Mike Cochran, who during a nearly 40-year career with The Associated Press told the stories of Texas’ larger-than-life characters with his rich and detailed writing, and who ended up serving as a pallbearer for Lee Harvey Oswald while covering the presidential assassin’s funeral, has died. He was 85.
Cochran died late Tuesday night after a long battle with cancer, said longtime friend and former AP executive John O. Lumpkin.
“He made journalism a calling and, more often than not, fun,” said Lumpkin, the AP’s former vice president for newspaper markets and a former Dallas chief of bureau.
Lumpkin said Cochran was “no one-trick pony,” noting he covered everything from sports to politics to natural disasters. “One of a kind, for sure. A legend, no question,” Lumpkin said.
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As part of the AP’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, Cochran wrote a first-person account of how he came to be a pallbearer for Oswald. With no mourners present aside from a few of Oswald’s family members, the task of carrying his coffin fell to the reporters covering the funeral.
“I was among the first they asked, my reply not just ‘No!’ but ’Hell no!” he wrote in the 2013 story. “Then Preston McGraw of United Press International stepped forward and volunteered, and with my top competition for scoops accepting the duty, I realized my error and joined McGraw and other reporters.”
Cochran, who had covered Kennedy’s visit to Fort Worth just before Kennedy was killed in Dallas, wrote that his reporting on the assassination continued for years as he interviewed Oswald’s widow and mother, investigated conspiracy theories and wrote anniversary stories.
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On one anniversary, he recalled approaching Oswald’s widow, Marina, at her house. She told him she was “no longer news” but he mentioned his role as a pallbearer and she invited him in. Several hours later, they were “still talking and smoking,” he wrote.
“He was so likable and he had that quality that a good reporter has, where he was not intimidating at all,” said Barry Bedlan, AP’s director of text and new markets products. “In fact, he brought down your guard, he brought down everyone’s guard with his own kind of sense of humor and his warm presence that he could get anyone to tell him about anything,”
Over the years, his subjects included Cullen Davis, an oil tycoon acquitted at trial after being accused in a shooting at his mansion that killed his 12-year-old stepdaughter and his estranged wife’s boyfriend.
Cochran, known for his descriptive writing, began his 1996 story marking the 20th anniversary of the killings at the Davis mansion with this line: “The murderous ‘man in black’ appeared at the remote Cullen Davis mansion that steamy summer night wearing a woman’s black wig and carrying a .38 revolver.”
He covered flamboyant swindler Billie Sol Estes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, writing about how Estes made millions of dollars in phony fertilizer tanks. Cochran noted in the AP obituary for Estes in 2013, “how many city slickers from New York or Chicago can make a fortune selling phantom cow manure?”
“Billie Sol was a character’s character,” Cochran told The AP. “I spent literally years chasing him in and out of prison and around the state as he pulled off all kinds of memorable shenanigans.”
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Cochran grew up in the West Texas town of Stamford and graduated from what is now the University of North Texas in Denton.
He began his career at newspapers in Denton and Abilene before joining the AP in 1960 in Dallas and opening the AP’s Fort Worth bureau the next year. He retired from AP in 1999 and then went on to work for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for five more years.
He also wrote several books, including “Texas vs. Davis,” about the murder case against Davis, and “Claytie,” which details the life of Clayton Williams, a colorful Texas oilman and philanthropist whose 1990 run for governor was derailed after joking about rape and acknowledging he went a year without paying income taxes.
Cochran was inducted into the Texas Newspaper Foundation Hall of Fame in 2018. He won numerous awards over his career, including Star Reporter of the Year from the Headliners Foundation, the top individual award given annually to a Texas journalist.
“He won a trunk load of journalism awards but he cared more about his readers, his sources and his friends,” Lumpkin said.
He’s survived by his wife, Sondra, son, John Shannon Cochran, daughter, Kendyl Arnold, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
His funeral will be held Jan. 29 in Fort Worth.