Remembering Bill Cochrane

William McWhorter Cochrane, 1917-2004.  I met him in 1975 when I left the Customs Service for a position with the Technical Services Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.  Bill was the Staff Director of the full committee.  He had previously been Administrative Assistant to Senator Everett Jordan from North Carolina and before that the Chief Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.  His ties to North Carolina remained strong. and he almost ran for the Senate seat in 1974. Senator Robert C. Byrd called on him to stay at his post on the Rules Committee for the Committee’s consideration of a monumental piece of legislation, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which created the congressional budget process, the House and Senate Budget Committees and the Congressional Budget Office.  The window of opportunity to run for the Senate never opened again.

He was known to everyone, from the cleaning ladies to Senators, as Bill.  Having just come from the executive level of the civil service, where everyone was mostly Mr. and Mrs or Ms, I recognized immediately and resolved that if he was Bill, no way was I going to be anything but Ron.

Bill was like the adage about the wise abbot: “knows all, overlooks much.”  In my first week, maybe the day I met him, he told me the two most important things things to know about working at the Senate:  “There are no paths and no fences.” and “There is no limit to what you can accomplish here if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.”  On a later occasion, when something I was working on was blowing up in my face, he passed on this bit of wisdom “Sometimes the long way is the short way” and, in legislation, “It just takes as long as it takes.”  In short, patience and collaboration.  He knew everyone and was on a friendly first name basis with everyone.  Nothing about the operation of the Senate escaped him.  I never saw him angry or impatient; the epitome of the true southern gentleman.

He was legendary for his dedication and work ethic, which was impossible for anyone to emulate.  He lived a few blocks away and walked to work.  His wife of many years had long given up on a normal family life and had her own career and her own apartment nearby.  They were devoted to each other, nonetheless, and did find time for the occasional dinner together. But Bill never missed a day at the office.  Indeed, the joke among the staff one year at Thanksgiving when someone mentioned that they had no plans and were alone, another observed that he could always come in to the office and have a can of sardines with Bill.  But it was no joke; it was true.  Bill didn’t encourage others to follow his practice though, except unavoidably by example, and once told me not to, but to go home to Jonnie Sue.

Bill was courtly in manner, steeped in the classics, with an uncanny memory of poetry, and could summon up a poetic quote appropriate to any situation.  He was a bit rumpled in appearance, in that classic southern professorial way you might see in a movie.  For the sake of efficiency, his shirts had short spread collars, and he wore clipon bowties. He once commented on my button down collars, saying he could never wear such because it would be a waste of time to button and unbutton them.

We invited him to the wedding of one of our daughters, and he came.  I have never felt so honored, and those who knew him, and knew that it was simply unheard of for him to leave Capitol Hill for any reason, were amazed.

For a far more in depth commentary here is a link to the tribute to him from Senator Elizabeth Dole.

I remember and give thanks for him every day

From the BCP “Thanksgivings for National Life.”  “We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong.  They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.  Inspire us, Lord.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 9-June-2015.

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2 Responses to Remembering Bill Cochrane

  1. Underneath the Senate hall (I used to go as an investigative reporter) is a lunch room. Where the Senators are mostly white men, behind the counter at the buffet down in the bowels of the Capitol are all these black ladies who make Senate bean soup. It is the one thing that actually gets done every day and it is particularly good.

  2. Jo says:

    Thanks for this, Ron. We must continue to bear witness to and hold up the good people in this world.

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