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- American football player and coach
- American former marine who assassinated John F. Kennedy
Editor's note: This story appeared in the Nov. 17, 2013 edition of the Reporter-News in a package observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Mike Cochran was a 1954 Stamford High graduate and briefly attended Hardin-Simmons University and worked for the Reporter-News.
Mike Cochran was 26 years old, not long gone from West Texas where he’d grown up, when he landed in the middle of one of the biggest stories in American history.
The 1954 Stamford High grad — onetime student at Hardin-Simmons University and sports writer for a brief time at the Reporter-News — was employed by The Associated Press and working in Fort Worth when President John F. Kennedy came to Texas in late November 1963.
Cochran covered the president’s outdoor and indoor addresses the morning of Nov. 22 at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, then was called to duty when Kennedy was shot and died shortly thereafter in Dallas.
The journalist’s long and honored career in Texas often was marked by being in the right place at the right time, at least for the sake of a good story.
He was one of seven members of the press to carry the casket of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to his grave. Two years later he interviewed Oswald’s elusive widow, Marina, in her home.
“It’s something that stays with you forever,” he said of the assassination of an American president.
His experiences led Cochran away from sports writing and his ambition to head AP’s Texas sports coverage to writing hard news in a 39-year career.
Cochran, 76, today is retired and lives in suburban Fort Worth.
Bit of background
After attending Hardin-Simmons for just over two years, Cochran completed his college education at then-North Texas State Teachers College in Denton. As graduation neared, he got an invitation for a public relations job for Sohio Oil. It would pay $150 per week.
“In 1958 that was really something,” Cochran said.
However, his journalism instructor C.E. “Pop” Shuford told him that he already had secured a job for his student.
“He told me, ‘No, you’re going to the Denton Record-Chronicle,’ ” Cochran recalled. He would work part time until graduation, then take a full-time job. The pay would be $60 per week.
Good at math, Cochran told his mentor that meant a $90 per week pay cut.
“Yeah, but one of these days you’ll thank me,” Shuford, who had started the North Texas journalism program, told Cochran.
He worked there a year as a sports writer then had an offer to go to the newspaper in Corpus Christi. However, Reporter-News Editor Ed Wishcamper enticed him to Abilene with Hardin-Simmons football, led by legendary athlete and coach Sammy Baugh.
“I told him, ‘See you in Abilene,’ ” Cochran said.
He didn’t stay here long either, making contacts with the AP while covering the January 1960 Cotton Bowl in Dallas for the Reporter-News. Admittedly mistaken for someone else when asked if he wanted a job with the AP — yes, he said — Cochran was told they’d get back to him.
He was told over the phone in March to stop by the AP office the next time he was in town. After a brutal dust storm battered Abilene that very day, he and his wife drove overnight to Dallas, and Cochran was at the AP office the next morning. That was so impressive “they hired me on the spot,” he said.
In 1961 he was given the assignment of opening an AP office in Fort Worth. He would head a staff of ... one.
He was there in late November 1963 when his career changed dramatically.
For the president’s trip to Texas, Cochran was told to assist two of the AP’s top writers, Jack Bell and Doug Cornell, who covered the president for the wire service. Mainly, Cochran said, chuckling, his job was to keep his colleagues entertained and the drinks handy.
That Friday he attended Kennedy events in the parking lot and inside the Hotel Texas, where a Chamber of Commerce breakfast was held. Though a Kennedy fan, Cochran frankly was more taken with the first lady.
“Jackie made a late but grand entry. She looked stunning, regal,” Cochran said.
After breakfast, the presidential motorcade traveled to Carswell Air Force Base for the short flight to Dallas, and tragedy. Cochran filed a “wheels up” bulletin and navigated the traffic — about 5,000 saw Air Force One depart — back downtown.
He walked through the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newsroom, where his AP office was, and mentioned he’d seen the president safely off to Dallas.
Minutes later, a copy boy shouted, “The president’s been shot!”
Without his own transportation — his wife, Sondra, had dropped him off — Cochran jumped in a car with Star-Telegram staff, and they sped to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the mortally wounded president had been taken. Traffic was so thick, he said, that they parked the car as close as possible and ran the remaining two blocks to the hospital.
They walked in to discover nurses “crying hysterically in a hallway. We knew the president was dead,” he said.
Cochran spent the rest of the day at Parkland, monitoring the condition of Gov. John Connally, who also had been shot. He also worked from Dallas on Saturday.
Cochran was scheduled to relieve another AP staffer for jail watch duty Sunday, but that never happened. While being transported to the county jail, Oswald was shot to death Nov. 24, a Sunday, by Jack Ruby.
Later Sunday, Cochran was assigned to cover a hurriedly planned funeral for Oswald the next day at Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth.
“The only people at the cemetery were reporters, photographers, federal agents or cops,” he said. “There obviously were no mourners.”
Wisecracked Jerry Flemmons, the famed Star-Telegram writer who was there, “Cochran, if we’re going to write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, I guess we’re going to have to bury the son of a bitch ourselves.”
“Sure enough, we did,” Cochran said.
The service in a chapel at the cemetery lasted maybe 10 minutes, Cochran said. Louis Saunders, executive secretary of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, officiated after another minister backed out. According to Cochran, Saunders said early on, “We are not here to judge, only to commit for burial, Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Cochran and others were told that Marina Oswald, her eyes red and face swollen from crying and standing beside the casket, whispered, “My husband, my husband, my love I give you.”
After the succinct service — attended by Oswald’s widow; the couple’s two very young children; Oswald’s mother, Marguerite; and Robert Oswald, the assassin’s brother — an official asked Cochran if he would be a pallbearer.
