Cockrell, Lila May Banks (1922–2019)


By: Fernando Ortiz, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: April 28, 2022

Updated: April 30, 2022


Lila May Banks Cockrell, first woman mayor of San Antonio, first woman elected mayor of a major Texas city, and World War II veteran, was born to Velma (Thompkins) Banks and Robert Bruce Banks on January 19, 1922, at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth, her mother’s hometown. Her father was an attorney for the Joint Stock Land Bank in San Antonio and a captain with the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division during World War I. Her parents married in 1919 at the Prospect Hill Methodist Church in San Antonio. Eighteen months after Lila’s birth, her father died of hepatitis. Lila and her mother then moved to live with Lila’s maternal grandparents, Julia (Hampton) Tompkins McCampbell and Andrew McCampbell, whose employment as a federal prohibition administrator moved the family from Fort Worth to New York City, then Omaha, Nebraska. In 1926 Lila’s mother married Ovid Winfield Jones, an attorney with the Revocation Hearing Department of Prohibition of New York and later with the U. S. Treasury Department.

Lila and her family, which by 1930 included brothers Ovid W. Jones, Jr., and Andrew McCampbell Jones, lived in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, where she attended Church-in-the-Gardens school. In 1933 she moved to her maternal grandparents’ home in Fort Worth and attended Jennings Avenue Junior High, then Paschal High School. After she graduated at the age of sixteen in 1938, she attended one year at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, then entered Southern Methodist University (SMU) in 1939. While there, she joined Delta Delta Delta and the debate team, for which she won an “M” award, before earning a teaching certificate and a bachelor’s degree in speech in June 1942.

In the summer of 1941 Lila met Sidney Earl Cockrell, Jr., a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army Reserve. That September, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was called to active duty and assigned to Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma. Three weeks after Lila’s graduation from SMU, she and Cockrell married at the First Methodist Church in Fort Worth on June 20, 1942.

While Lila’s husband served, she joined the U.S. Navy and trained to become an officer in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ensign Cockrell was then assigned to the Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C., as an education officer and supervised the advancement testing of enlisted personnel and their correspondence college coursework. After her husband’s aide-de-camp duties took him briefly to Washington, D. C., in the spring of 1944, Cockrell soon learned she was pregnant and received an honorable discharge. On January 25, 1945, she gave birth to daughter Carol Ann in Kansas City, Missouri, where her parents resided. When the war ended and her husband returned, the Cockrell family lived with his parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, followed by New York, before they moved to Dallas in December 1947. In July 1948 she gave birth to daughter Cathy Lynn in Dallas. In 1956 the Cockrell family settled in San Antonio where Sidney became executive secretary of the International Medical Assembly of Southwest Texas and of the Bexar Medical Society. That winter the couple strolled along the River Walk, an experience that mesmerized Lila Cockrell and shaped her personal connection to the city.

Cockrell enjoyed her peacetime life as a wife and mother, but she also felt a strong attraction to political activity. She joined the League of Women Voters (LWV), the Dallas Association for the United Nations, and the American Red Cross. For the LWV, she trained speakers and organized speaker bureaus in Kentucky, New York, and Texas. She also moderated election debates on important issues or between candidates and served as league president in Dallas and San Antonio. She worked with Fay Sinkin on LWV efforts to improve city sanitation and water quality. In 1961 Cockrell joined the Good Government League (GGL), a political group that endorsed San Antonio mayor Walter W. McAllister. In 1963 he asked her to become GGL's first woman candidate for city council. She agreed and resigned from the LWV. Cockrell won the election and took her seat on May 1, 1963 (see TEXAS AFTER WORLD WAR II).

