A photo of Lila Cockrell is projected onto a screen above her casket at Mission Park Funeral Chapel North. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Friends greeted each other at the Mission Park Funeral Chapel in Northwest San Antonio Tuesday evening. Holding glasses of champagne and wine, they caught up with each other, shared jokes, and toasted Lila Cockrell.

Dozens of people attended a public visitation to celebrate the life of the former mayor, who died at age 97 on Aug. 29. Jane Macon, who was hired by Cockrell as San Antonio’s first female city attorney, said she talked to Cockrell’s family about putting together a visitation for people to honor San Antonio’s first female mayor.

“I just figured Lila would want everyone toasting,” she said.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, spoke briefly at Tuesday’s celebration. It was only the beginning of many tributes to Cockrell, and yet another time he would be celebrating a “Lila week,” as he called it, where Cockrell dominated the week’s events.

“It’s unique that we’re drinking champagne in a funeral home but it captures the spirit of the occasion about Lila,” he said. “I’m speaking Thursday morning at Laurel Heights Methodist and participating in the public celebration Thursday afternoon. This is the beginning of another Lila week in my life. I’ve had a lot of them.”

Cockrell was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1975, serving four terms after a decade on City Council starting in 1963. 

She was also president of the San Antonio and Dallas chapters of the League of Women Voters before her tenure in political office. After she retired from politics, she remained active in the community. She 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. Love Deeper than a River was published in January by Trinity University Press.

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; all while overseeing the City’s transition into a single-member district elected representation for the city. 

Former District 7 City Councilwoman Yolanda Vera also visited Tuesday to honor the late mayor. She served on City Council while Cockrell was mayor, representing the same district that Cockrell had before.

“She was a very serious person,” Vera said. “And there were times when she felt like she had to take care of her kids that served on the Council. So every once in a while you could see that motherly instinct come to play during Council sessions. Or when we had public hearings and you got distracted, she made sure we knew we needed to be paying attention.”

Many of her friends recall Cockrell’s gentle methods, calling her nice, diplomatic, and generous.

“She was unassuming, never braggadocious,” Macon said. “She was able to work both sides of the aisle. She had civility.”

But Cockrell was a fighter, too. Former District 10 Councilman Jimmy Hasslocher said he was pushed to tell Cockrell about a comment someone made about her after former Mayor Henry Cisneros announced he would not seek reelection in 1989.

“Lila was in the room and somebody called me over and said, ‘You need to tell the mayor what someone said,” Hasslocher said. “I said no, ‘I don’t think I want to do that.’ And Lila looked at me and she said, ‘Oh yes you do.’

“I said, ‘Well, someone thinks that you might be of an age that some would consider to be too old to run for mayor again.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘He said that, did he?’ Everybody in the room laughed and she looked at me and said, ‘We’ll see about that.’’’

Cockrell went on to win the election for her fourth and final term as mayor in 1989. 

Cockrell attended Southern Methodist University (SMU), where she received a bachelors of arts. An endowed scholarship at SMU has been set up in her name.

She also shared her influence with many others outside of the political world. Cockrell donated more than 40 pieces of African American art to St. Philip’s College, President Adena Williams Loston remembered. She helped get the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art into museums, including the Smithsonian. And she left a lasting impression on Maynard Galloway, now a chef in San Antonio.

“I remember her speaking to me as a foster kid from the San Antonio Children’s Shelter,” he said. “She told me to make something of myself, and I asked her, ‘Why are you always smiling?’ And she said, ‘When you have faith, you always have a reason to smile.’ I always carried her spirit with me.”

Rosemary Kowalski, one of Cockrell’s closest friends, said their relationship was a “whole-hearted friendship.” They traveled the world together after Cockrell retired from public life. 

“[We went to] South America, Europe, and Alaska,” she said. “One of the most beautiful cruises we ever took was to Alaska. … She was the type of person that could entertain on a cruise ship without [anyone] knowing who she was. She was always an outstanding person to have people’s attention. She didn’t need San Antonio at the time. She represented Lila in a way so people would notice her.”

One of Cisneros’ favorite memories of Cockrell was watching her when she was with her husband, Sidney “Sid” Cockrell, who died in 1988.

“Lila with Sid was a completely different person,” Cisneros said. “There wasn’t a public dimension, it was just a young girl happy to be with her boyfriend. They were full of sweet nothings and smiles. That’s a Lila that people who saw her in public settings didn’t get to see.”

A memorial service for Cockrell is set for Thursday at 10 a.m., with a public tribute at the Lila Cockrell Theatre at 2 p.m. The event will be livestreamed on TVSA and the City’s Facebook page.

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this report.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.