“I not only said no but hell no, ” Cochran said. He didn’t know that the AP would approve, plus his presidential vote had been cast for Kennedy.
But then a reporter of rival United Press International spoke up.
“Hey, I’ll be a pallbearer,” Cochran recalled the reporter saying. That immediately changed the mind of the AP’s man.
“I may have been dumb and inexperienced, but I wasn’t stupid. I told them, ‘Uh, I changed my mind,’ ” Cochran said. The two wire service reporters, three Star-Telegram staffers and two other men whom Cochran cannot remember were recruited.
And so, on the side of the casket and holding his reporter’s notebook and pen in his right hand, Cochran gripped the casket with his left hand and walked with other pallbearers toward the grave on this overcast day and participated in a story in a way none had imagined he would minutes before.
“We didn’t think much about it at the time,” Cochran said in a 1989 story for the Reporter-News.
The Marina interview
For Cochran, another opportunity related to the Kennedy assassination came two years later, when the press was working on stories for the second anniversary of the assassination.
While plenty of people were fine with talking to the press, one who was not was Oswald’s widow, who had remarried and now was Mrs. Kenneth Porter. No fan of the press, Porter was fully supportive of her decision and reputedly once brandished a pistol to chase away a reporter.
Another trait of a good reporter is persistence. Cochran showed up at the Porter home one day and asked the Russian-born Marina for an interview.
But she didn’t slam a door in his face, which gave him time to comment that he had not seen her since the funeral. And that he had been a pallbearer.
Well, she said, for that she at least could ask him in for a cup of coffee. Cochran does not recall a pronounced accent.
They talked for hours, though none of what Marina was telling Cochran was “on the record.” That was tough on the reporter, who knew he had great material for a story. His reporter’s notebook remained closed and his pen capped.
Knowing his time was running out because Kenneth Porter would be returning home and might be sore at finding a reporter in his living room, Cochran caught a break when he casually mentioned the unusual fireplace equipment in the room. Marina was quoted in the 1989 story as telling Cochran, “Oh, they’re grotesque. I don’t even want those things in my house. I’d like to ...” She paused, then told Cochran, “They were a gift from Kenneth, so that’s the one thing you can’t print.”
Which, as an aggressive, line-straddling reporter would understand it, meant that what she previously had told him was now printable.
“As far as I was concerned, she had put everything back on the record,” he said.
As quickly and politely as he could, Cochran told her good day and left. He drove a short distance and parked his car. He pulled out his notebook to write down what she had said as accurately as he could remember. He recalled most details but left out one, on purpose — how much she disliked the fireplace tools.
Her most compelling statement was that her rejection of her husband’s romantic overtures the night before may have caused or at least contributed to the death of the American president.
The couple were not living together in November 1963, and Oswald was driven by a co-worker to a house in Irving, where Marina and the couple’s two young daughters were living with a friend, Ruth Paine. Normally, Oswald would see his wife and daughters only weekends. But this was a Thursday, and she turned down her husband’s advances. The next morning, he left his wedding ring and close to $200 on a dresser but took a rifle he had stashed in the garage.
He went to work at the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas with the rifle wrapped up as a package. He told a co-worker who drove him to work the package was curtain rods.
Hours later, he used that rifle to kill the president of the United States.
Mike Cochran loved writing about sports, but the Kennedy assassination took him in a hard news direction. Being exposed to the best writers of the day, he saw a greater challenge than sports writing, though he’d still do that.
“I never lost my love for sports,” he said. But what he now wanted to write about “was changed by the magnitude of this story.”
His new love was serving as a roving reporter for The Associated Press. Actually, he was more or less the West Texas correspondent, a job that entailed considerable roving. Back in the day, there was not an AP office between Fort Worth and Albuquerque.
Cochran will be joining others with firsthand experience and Kennedy assassination experts as the nation notes the 50th anniversary of the president’s death in Dallas.
Cochran will be part of a presentation Sunday on “Face the Nation” (9:30 a.m., CBS). He will be at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Also on the show will be author and four-time Pulitzer nominee Hugh Aynesworth (“JFK: Breaking the News” and his new book “Witness to History: November 23, 1963”), who witnessed the Kennedy shooting, Oswald’s arrest and the Oswald shooting.
Cochran has written an anniversary piece for the Star-Telegram, twice been interviewed and videotaped at Rose Hill Cemetery and answered other requests about the assassination and the events that followed.
While Cochran must search the archives in his head for some of the details of what happened 50 years ago, most of what he remembers is readily available.
“Obviously, this was the biggest story we’d ever cover in our lives,” he said of how print, radio and TV reporters felt as news broke and carried forth. “That day, TV news was born. They did a bang-up job and almost overnight they started giving newspapers a run for their money.”
“I can’t say I necessarily think of the assassination every day, but it doesn’t take much to trigger those thoughts,” he said. “It’s with you forever.”
Yet another trait of a good reporter is pressing on through emotions and challenging conditions.
For Cochran, it was working nonstop from early Friday morning — if he got any sleep after entertaining his colleagues the night before — through covering the funeral that Monday, a short time after President Kennedy’s services in the nation’s capital.
“I didn’t have time to think about it. I came home and sat on the couch in the semidarkness and watched the TV reruns of everything involving Kennedy,” he said. “It all finally caught up with me. I had no time to think what it meant. Finally, I broke down and cried.
“It had taken me four days.”
For many Americans, it has taken 50 years.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Reporter Mike Cochran's somber load to bear - Oswald casket in 1963