Cockrell served on the San Antonio city council from 1963 to 1970 and from 1973 to 1975. She was particularly interested in preserving and celebrating Mexican art and architecture throughout San Antonio, especially Miraflores Park, the private garden of Mexican physician Aureliano Urrutia that was designed and built in 1921. She also supported an expansion of the city’s green spaces and public libraries. Amidst a national civil rights movement, she favored the repeal of the poll tax (see ELECTION LAWS). She, however, supported voluntary desegregation by owners of restaurants and other private businesses that served the public (see SEGREGATION). Cockrell, the mayor, and other council members refused to enforce a 1941 city anti-discrimination ordinance when pressed in 1963 and 1964 by G. J. Sutton, Claude Black, and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality.

Councilwoman Cockrell pursued the inclusion of San Antonio in Model Cities, a federal urban improvement program sponsored by Congressman Henry B. González and part of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty. The program selected a few U. S. cities, including San Antonio, for the multi-million-dollar redevelopment work—including improvements to roads, housing, flood control, schools, and more—and aimed to turn those cities into examples for other communities throughout the United States. As a Model Cities advocate and the council’s delegate to the Urban Renewal Agency and to the Alamo Area Council of Governments, Cockrell served as a linchpin for financing redevelopment as the city prepared for an international event, HemisFair ’68, which was built on urban renewal land and displaced thousands of residents (see POLISH QUARTER OF SAN ANTONIO). She did cast the only dissenting vote, however, when the council voted to displace businesses and dispossess residents in fair-adjacent La Villita in 1968.

Cockrell played many key roles in HemisFair ’68, the “world’s fair of the Americas,” which coincided with San Antonio’s 250th birthday. She led teams to secure multi-million-dollar funding for the event as well as championed and raised money for the construction of the Woman’s Pavilion. She served on the Site Coordination Committee and fought to keep the river-level section of a performing arts theater at the new convention center that was almost cut for budget reasons. That space was later renamed the Lila Cockrell Theatre in 1984. She also voted against the inclusion of a private club in the Tower of the Americas. (The adjacent ground-level Lake Pavilion held the private club, Club Abrazo, instead.) Although others had envisioned taxi barges on the Paseo del Rio (also known as the River Walk) as early as 1945, Cockrell’s suggestion of putting a “fleet” of party barges for tours and conveyance on the river came to fruition. The first barge, named “Lila” in her honor, launched in 1966 and helped present the city before HemisFair ’68 opened to the public on April 6, 1968.

In 1969 Cockrell became the first woman mayor pro tem in San Antonio. She recalled later that some locals told her “You’d make a good mayor—if only you were a man.” She held the position until she resigned from the council in June 1970, a departure she had announced in 1969. After Cockrell left office, Governor Preston Smith appointed her to the Texas Commission on the Status of Women in 1970 (see GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION FOR WOMEN). She also served as president of San Antonio Church Women United and volunteer coordinator for the San Antonio State Tuberculosis Hospital (see SAN ANTONIO STATE CHEST HOSPITAL). In 1974 the GGL encouraged Cockrell to run for mayor in 1975 and made her its first woman mayoral candidate. She, however, faced a new political calculus. In the past, the city council selected the mayor with a majority vote, but in November 1974, voters approved a city charter amendment that required a direct election by a majority vote.

When voters elected Cockrell in a runoff in April 1975, San Antonio became the first of the nation’s largest fifteen cities to elect a woman as mayor. She served from 1975 to 1981 and from 1989 to 1991. During her tenure, the city moved from an at-large city council model to a single-member district plan that better represented the city’s multicultural communities (see CITY GOVERNMENT). Along with perennial municipal concerns, she faced budgetary issues complicated by rising inflation and utility rates during a national energy crisis (see OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY). She played a pivotal role in the San Antonio Spurs joining the National Basketball Association (NBA) when the American Basketball Association folded in 1976. She coordinated a campaign with team owner Angelo Drossos and stockholder Billy Joe “Red” McCombs to convince NBA owners, who she called personally, to choose the Spurs. She also convinced the city council to hire attorney Pat Maloney to attend NBA meetings and expand seating in HemisFair Arena. In 1975 she was the only woman among the fourteen mayors chosen by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to visit the People’s Republic of China as part of a U.S. State Department exchange program initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1973. Although the trip was cancelled, she and a mayoral delegation visited the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1978 and the People’s Republic of China in 1979. While she quietly supported the Equal Rights Amendment, she attended the National Women’s Conference in 1977, served as chairman of the National Conference of Mayors’ task force on ERA ratification, and locally championed equal economic opportunities for women, including single mothers, and increased appointments of women to boards and government committees. She also spoke at the Women in Public Life Conference held in Austin in November 1975, and the National Organization for Women held their annual conference in San Antonio in 1980.

Cockrell decided against a fourth term due to her husband’s heart problems. He died of congestive heart failure in 1986. In 1981 she supported Henry Cisneros as her successor. He was elected and served until 1988. During those years she managed a travel agency and served on the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the board of City Public Services (later CPS Energy), the city-owned utility service. In 1988 sixty-six-year-old Cockrell felt ready to return to public office and was reelected as mayor in 1989. That year six of Texas’s ten largest cities had women mayors: Suzie Azar of El Paso, Kathy Whitmire of Houston, Ruth Nicholson of Garland, Annette Strauss of Dallas, Betty Turner of Corpus Christi, and Cockrell.

Cockrell’s last term in office was difficult. The nation was mired in an economic recession, and the city faced layoffs and significant tax increases but had committed to building the Alamodome (see TEXAS IAF NETWORK). Ongoing battles over the Edwards Aquifer complicated the growing city’s need for additional water sources (see EDWARDS UNDERGROUND WATER DISTRICT). With its large concentration of military bases, the city coordinated local services with the needs of the military, federal government, and local military families during Operation Just Cause in 1990 and the First Gulf War under President George H. W. Bush. In her 1991 re-election bid, she faced almost a dozen challengers, and in early May she lost to Nelson Wolff, who won in a run-off election over María Antonietta Berriozábal.

Cockrell remained active in local development and city politics after she left office. She led the San Antonio Parks Foundation from 1981 until 2012. The biggest project she directed was the restoration of the Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park, which reopened to the public in 2008. She also helped plan, design, and raise funds for the Museum Reach and Mission Reach projects, a $385 million plan to beautify parks along the San Antonio River from the Pearl Brewery to the San Antonio Missions south of downtown (see SAN ANTONIO MISSIONS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK). In 2002 Mayor Ed Garza appointed her to chair a new ethics task force after two city council members faced federal indictment. In May 2019 Cockrell made national news when she was not allowed to vote because she did not have a valid form of identification required by controversial Texas voter identification laws.

Lila Cockrell died at the age of ninety-seven in San Antonio on August 29, 2019. Her private funeral was held at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, and a public memorial was held at the Lila Cockrell Theatre. She was buried at Mission Burial Park North Cemetery in San Antonio. Trinity University Press published her autobiography, Love Deeper than a River: My Life in San Antonio, in 2019.

