Former Mayor of San Antonio Lila Cockrell addresses the audience during a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of San Antonio.
Former San Antonio Mayor Lila Cockrell died at the age of 97 in August. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Former Mayor Lila Cockrell remembers her first foray into politics – at 6 years old. She gathered the neighborhood children in her home of Forest Hills, New York, and marched with them up and down the street with homemade “Vote For Herbert Hoover” signs.

“I had bought a little drum, and we drummed and we called out and marched up and down until the parents were looking out the window,” she said. “And it turned out, in our neighborhood, most of the parents were not voting for Herbert Hoover. Pretty soon, one by one, my loyal participants were removed, until I was standing alone, holding up my banner.”

Cockrell, the first female mayor of San Antonio, shared her life story with Rotary Club members Wednesday at the Witte Museum. The memoir of her childhood and trailblazing political career, titled Love Deeper than a River and published by Trinity University Press, comes out in January.

“I started writing a long time ago,” Cockrell said. “I never thought I was writing for publication. It was a diary. [San Antonio author] Catherine Cooke came in and … helped arrange it and add some words, to help it be in more suitable publication form.”

Appearing in front of more than 100 Rotary Club members, Cockrell made her audience laugh as soon as she took the microphone.

“It’s lovely to be here. Well, at age 96, it’s lovely to be anywhere,” she joked. “It’s been a long journey for me. My life started out a long time ago, and it’s been a long, eventful and exciting life.”

Elected mayor in 1975, Cockrell served as mayor for four terms. She also was elected as the president of the Texas Municipal League that year. Before then, she served five terms as a City Council member and was active in the League of Women Voters, serving as president of the San Antonio and Dallas chapters. She was instrumental in organizing HemisFair ’68, and later led the effort to bring the Museum Reach to life. She brought dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II, Lady Bird Johnson, and Mexican governors and presidents to San Antonio, all in the hopes of putting the city on the national stage.

“It was my goal to help San Antonio get more recognition,” she said. “We were known at that time as a very quaint city, an interesting city, an 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.”

She said the contribution she is most proud of is bringing the headquarters of Valero Energy to San Antonio. While Cockrell was mayor, Valero Energy was created as a spinoff of Coastal States Gas Corporation to take over the operations of LoVaca Gathering Company, a subsidiary of Coastal States and the company providing San Antonio with natural gas. LoVaca was defaulting on its gas contract with San Antonio, costing the city a great deal of money, she said.

“I realized nothing was being done about it, so I started saying, ‘Why don’t we sue our gas supplier, sue Coastal States, the parent company?’” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Let’s sue.’ Finally we did sue.”

Before the lawsuit went to trial, a company representative approached her to negotiate a settlement, Cockrell said. The offer was good, but Cockrell had an additional request.

“I said, ‘One more thing: I want the headquarters of the new company that you’re forming in San Antonio,’” she said. “They said, ‘We made plans, we can’t change those plans.’ And I said, ‘I’ll see you in court.’

“Two weeks later, I learned we were getting the company. And it became Valero.”

Cockrell said with the city’s rapid growth, planning for San Antonio’s future is paramount to ensure services stay in place and business opportunities increase.

“Many times it seems like you’re playing catch-up, but you need to be way out there,” she said. “Sometimes the growth is coming faster than you anticipated. I know the city has a wonderful planning department, but it’s going to be a challenge for the city.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.