Former Mississippi senator Thad Cochran dies

Published 10:13 am Thursday, May 30, 2019

Former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi dies at 81; steered billions of dollars to his home state.

Thad Cochran was born December 7, 1937, in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He is the son of William Holmes Cochran and Emma Grace Cochran, who were educators in Pontotoc, Tippah, and Hinds counties.

Cochran was strongly influenced by his parents’ careers in education. He and his brother, Nielson, were immersed in academic environments even at young ages. They spent summers at the University of Mississippi as their parents earned Master’s Degrees, and also lived at Blue Mountain College where their parents were members of the faculty.

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In 1946, the Cochran family moved to the Byram, a community of Hinds County near Jackson. There was much time devoted to sports, music, the Boy Scouts, and church activities. Thad became an Eagle Scout and helped establish a new scout troop at Spring Ridge Methodist Church. He served as its first Junior Assistant Scout Master.

At Byram High School, Cochran earned varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and tennis. He gave a piano and voice recital his senior year, and was class valedictorian. He was also a member of the 4-H Club and Daniel Memorial Baptist Church.

As a high school junior and senior, Cochran worked in a variety of after school and weekend jobs. His first regular job was at Gunn’s Dairy Bar where he was a “car hop.” He clerked at Nicholson’s Grocery store, cleared right-of-way for Deviney Construction Company, and helped his father and brother on the family’s cattle farm near Utica.

College Education & U.S. Navy Service

In 1955, Cochran enrolled in the school of liberal arts at the University of Mississippi. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in psychology and a minor in political science. He was elected president of his social fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, was a company commander in the Navy ROTC, student body vice president, and was selected for membership in Omicron Delta Kappa, a national honorary leadership fraternity. During the summers, he worked as a life guard at Livingston Lake in Jackson.

When he graduated from Ole Miss in 1959, Cochran was commissioned an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve and assigned to duty aboard the USS MACON, a heavy cruiser homeported in Boston, Massachusetts. He served on this ship for 18 months becoming the ship’s legal officer after graduating as an honor student from the U.S. Navy School of Justice in Newport, Rhode Island. He also became qualified as Officer of the Deck, in port and underway.

When his ship was decommissioned in January 1961, Cochran was assigned to the staff of the Commandant of the Eighth Naval District in New Orleans, Louisiana, to complete his two-year tour of active duty in the Navy.

In the fall of 1961, Cochran enrolled in the School of Law at the University of Mississippi. While in law school, he won the Frederick Hamel Memorial Award for having the highest scholastic average in the first year class. He was selected for membership in the honorary legal fraternity Phi Delta Phi, served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Law Journal, argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court as a moot court finalist, and was elected chairman of the Honor Council.

Before graduating from law school, Cochran was awarded a Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellowship and studied jurisprudence and international law for a year at Trinity College, University of Dublin, Ireland. During this year abroad, he spoke to numerous Rotary Clubs and other groups in Ireland on the subject of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi and the United States. He also won the Hillary Term Moot Court competition sponsored by the Dublin Law Society.

In his final year of law school at Ole Miss, Cochran served as Article Editor of the Mississippi Law Journal and was selected for membership in Phi Kappa Phi, a national honorary scholastic fraternity. Several years later when he delivered the graduation address at the law school, Dean Parham Williams observed that Thad Cochran’s law school grade point average was the third highest of all students who had graduated from the Ole Miss law school during the decade of the 1960s.

During the summer vacation months in the law school years of 1962, ’63, and ’64, Cochran returned to active duty in the Navy and taught military law and naval orientation at the Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Legal Career & Civic Activities

After graduating from law school, Cochran joined the firm of Watkins & Eager in Jackson, one of the state’s most respected law firms. He was made a partner in the firm in only two and a half years. Cochran served as president of the Jackson Men’s Y Club, as a member of the board of the Jackson Rotary Club, and a member of the Board of Mississippi Opera, Inc. He organized the first Mississippi chapter of the American Field Service and served as charter president to sponsor foreign exchange programs for high school students.