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Arkansas Gazette, December 29, 1975. Austin American-Statesman, April 3, 1963; October 16, 2022. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 30, 1931. Rick Casey, "Why Lila Cockrell Was One of the Most Important San Antonio Mayors of the 20th Century," San Antonio Report, September 3, 2019 (https://sanantonioreport.org/why-lila-cockrell-was-one-of-the-most-important-san-antonio-mayors-of-the-20th-century), accessed April 10, 2022. Lila Cockrell, Love Deeper Than a River: My Life in San Antonio (San Antonio: Maverick Books of Trinity University Press, 2019). Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), June 14, 1946; February 7, 1947; May 13, 1947. Corpus Christ Caller-Times, August 16, 1975. Dallas Morning News, December 31, 1947; April 2, 1975. David Martin Davies, interview of Lila Cockrell, “The Source,” Texas Public Radio, January 10, 2019 (https://www.tpr.org/show/the-source/2019-01-09/lila-cockrell-first-female-mayor-of-san-antonio-reflects-on-a-life-of-public-service), accessed April 20, 2022. El Paso Herald-Post, June 13, 1989. Fort Worth Record-Telegram, August 3, 1919. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 14, 1938; February 4, 1945; October 22, 1968; August 14, 1991; June 30, 2013. Galveston Daily News, May 7, 1989. Grand Island Daily Independent (Grand Island, Nebraska), August 28, 1925. Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), August 21, 1925. Kim Johnson and Dallas Williams, "Former San Antonio Mayors Reflect on Lila Cockrell's Long and Lasting Legacy," Texas Public Radio, August 29, 2019 (https://www.tpr.org/post/former-san-antonio-mayors-reflect-lila-cockrells-long-and-lasting-legacy), accessed April 10, 2022. Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Indiana), June 27, 1999. Michael Marks, “What Came Before: The Demolished Neighborhood That Made Way for HemisFair ’68,” Texas Standard, (https://www.kut.org/texas/2018-04-16/what-came-before-the-demolished-neighborhood-that-made-way-for-hemisfair-68), accessed April 10, 2022. Hady Mawajdeh, “The Legacy of San Antonio’s HemisFair, 50 Years Later,” Texas Standard (https://www.texasstandard.org/stories/50-years-later-whats-the-legacy-of-san-antonios-hemisfair/), accessed April 10, 2022. Jack Morgan, "The Artists Who Gave the Museum Reach Its Flair: Part 1," Texas Public Radio, June 12, 2014 (http://www.tpr.org/post/artists-who-gave-museum-reach-its-flair-part-1), accessed April 10, 2022. Jack Morgan, "The Artists Who Gave the Museum Reach Its Flair: Part 2 & The Big Finish!" Texas Public Radio, June 13, 2014 (https://www.tpr.org/arts-culture/2014-06-13/the-artists-who-gave-the-museum-reach-its-flair-part-2-the-big-finish), accessed April 10, 2022. Jack Morgan, "Early On, Cockrell Fought to Keep Locks in Mission Reach Plans," Texas Public Radio, June 11, 2014, http://www.tpr.org/post/early-cockrell-fought-keep-locks-mission-reach-plans), accessed April 10, 2022. Jack Morgan, "How City Leaders Turned a Grand Vision into Reality on The Museum Reach," Texas Public Radio, June 9, 2014 (https://www.tpr.org/post/how-city-leaders-turned-grand-vision-reality-museum-reach), accessed April 10, 2022. Joey Palacios, "Celebrate San Antonio New Year's Party Benefits Parks Foundation," Texas Public Radio, December 31, 2012 (http://www.tpr.org/post/celebrate-san-antonio-new-years-party-benefits-parks-foundation), accessed April 10, 2022. Jan Ross Piedad, "Lila Cockrell, First Female Mayor of San Antonio, Reflects on A Life of Public Service," Texas Public Radio, January 9, 2019 (https://www.tpr.org/post/lila-cockrell-first-female-mayor-san-antonio-reflects-life-public-service), accessed April 10, 2022. Rock County Leader (Bassett, Nebraska), September 10, 1925. San Antonio Light, August 5, 1923; January 22, 1956; October 24, 1963; January 10, 1964; May 3, 1964; October 28, 1965; January 12, 1968; February 16, 1968; May 2, 1969; July 3, 1969; November 11, 1975; June 17, 1976, November 19, 1977; February 1, 1984; February 21, 1986; June 16, 1989; July 16, 1989; January 16, 1991. San Antonio Express, September 9, 1962; November 17, 1967. San Antonio Express and News, April 16, 1975. San Antonio Express-News, May 8, 1977; November 30, 2010; July 4, 2013; November 16, 2017; May 31, 2019. San Antonio Parks Foundation, "The Lila Cockrell Endowment Fund," YouTube.com, February 6, 2019 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHuUZg9_Ko8), accessed April 10, 2022. Victoria Advocate, May 5, 1991.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Fernando Ortiz, Jr., “Cockrell, Lila May Banks,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/cockrell-lila-may-banks.

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