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Lila Cockrell, Rosemary Kowalski and Edith McAllister are familiar names in San Antonio, and for good reason. As the first female mayor of San Antonio, the chairman emeritus of The RK Group and a philanthropic powerhouse who has touched more causes in San Antonio than can be listed here, the three have left indelible marks on the Alamo City. Their hard work and contributions began in the age of black and white television and rotary phones, but continue to impact us today.
Each of them carved paths of their own, following their instincts to leave their mark. These women didn’t change the game — they invented it. However, it wasn’t a game then. It was just doing business.
It was San Antonio in another time, but a San Antonio not much different from the one we know now.
At 93, 96 and 100, the three San Antonio legends have 289 years of life lessons between them, giving their observations, memories and stories depth and wisdom. Despite their advanced years, their energy and enthusiasm rivals that of a much younger set. They love life, the city they’ve helped shape and, perhaps most of all, each other.
Edith: “I absolutely love each of these ladies,” gushed Edith McAllister as the three friends gather to chat at her home, the same house she and her late husband bought in 1950. Their admiration, care, respect and true friendship for each other is clearly on display as they tell stories, compliment each other and share the insights they’ve gained as members of the 90s club – save for McAllister who hit the century mark on February 18th.
As San Antonio marks its tricentennial — and 50 years since HemisFair helped mold San Antonio into the city it is today —talking with women who helped the Alamo City grow and prosper in those most recent decades provides a living history lesson with insights everyone can take to heart.
These nonagenarians and centenarian are examples of lives well-lived. Their minds and quick-wit are sharp as ever. They’re not sure exactly who met whom first, how or when that was. However a common thread between the three is “Mayor Mac”, Walter W. McAllister Sr., San Antonio’s mayor from 1961 to 1971. Mayor Mac was McAllister’s father-in-law, helped recruit Cockrell to run for city council and launched the future of Kowalski’s business when the company won the catering contract for HemisFair ’68.
Rosemary: “Mayor Mac was always so gracious to me. He told me one day, ‘Young lady,’ — I can still see him shaking his finger — ‘One of these days you’re going to amount to something’,” recalled Kowalski, imitating the shaking finger to accentuate the story.
The three laughed. As they talked and reminiscenced, their personalities shined and laughter came easily.
Edith: “I had not known Rosemary because I had always entertained my friends by my own cooking,” explained McAllister. “I just hadn’t gotten acquainted with caterers.”
Rosemary: “Really, there was no such thing,” noted Kowalski. “No one knew what catering was. It wasn’t a thing yet. The real ‘09ers (those who live in the 78209 zip code) taught me how to cater. There was nothing to teach you, so they all helped me.”
Help from others is something that Cockrell relied on as well. “If you’re very honest, say you don’t know and you need help, people are so happy to help you. I accepted a lot of coaching.”
Kowalski and her husband Henry got their start opening a small barbeque restaurant after he came back from being a pilot in World War II. Henry’s family had run a successful bar in Michigan, and he worked there all his life because they lived upstairs.
Rosemary: “He thought, well, I can run a restaurant if I can run a bar,” Kowalski explained. “You don’t realize how small San Antonio was. If you just had nerve enough to get a stove and make up a menu … It’s all so homemade.” Over time, they were hired to serve food at office parties and in people’s homes. The restaurant evolved into Catering by Rosemary. The company got its big break when it won the catering contract for HemisFair ’68. Four years later, the company won the catering contract at the city’s then-new Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, a contract The RK Group still holds.
The company had proven itself on the large, public stage of HemisFair.
Lila: “When we opened the convention center, Mayor McAllister said, ‘I just want to tell you all that there’s no choice in the world except Rosemary Kowalski,’” explained Cockrell. “And we (the city council) all agreed.”
None of the three were educated or trained for what became their career paths, but that didn’t stop them. Cockrell studied to be a teacher at Southern Methodist University, then served in the WAVES branch of the United States Navy as an ensign during World War II.
McAllister’s time at the University of Texas at Austin included an intensive bookkeeping course, which would prove to be helpful during her volunteer service on nonprofit boards. She graduated college knowing how to read a budget and understand finances.
Edith: “We (women) were not expected to do that,” she explained. “It surprised a good many businessmen in San Antonio that I was way ahead of them in many ways.”
Kowalski went to Incarnate Word (the high school, not the college).
Rosemary: “When people ask me where I went to school and I say Incarnate Word, they assume the college, but I have no college education. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. No one cares where you went to high school,” she laughed. “I was just blessed. We were working to make a living.”
In those days, women holding political office, running a business or sitting on a board were anomalies. Navigating what was a man’s world was certainly different than today.
