. S.E. Cockrell Jr.” “It was not until the 1969 campaign that I registered as Lila Cockrell,” she wrote.
Cockrell enjoyed her first campaign. She was an experienced debater, and her time leading civic groups, she said, also sustained her self-confidence. “I enjoyed going to neighborhoods, meeting people in all parts of the city and trying to get my campaign message across,” she recalled. “I spoke to many women’s organizations that wanted to hear from the first woman candidate.” She faced only token opposition, someone “who filed fifteen minutes before the deadline,” and she won the election.
Cockrell took her seat on the San Antonio City Council on May 1, 1963. She described the first moments in her memoir: “In the past, the meetings had opened with the salutation ‘Gentlemen.’ For the first time in San Antonio’s history, that was amended to ‘Gentlemen and Madam.’ I was proud and thrilled to be there, and I resolved to be a truly effective councilwoman, an example to other women who would want to serve on the council in the future.”
In November, Cockrell remembered the excitement in the air as San Antonio prepared to welcome President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who were on a tour of a few Texas cities. On Nov. 21, the president spoke at Brooks Air Force Base.
The next day, Cockrell wrote, “I was at home doing housework when the telephone rang shortly after noon.” A friend told her to turn on the television. Kennedy had been shot as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas. “I ran into the den, turned on our television set, and along with millions of other Americans watched with horror and sadness as the tragic news unfolded.” An old friend from her Dallas days, Judge Sarah T. Hughes, administered the oath of office to the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, on Air Force One.
Cockrell took a particular interest in beautification initiatives in San Antonio. She had always found inspiration in Mexican art and architecture. She was especially inspired by Miraflores, the private garden Mexican physician Dr. Aureliano Urrutia designed in 1921. “I became interested in the efforts of the Beautify San Antonio Association, founded by O.P. Schnabel, a prominent hardware store owner who referred to himself as Old Pushbroom,” she wrote in her memoir.
She attracted the attention of Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady of the United States, Nellie Connally, the first lady of Texas, to a project to illuminate the trees in one block of the Riverwalk near the Arneson Theatre. The successful event convinced the council to allow Cockrell to organize an alliance of civic groups, government entities and private businesses to pursue more beautification initiatives.
Her enthusiasm for urban improvements inspired her to listen to U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez discuss how San Antonio could participate in Model Cities, a new federal initiative that would select five U.S. cities and institute a multi-million dollar redevelopment program to transform the cities into examples for other communities. Funding would go to “road improvements, housing, flood control, economic development projects, school projects, and more.”
Gonzalez, a friend of President Johnson, did not convince the entire council or the mayor, but Cockrell was behind him. The lifelong Republican wanted those federal dollars. “I did not let my own conservative opinions about national politics or partisanship stand in the way of going after money San Antonio needed,” she wrote. But when the federal government announced the five selected cities, San Antonio was not among them. However, she remembered, because Gonzalez and Johnson were friends, San Antonio was added as a sixth Model City.
Cockrell credited the program with helping ease flooding problems near homes at Alazan Apache Creek and better fund school districts and small business community initiatives throughout the West Side. Most importantly, she wrote, citizens were given the opportunity to participate in developing policies that directly affected their lives.
The community initiatives and redevelopment programs complemented another project that greatly excited Cockrell. San Antonio would mark its 250th birthday in 1968. In the early 1960s, she recalled, Jerome Harris, a local businessman, suggested that perhaps San Antonio should host a world fair as part of those celebrations. Cockrell and others mourned the loss of businesses that had left San Antonio for more vibrant business environments in other Texas cities, including Dallas and Houston. A bold project could remind both business owners and tourists that the Alamo City still had a lot to offer them.
Gonzalez also recognized the potential, Cockrell remembered, and he asked businessman Bill Sinkin to lead the initiative. The world’s fair would bring new construction to San Antonio, along with new visitors, new businesses and potentially millions of dollars in revenue. The project would place San Antonio on an international stage like none other. The ambition of the idea and the multiple once-in-a-lifetime benefits for the entire city dazzled the planners, and Cockrell joined the public-private/civic-corporate partnerships to realize the dream.
HemisFair’s theme would be “A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas,” and San Antonio, Cockrell wrote later, “was the perfect place to showcase this important message.”
This post will be updated.