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Even Henry Cisneros was surprised. The eulogies poured in and the body wasn't even dead.

Within hours of Cisneros' announcement last week that he would not seek a fifth term as mayor of San Antonio, people spoke of his legacy in the hushed, mournful tones normally reserved for dead heads of state.He was hailed as a "once-in-a-lifetime" leader. His lengthy and impressive list of accomplishments were recited reverently. Newspapers editorialized about the Cisneros Era in the past tense.

But Cisneros isn't dead. After May 1, he just isn't going to be mayor any longer.

"The death rumors are a little premature," said Austin political consultant George Shipley. "For Henry, it's not the end of the book, just the end of Chapter One."

For San Antonio, life after Cisneros will be a different story altogether.

After seven years on the City Council, Cisneros, a Harvard-trained San Antonio native, was elected mayor in 1981, becoming the first Hispanic elected mayor of a major U.S. city. He was 33 years old.

He quickly launched the city on a carefully charted drive in which it improved services, attracted industries and reshaped its image from a sleepy South Texas town to a thriving, modern city.

City leaders credit Cisneros with economic development coups ranging from attracting computer industries and a biosciences research park to Sea World's $40 million theme park.

Now, the people of San Antonio must not only tackle the task of finding a successor to Cisneros, they must struggle with trying to continue along the path on which Cisneros had propelled them.

"Henry is the most effective leader I've ever worked with, and no one can fill his shoes," said rancher-businessman Red McCombs, owner of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team and one of the city's most influential residents.

"We now have to pick up from where he's left us," McCombs said. "We'll get a highly qualified mayor next April. But no one will be like Henry."

Cisneros' influence was also felt far outside San Antonio's city limits. President Reagan named Cisneros, recognized as a rising Hispanic political star, to the blue-ribbon commission on Central America in 1983. A year later, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale listed Cisneros as a finalist in his search for a vice presidential running mate.

As president of the National League of Cities two years ago, Cisneros emerged as a national spokesman for urban issues.

Cisneros' effectiveness in San Antonio did not spring from the office. Under San Antonio's charter, the mayor holds no more power than the 10 other council members. Daily management of the city falls to the city manager.

Yet even his critics agree that no mayor in San Antonio's recent history has wielded more power than Cisneros.

"He really enjoys being mayor, working for the city," Shipley said. "As a result, he transformed the city. He did more in eight years for San Antonio than any 20 mayors in 20 other cities."

Some critics have argued that the limited power of the mayor's position in the Alamo City actually gave Cisneros as safe position to float ideas without paying the consequences of their success or failure.

"That's simply wrong," Shipley said. "Henry went out on a limb for his plans, and there was never any doubt where the plans came from. He took the flak as well as the praise."

Jim Dublin, a longtime ally of Cisneros, agrees.

"Under the charter, the mayor is a moderator," Dublin said. "But Henry used that limited power to create an agenda for the city. By force of personality and force of simply what he could be, Henry is a very powerful mayor."

While not denying Cisneros' potent blend of intelligence, energy and charisma, some observers also believe Cisneros benefited from good timing.

In 1976, San Antonio underwent a court-ordered change to single-member City Council districts, a move that gave increased political power to Hispanics who made up the majority of the population. The storm also forever erased the old power structure, dominated by Anglo businessmen.

The change, however, created increasingly bitter confrontations between Anglos and Hispanics. Grass-roots organizations such as Communities Organized for Public Service criticized Anglo leaders for neglecting Hispanic neighborhoods. Anglos labeled COPS members hysterical troublemakers.

The debate only grew more acrimonious when, in 1977, Hispanics and blacks took a majority lead in the City Council. Lila Cockrell, a popular political figure who is on the list of potiential candidates, was Cisneros' council mentor during her reign as mayor, from 1975 to 1981.

"Lila was the best mayor for her time," Dublin said. "Those were emotional times, and Lila gave calm, unemotional leadership. She was oil on the water.

"That calm also let Henry actively work to create an atmosphere where both sides learned they not only could talk to each other, they had to talk to each other if the city was to survive," he said. "It worked."

Developer Cliff Morton agreed. "Henry helped build coalitions that moved things forward," he said. "If minority participation was a problem before, Henry helped turn it around to be an asset."

Cisneros also was aided by business leaders such as McCombs, Morton and Robert McDermott, who shared his vision for the city and through considerable effort helped bring it to fruition, Dublin said.

Most observers believe that Cisneros' decision not to seek a fifth term does not mean a retreat for San Antonio.

"Nothing is coming to a halt, and the great things Cisneros did will still be there, moving forward, after he's gone," Morton said.