He was chairman of the Legal Services program of the Jackson Junior Bar, chairman of the Mississippi Law Institute, a continuing legal education program for Mississippi lawyers, and president of the Young Lawyers Division of the Mississippi Bar Association. In 1971, Cochran was named by the Jaycees as Jackson’s Young Man of the Year and as one of the Three Outstanding Young Men of the Year in Mississippi.

Early Politics

Politics and government were subjects of much interest in the Cochran family. As early as 1951, Cochran accompanied his mother as she drove through her hometown of Utica, and helped deliver door to door a campaign tabloid for the Paul B. Johnson, Jr. campaign for Governor. His father was a surrogate in the campaigns of Felder Dearman for Highway Commissioner and Jack Tubb for State Superintendent of Education. Cochran often traveled with his father and helped with voter registration for these campaigns.

Thad Cochran later became active in other political campaigns on his own. He appeared on television for the first time to endorse Fred Thomas for Sheriff of Hinds County in 1967. He was Hinds County Chairman in Brad Dye’s successful race for State Treasurer, and he wrote talking points and issue briefs for Charles Sullivan’s campaign for Governor in 1971.

The Presidential campaign of 1968 marked the first time he became involved in a political campaign for a Republican candidate when he served as Executive Director of Mississippi Citizens for Nixon-Agnew.

House and Senate Elections

In 1972, Cochran was elected United States Congressman for the Fourth District, which included 12 counties in Southwest Mississippi. He was appointed to the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, which had jurisdiction over economic development, transportation, and flood control.

As a Member of Congress, Cochran also served on a Republican task force to study the energy crisis, and he contributed to the writing of a report that was published in book form by the House Republican Conference. He was appointed later to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Select Committee on Ethics, which wrote a new ethics code for Members of Congress.

After winning re-election to the House in 1974, Cochran was elected by his colleagues to represent the Southern states on the House Republican Policy Committee. He was re-elected to the House of Representatives again in 1976. In both of his races for re-election, he received over 70 percent of the votes.

In 1978, Cochran was elected to the United States Senate, becoming the first Republican in more than 100 years to win a statewide election in Mississippi. He has since been re-elected six times and is currently serving his seventh term in office.

As a member of the Senate, Cochran has served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference; chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee; and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

In the current 115th Congress, Cochran has been again selected to serve as chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, as well as chairman of its Subcommittee on Defense. He was previously chairman of the Committee on Appropriations in the 114th Congress (2015-2016) and the 109th Congress (2005-2006).

Senator Cochran is also a senior member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, having most recently served as its ranking member in the 113th Congress (2013-2014). He has served on this panel since being sworn in as a Senator, and served previously as chairman in the 108th Congress (2003-2004).

Finally, Cochran continues to serve on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
During previous Congresses, Cochran served on the Senate Ethics Committee, the Judiciary Committee, the Labor and Human Resources Committee, and the Committee on Indian Affairs. He has also served on the Joint Committee on the Library, which oversees the activities of the Library of Congress. Service on these committees enabled him to be actively involved in the writing of laws affecting a wide range of issues including rural development, health care, and criminal justice.

Legislative Highlights

Cochran has a wide-ranging legislative record that reflects the needs of Mississippi and the nation. A conservative philosophy has guided the Senator’s policy decisions. He has supported measures to reduce spending, control debt and create an environment that fosters job creation and economic growth in Mississippi and the nation. He has also been a proponent of measures to maintain a strong national defense.

For Mississippi, Cochran has maintained a focus throughout his career on promoting economic development and educational opportunity. He has sponsored legislation and promoted policies related to rural economic development, including key provisions of several national farm policy bills. Cochran has also written legislation supporting education programs such as teacher training, vocational education, libraries, and educational television. He has supported programs to increase educational achievement among disadvantaged children, particularly in rural areas.