Lila: “I think it helped me to be a happily married woman with children, and I always tried to be a lady,” noted Cockrell. “I was in a new role, but I was trying to look traditional myself. I think that’s how I got through.”
In 1972, McAllister was the first woman in the United States to serve as a Campaign Chair of United Way.
Edith: “I was lucky to be married with a house full of children. I knew everybody. I’d been here for years, my kids had gone through school and I knew all of the parents and teachers. Those contacts made me more valuable than some stranger no one knew.”
However, it was more than her contacts that earned her the task of working to fundraise for United Way. “Those of us who didn’t have sense enough to have paid jobs, we did volunteer work,” she joked. McAllister’s volunteering began with the Alamo Heights PTA and was furthered through the Junior League of San Antonio. She became a problem solver for nonprofits, someone who could step in and help, often working with a boardroom full of men to get things done.
Those men didn’t always know how to handle McAllister, but she usually managed to get what she wanted. She didn’t have a secretary, so she handwrote all of her letters, using pink stationery and red ink. “A bunch of men were together and one of them said, ‘Did you get a letter?’ The other fellow said, ‘A pink letter?’ ‘Yeah, a pink letter.’ Then a third man said, ‘I got it too. I guess we better do what she wants’,” she recalled with a laugh.
The idea of writing anything by hand is almost foreign in today’s world of computers and smartphones, but that was the norm. “I wrote everything by hand,” explained McAllister. When asked how she kept track of her meetings and contacts, she dryly said, “You used your head,” to which both Kowalski and Cockrell quickly agreed.
Lila: “I’m very thankful I have a retentive memory,” said Cockrell, before sharing the story of a meeting where she didn’t take notes and was somewhat chastised by a gentleman who was writing throughout the meeting. When it came time for questions, Cockrell kept asking questions that showed she had retained everything she’d heard. “So he said, ‘Excuse me, I beg your pardon’,” apologizing for earlier commenting on her lack of notes.
Cockrell easily recounts minute details of negotiations and deals made decades ago, sharing stories about events as if they happened yesterday. She and her husband Sidney moved from Dallas to San Antonio in 1956. She served in the League of Women Voters, just as she had in Dallas, and was eventually recruited to run for the city council. “Of course, when I was invited, I made the usual response of a happily married woman, ‘I’ll need to talk this over with my husband’. He said, ‘I guess if this is something you want to do, that would be alright’.”
She said she also discussed it with her two daughters. “They were a little bit more reluctant because no one else’s mother that they knew had ever done anything like that,” she said. “ To a teenager or near-teenager, what everybody else’s mother does is important, too.” Ultimately though, they agreed Cockrell could run.
Cockrell was elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1963. After serving for a decade, including service as the city’s first female Mayor Pro Tem, she was elected in 1975 to the first of four two-year terms as Mayor of San Antonio. She served as Mayor from 1975 to 1981 and from 1989 to 1991. The Lila Cockrell Theatre, named in her honor, is part of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984.
While Cockrell was working in city government to make a difference for San Antonio, McAllister was focused on improving the city through nonprofit efforts. From her time with the Alamo Heights Parent/Teacher Organization, she has lent her time and talents to causes and organizations benefiting the arts, medicine, higher education and youth. Over the years, she has been chairwoman, president, co-chair or vice president of at least 25 major San Antonio nonprofit organizations and their campaigns. She has also served on the boards of more than 25 nonprofit organizations.
McAllister’s family moved to San Antonio in 1929 when her father invested in a business venture to revive the former Hot Wells Bath Spa and Resort. The family stayed in San Antonio, and she met her future husband Walter in high school. The couple had four children and as they grew, so did her volunteerism. Thanks to the time she spent working to support San Antonio area museums, her children jokingly called her “Myrtle Museum”.
One position she is particularly proud of is serving as a founding trustee and later president of the Southwest School of Art. In addition to her glass ceiling-shattering role with the United Way, McAllister was also the first woman to chair the San Antonio Area Foundation.
Honored by the San Antonio chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals as Philanthropist of the Year twice (1977 and 2013), McAllister prefers being a participant over a spectator. That’s not surprising from someone who was still waterskiing at 92. She also swam every day for 43 years but stopped at 95 on doctor’s orders.
Edith: “I’ve lived long enough to deserve not to do too many exercises,” she said with a laugh.
Exercise is something the three agree has helped them achieve such longevity.
Rosemary: “You’ve got to keep going. Use it or lose it.”
