He was a hardworking gentleman — Memories of Thad Cochran

Published 9:47 pm Friday, May 31, 2019

When Rep. Becky Currie was getting her feet wet in politics as a Teen Age Republican, she campaigned alongside Thad Cochran to help him win a seat in Congress in 1972.

Currie, of Brookhaven, admired the man for decades, continuing to learn from him as he went from the House to the Senate. She is saddened by his death Thursday, but grateful for the times their paths crossed over the years.

“He was the quiet gentle giant,” she said. “Sometimes I wish had Thad Cochran’s temperament to be quiet at times. He was just a guy who very quietly carried a really big stick, got things done. He worked both sides of the aisle when needed, but had one of the most conservative records in the Senate.”

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Funeral services for Cochran, who represented the state for 45 years, will be held next week in the Mississippi Capitol.

Visitation is 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday at the University of Mississippi Robert C. Khayat Law Center in Oxford.

One funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Monday in the state Capitol in Jackson.

Another service will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Northminster Baptist Church, also in Jackson.

Cochran was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1978. As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he steered billions of dollars to Mississippi for universities, agriculture and Hurricane Katrina recovery. He retired in 2018.

“He was always known for bringing the bacon back to Mississippi,” Currie said. “Whether you like it or not, if he didn’t bring it back to Mississippi it was going to another state. We need to make sure we appreciate Thad Cochran. He’s done a lot for this state.”

When Cochran retired last April, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was the state’s agriculture commissioner, to fill his seat. The Brookhaven cattle farmer defeated Democratic challenger Mike Espy in a November special election runoff to finish the final two years of the six-year term Cochran started.

Hyde-Smith said Cochran was vital to Southwest Mississippi.

“He was just so conscious of that Southwest corner,” she said. “He said many times that Lincoln County was the reason he won when he first ran. He said when the Lincoln County box came in he knew he was going to win that House seat when he ran many years ago.”

She said he represented all people in Mississippi no matter their color, political party or stature.

“He said you have to put yourself aside and every constituent wants to be heard and they have the right to be heard,” she recalled.

He looked at every vote as a chance to bring something to Mississippi that would benefit the state and he had the demeanor to make it happen.

“He could bring calmness to a room,” he said. “He never got loud or agitated. He could just sum up a situation and come up with possible solutions or at least create a working environment that those who felt differently wanted to work with him because he treated everybody with respect.”

Hyde-Smith remembers visiting with Cochran in his office on his last day on Capitol Hill. They sat at his baby grand piano. He played a song and Hyde-Smith followed along behind him.

“Then I played ‘God Bless America’ and he sang it. That is just a special moment that I will treasure forever,” she said.

Hyde-Smith learned much from watching her predecessor.

“He had a gentleness about him,” she said. “He truly had a servant’s heart that was there to accommodate the people. He never ever once thought the people should accommodate him.”

Even those across the aisle respected what the Repubican statesman brought to Mississippi. Bobby Moak, of Bogue Chitto, is chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party.

He said anyone who fishes in Lake Okissa should be grateful to Cochran for helping make it happen.

Moak said the first $1 million for the Lake Okissa project came from the state. Then a delegation from Franklin County met with Cochran in Washington to talk up the project.

“He wound up being able to get another $14 million, pretty much off the bat,” he said.

Their paths crossed several times during their careers and Moak saw Cochran as a nice man who was very easygoing.

“There’s no doubt that he’s been called very quiet. He rarely raised his voice,” he said. “He was not the guy who was jumping up and down on the Senate floor. He was not making fiery speeches on things. He had good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle in the state and in Washington.”

Moak said Cochran would take care of farm projects around the nation, but he also made sure that the Mississippi farmers got their share.

“Same thing with higher education. He always made sure that Mississippi got its share,” he said.

One thing he recalls about Cochran is that he continued to represent his constituents even though he was a senior member of Congress.

“None of that went to his head,” Moak said. “He was still the same guy that if somebody in Norfield needed help that I may have called him for, he was willing to get his staff on it and try to make whatever it was happen.”