Cochran’s leadership and assistance has contributed to the funding of various university-based research endeavors. Some of these include: energy, agriculture, and forestry facilities at Mississippi State University; the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at the University of Southern Mississippi; the National Center for Natural Products Research, the Center for Water and Wetlands Research, and the Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi; the National Warmwater Aquaculture Research Center at Stoneville; and the Jackson Heart Study at Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He worked toward the placement of a FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Mississippi State University, which leads the Alliance for

System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), a consortium of universities focused on unmanned aircraft systems policies, research and development.

The Senator supports Historically Black Colleges and Universities and continues to fight to maintain National Institutes of Health research opportunities for colleges and universities in rural states like Mississippi.

As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Cochran has worked to ensure that the U.S. Armed Forces remain the best trained and equipped in the world, including support for the Navy’s shipbuilding programs and the military bases and installations in Mississippi. Cochran has served on the Senate National Security Working Group, the Board of Visitors of the Air Force Academy, the Board at the Military Academy at West Point as chairman, and the Board of Visitors at the U.S. Naval Academy. In 2010, the Senator was presented with the Herbert H. Bateman Award from the American Shipbuilding Association, as well as the Sea Service Award from the Navy League of the United States. In 2013, the Secretary of the Navy bestowed on Cochran the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.

Cochran has effectively used his seniority in the Senate and on the Senate Appropriations Committee to help Mississippi and the nation in the wake of disasters. In 2005, Cochran spearheaded the effort to provide more than $87 billion in supplemental federal assistance to Mississippi and Gulf Coast states devastated by Hurricane Katrina—the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Since then, Cochran has used lessons from Hurricane Katrina to coauthor legislation enacted in early 2013 to reform and improve federal disaster recovery activities.

More recently, the Senator helped develop the “RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act” to help Gulf Coast states implement ecological and economic recovery activities following the tragic 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

Cochran has also been at the heart of the debate to reauthorize and improve the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). His work on the program’s treatment of levees and other flood control infrastructure dramatically influenced how the NFIP assesses healthy flood control infrastructure. Virtually the entire Mississippi Delta, much of the Jackson metro area and communities along the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway in northeast Mississippi rely on properly-designed and maintained flood control structures.

Cochran has helped develop, maintain, and improve the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Natchez National Historical Park, the Vicksburg National Military Park and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In addition, he authored provisions to promote National Park Service efforts to research and preserve sites associated with the Civil Rights Movement.

As ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 113th Congress, Cochran played a pivotal role in helping enact a new, five-year farm bill. The Agricultural Act of 2014 improves and reforms federal agricultural policies, while also driving down government spending. The law also consolidated and reformed conservation programs.

Cochran, a long-time member of the Congressional Sportmen’s Caucus, authored the Mississippi Wilderness Act, which was the first federal legislation ever passed for the perpetual protection of lands in the state of Mississippi. The Senator has helped establish national wildlife refuges as a member of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, and he authored the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. In 1994, he was named Conservationist of the Year in Mississippi by Ducks Unlimited. He was named Conservationist of the Year in 1996 by the North American Waterfowl Federation and received the Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation. The Nature Conservancy has honored Cochran with a lifetime achievement award, and a group of conservation organizations presented him with a National Wetlands and Wildlife Award in 2012.

Cochran is a member of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees and a Regent emeritus of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. He has also worked to support the arts, arts education and historic preservation in Mississippi and nationally.

Cochran has been awarded honorary degrees from Kentucky Wesleyan College, Mississippi College, Blue Mountain College, the University of Richmond, and Tougaloo College. In 2011, he received the Mississippi Medal of Service.

On March 2, 2017, Cochran was recognized as the tenth longest-serving Senator in United States history.


In 1964, Thad Cochran married Rose Clayton at the First Methodist Church in New Albany, Mississippi. Mrs. Cochran passed away in 2014 after a lengthy illness. The Cochrans have two children and three grandchildren.

In 2015, Cochran married Kay Bowen Webber in Gulfport, Mississippi. A native of Fulton, Tennessee, Webber and her children lived in Columbus, Mississippi, before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1981 to work in the U.S. Senate.

The Senator is a member of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson.