(Editorâ€™s note: This is the first of a two-part series)
Lincolnton native Jerry Cochrane remembers when his hometown was more like a one-horse town.
â€œIt was a small community, where everyone knew everyone else,â€ Cochrane said. â€œThere was no crime to speak of. It was a warm, friendly place without much traffic. There were a lot of dirt roads around the county then.â€
The town may have changed a lot since Cochrane came of age here in the 1940s, but he still calls Lincolnton home. Although Cochrane has seen much of the world, this community has captured his heart like no place else.
Cochraneâ€™s Lincoln County heritage is a strong one. His grandfather, John, founded Cochrane Furniture in the early 20th century, and Cochraneâ€™s father and brothers ran the business after the scion died. Cochrane himself would later join the family business, but not before fulfilling the childhood dream that would carry him far from Lincolnton.
In 1950, Cochrane went to Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga. for his senior year of high school. He then went to the Citadel to gain an edge on attaining his ultimate goal: to fly in the Air Force.
Being a pilot interested Cochrane from an early age.
â€œWhen I was growing up, that was all I could think of doing with my life,â€ said Cochrane.
Cochrane graduated in 1955 with a degree in civil engineering and then went to the University of Florida, where he received his masterâ€™s degree. Flight school was next, and after 12 months, Cochrane had his wings.
Ready to take to the skies, Cochrane had to decide whether to use his skills as a fighter, bomber or in transport. A natural curiosity and a strong desire to see the world led him to choose transport. In the Air Force, Cochrane was able to satisfy both needs.
â€œI was on a high priority mission in 1958 or 1959,â€ Cochrane said. â€œWe picked up some small arms, hand grenades and stuff. The destination was Baghdad. We finally made it there, unloaded and started back toward Europe. When we got back to Europe, we picked up a copy of the Army newspaper and an article said there had been a revolution in Iraq and the king had been assassinated â€“ the king weâ€™d been taking supplies to. We missed the revolution by one day.â€
Yet Cochrane did not miss out on his chance to see the world. He visited Vietnam during the conflict and traveled all over Europe. During a stop in Hawaii on the way to Vietnam, Cochrane made sure he did not miss an American milestone: the first Super Bowl.
After three years in the Air Force, Cochrane spent a short period of time in the reserves, working for NASA outside of Washington, D.C. He finished up his career in the Air National Guard, where he would eventually retire as a Major General after a 30-year career in the military.
Upon completing his time in the reserves, Cochrane left the nationâ€™s capital and returned to Lincolnton, a move he had at one time vowed not to make.
â€œWhen I was in college, I thought Iâ€™d never go back to that â€˜hick town,â€™â€ said Cochrane. â€œAfter a few years in the Air Force and in Washington, Lincolnton didnâ€™t look so bad. Now I wouldnâ€™t trade Lincolnton for anything.â€
Cochrane went to work in the family business, starting out as a plant engineer at Cochrane Furniture. He remembers how the company grew to be an important part of the community.
â€œWe started to grow then,â€ Cochrane said. â€œWe had been a fairly small company, but we had a great company. We were able to help a lot of people and a lot of people helped us to be successful.â€
One major way Cochrane Furniture helped the people of Lincolnton was through a scholarship to Catawba Valley Community College that the company awarded. Cochrane is particularly proud of being able to help deserving Lincoln County residents get an education.
â€œI donâ€™t know how many people got their associateâ€™s degree with our scholarship,â€ said Cochrane.
Cochrane was passionate about flying as a young man, but his adult years found him just as passionate about education.
â€œIâ€™ve felt strongly about education for many years,â€ Cochrane said.
After being elected county commissioner in 1986, Cochrane became the first person from Lincoln County to have a seat on the board of trustees of Gaston College, beginning a 12-year stint during which Cochrane developed an affection for the college.
During his time on the board, Cochrane helped make the decision to open the Lincoln campus of Gaston College in the old Lincolnton High School building. In turn, for his dedication and contributions to Gaston College Lincoln Campus, the projected technology center will be named in his honor.
Without a doubt, Cochrane has served and done his nation and his hometown proud.
(Cochrane Furniture was sold in 1996, and Cochrane retired in 1997. Since then, he has been actively involved in the community beyond that reported in this article. He is especially involved with a mentoring program.)
by Allyson Levine