She certainly follows her own advice. She goes to her office at The RK Group every day. Kowalski is quick to point out that her son Greg and the team at The RK Group “do all of the work”, but as the “RK” of the business, she maintains a daily presence in the company’s community efforts, placing her focus on philanthropic, nonprofit ventures. “I’m really blessed, she said. “ I feel very fortunate to be able to go all the time. I am happy and enjoy life. I’ve had a good life.”
KLRN produced a documentary on Kowalski’s life and legacy, “From Rosemary to The RK Legacy,” but she said she’s still working on the legacy part. You will still find her at any number of events across the city, where she likes to see old friends and make new ones. “I get upset when I go to an event and I don’t know everyone there,” she said.
However she’s quick to clairfy she’s a not a networker — a term that didn’t exist as she and her husband built their catering company. She’s a genuine connector — someone who enjoys meeting people, getting to know them and keeping in touch. She’s warm and inquisitive, making conversation with everyone she meets, especially millennials. “It’s fun because our lives are so different,” she said. “The way we were brought up is so different. Some of them like me and some of them probably think, ‘What do you know, old lady?’” Her advice to the younger set? “Attitude is everything. If you say please and thank you, write notes and be yourself and just be happy — God put us here to help everybody else — you would be as happy as I am right now.”Cockrell said she believes that longevity comes from laughter.
Lila: “One of the things that I think is the most helpful attribute you can have is a sense of humor. If you can look at a situation that could be grim and suddenly notice there’s some rather humorous aspects to what’s happening, start thinking about that. It lightensthe load.”
Kowalski’s happiness flows from her gratitude for every day.
Rosemary: “After you pass 90, you’re living on borrowed time,” she said. I have a wonderful prayer next to where I get my coffee. I say it every morning, thanking God that I’m still alive, that I’m able to be reading it [the prayer]. I can see it, I can read it, I understand it and pray. That God gives me all those graces is what my life is at the end. I’m enjoying every minute. I never thought I’d live this long.”
McAllister echoes that and credits her active volunteerism for part of her longevity.
Edith: “I’ve had such a good time. It kept my mind going,” she explained. “I’ve made so many good friends. Many of them are still alive. I keep up with all of those old, old friends that we did so many interesting things together. It gives you a depth of interest and affection that you don’t get any other way. I’m still well and still going strong to keep giving at 100, and still having a really good time.”
The idea of enjoying your life is something Cockrell believes in.
Lila: “Everybody has some bad times in their life. You can’t help it as a human being,” she said. “If you can get through those times — have faith.”
For those who aren’t sure how to jump into community service, or don’t think that they can make a difference, Cockrell offered this advice: “Start wherever you are. There are people who think ‘I’m not a person of great means,’ or ‘I’m not an impressive person in the community,’ or ‘I can’t do anything.’ You can start in your neighborhood, or you can start in your circle of friends or you can volunteer somewhere. If you just start, the more you do, your horizons grow.”
Edith: “It’s so much more fun than sitting around playing bridge,” said McAllister, who started volunteering at a time when many women filled their free time playing bridge at the country club. “Get out and get on board.
While the three are close friends who have known each other for years, Kowalski, a true San Antonio native who grew up on the south side, noted the differences in their experiences, she recalled that while Cockrell hosted Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the city, Kowalski served the queen a drink. However, those differences fade alongside the similarities of how everyone is treated.
Rosemary: “The three of us have entirely different backgrounds. Our lives have been together but at different levels, but the people of San Antonio who were here and have been here are still the same. They’re still friendly,” explained Kowalski. “I think the families of the people who have been here have helped grow our city because of our friendliness to everyone. We never meet a stranger, and we always welcome everyone.”
With decades of service and accolades under their belts, each of the three have much to be proud of. First and foremost though, they each list their families and marriages. However, they are not shy of stating their pride in their accomplishments, most especially when it comes to what they’ve been able to do for the city. For McAllister, her work with the Southwest School of Art stands out, while for Kowalski, it’s the growth from a small barbeque diner to the size and scope of The RK Group today.
Looking back on her time in office, Cockrell said she’s proud to have fostered economic growth, much of that due to the “Utility Wars”, what she calls her efforts to keep San Antonio’s energy costs low to attract business and residents alike. One of her many battle negotiations included winning the relocation of a soon-to-be-started company to San Antonio. The company? Valero, a major asset to the city that was won through her determined negotiations.
Cockrell is working on her memoir and anticipates it will be released this fall.
Lila: “How do I end it? I’m still here,” questioned Cockrell, laughing.
These three incredible women have all made a difference, and San Antonio is better for it.
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by Al Rendon
As we went to press we were saddened that Edith McAllister passed away on July 1, 2018 at the age of 100. She wrote the book on philanthropy in San Antonio and impacted people of all walks of life with her unselfish giving, not just financially, but more important of her time and talents.