With all their pomp and circumstance, graduations are for celebrating a job well done, launching new leaders, and inspiring them to change the world.

When USAA CEO Stuart Parker addressed the largest graduating class in St. Mary’s University‘s history Saturday, he delivered that message with a dose of advice: “Success is not a solitary pursuit.”

As if to underscore that idea, two of San Antonio’s most admired leading ladies – lifelong friends – sat side-by-side after receiving special recognition for their own lofty achievements.

St. Mary’s President Thomas Mengler awarded former Mayor of San Antonio Lila Cockrell a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, and local business woman and philanthropist Rosemary Kowalski a Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa.

Calling them “iconic figures in the history of San Antonio,” Mengler described their individual contributions to the city – one as a public servant, the other as one of San Antonio’s most successful women entrepreneurs – before bestowing the honorary degrees and doctorate stoles.

Lila Cockrell (left center) is awarded Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, after Rosemary Kowalski (right) is awarded Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa, at St. Mary's University’s 165th annual Spring Commencement.
Local entrepreneur Rosemary Kowalski (left) and former Mayor Lila Cockrell receive honorary degrees at St. Mary’s University’s 165th annual Spring Commencement. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The women first crossed paths when Cockrell’s husband worked as president of the Bexar County Medical Society and Kowalski was hired to cater meetings for society events. Later, when Cockrell was mayor and the San Antonio Convention Center construction was completed in 1967, the City selected Catering by Rosemary as the official caterer.

That kicked off a long history of working together to host events where the two entertained celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty, and created memories that bonded them to one another and this city.

Cockrell, 95, and Kowalski, 92, spoke with the Rivard Report earlier in the week.

“I’m very fond of [Rosemary], I have great admiration for her,” Cockrell said. “She is a woman who grew up and took advantage of the educational opportunities available to her, began working very quickly, and started a modest enterprise. And [through] her efforts, leadership, and hard work, she built an empire.”

A 1942 graduate of Southern Methodist University, Cockrell pursued a degree in speech communication at a time when, she said, there were few career options for women.

Kowalski did not attend college, which she admitted makes her sad. “But I always feel positive with friendship,” she added. And, “I try to explain to generations, especially Millennials … please for all of us and the future, remember education, work, say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ and [remember] attitude is everything.

“You will keep this world turning right.”

The first female mayor of San Antonio, Cockrell served three terms at the helm of the city. But she began her career as a teacher. “That was my ticket to being gainfully employed,” she said. It was volunteering with the League of Women Voters that led her to a career she had not expected.

As keynote speaker for the 165th commencement exercises held in the Bill Greehey Arena, Parker spoke of the life lessons he did not learn in the classroom, as well as unexpected career paths.

USAA CEO Stuart Parker spoke as keynote speaker at St. Mary's University’s 165th annual Spring Commencement.
USAA CEO Stuart Parker delivers the keynote speech at St. Mary’s University’s 165th annual Spring Commencement. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“First, life will not turn out the way you plan,” he said. When that happens, he told the sea of graduates, they have two options: They can spend their life wondering or they can adjust their sights and reinvent themselves.

When a health condition grounded Parker, an Air Force pilot who had flown missions during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he earned his MBA from St. Mary’s in 1995 and joined the USAA workforce in 1998.

He served in a number of positions at USAA, and is credited with leading the development of USAA’s Financial Planning Services organization. Parker was named CEO of the financial services enterprise in 2014, following Josue Robles’ retirement.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the second is the day you find your purpose, when you discover what you were meant to do on Earth,” he told graduates. “Find something you love, that gives you meaning, that captures your passion and God-given talents. Then you might not work another day in your life.”

St. Mary’s celebrated 463 new graduates at the ceremony, including 387 receiving bachelor’s degrees, 73 receiving master’s degrees, and three students receiving doctoral degrees.

Future graduates gather at St. Mary's University commencement ceremony.
St. Mary’s University’s Class of 2017 gathers at the Spring Commencement at the Bill Greehey Arena. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.