Russ Cochran

Russ Cochran

Editor’s note: Michael Cochran is the brother of Russell Cochran, a longtime supporter of the press and friend to the West Plains Daily Quill. Thanks in large part to Russell’s generosity, the Quill has been able to keep the area’s history alive, connecting contemporary stories with those from the past, using issues of the West Plains Gazette, for which Russell was publisher and Michael, editor and writer. The Quill is deeply appreciative of the support of the Cochran family over these many years and joins the family in remembering one of the area’s passionate preservationists, and a vibrant storyteller.

Russell Van Cochran, Jr.

(July 3, 1937-Feb. 23, 2020)

Russ Cochran (Russell Van Cochran Jr.) departed this world at dawn on Feb. 23, 2020, concluding a remarkable life that spanned 82 years and seven months.

The eldest of Russell Van and Dulcie Morrison Cochran’s three sons, he was born July 3, 1937, at Cottage Hospital in West Plains, Mo. He was married to Shirley Uphaus in 1957, a union that lasted 63 years. To this enduring marriage four children were born: Russell Vance, John Clayton, Sylvia Marie and Amanda Suzanne, all of whom survive. In addition to his children and their spouses, his wife, 11 grandchildren and brother Michael also survive.

He was preceded in death by his parents and brother Rick.

A GIFTED STUDENT

Russ received his elementary education at Carmical School, displaying early on a gift for analytical thinking and problem solving. Graduating from West Plains High School at the top of his class in 1955, he was awarded both the science and mathematics medals for highest individual achievement and received a scholarship to what is now Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, attaining a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1959.

In four years there, he established the highest GPA (3.96 out of a possible 4.0) in school history and was elected chapter president of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious honor society. These accomplishments led to his being offered a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois, but it wasn’t to be.

“Shirley and I were a couple of small town kids, and the Urbana campus was huge beyond anything we’d ever seen,” Russ wrote in a 2015 letter. “The school we were used to had around 700 students and Rolla wasn’t much bigger than West Plains, while the Champaign-Urbana campus had an enrollment of something like 30,000. It didn’t take long to realize we were out of our element. The Wilson Fellowship came with major benefits, but deciding not to accept it turned out to be the best decision we could’ve made.”

CAREER IN SCIENCE

Returning to Rolla, Russ accepted a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship, an academic funding program initiated by the federal government to fast-track catching up in the space race after Russia’s 1957 launch of Sputnik I. The NDEA Fellowship led to jobs at U.S. Steel, Rocketdyne and Los Alamos Scientific Labs, and to completion of his doctorate.

PhD in hand, he joined the faculty of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1964 as a full professor and chairman of the physics department. At age 27, he had reached the summit of academia, with guaranteed job security, the respect of his peers and a growing reputation as a boy wonder in the field of applied physics.

LOVE FOR COMIC BOOKS

Growing up in West Plains in the 1940s, he learned to read from comic books and was an ardent fan of Tarzan, as portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller in a series of popular movies. Those films and a series of books by Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, made an indelible impression.

His younger brothers were also avid comic book readers, chipping in from modest weekly allowances to help pay for subscriptions to their favorite titles from Entertaining Comics (EC). When EC began promoting the National EC Fan Addict Club in 1953, the brothers and their friends signed up and were duly authorized as Chapter No. 3 in the country.

Over time, multiple subscriptions to EC titles accumulated into a substantial collection, kept carefully protected in a locked wooden box that went with Russ and Shirley when they moved to Des Moines. There, he opened it for the first time in years and began filling in the collection’s missing issues through contact with other enthusiasts.

Politically biased censorship had, with the exception of MAD, forced Entertaining Comics to cease publication of its multiple genres in 1956, creating a collectors’ market. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of pioneers like Russ Cochran, Bruce Hamilton, Steve Geppi, Bob Overstreet, Bud Plant and many others, the community of comic book collectors that was only a few thousand individuals in the 1960s now numbers in the millions.

INSTANT RAPPORT

Drake provided funding for an annual trip to the American Association of Physics Teachers convention, held each February in New York City, where the editorial offices of MAD magazine were located. In February 1966, Russ visited MAD’s headquarters and met publisher Bill Gaines, who had once considered a career in chemistry. There was instant rapport from the first handshake. When Gaines invited Russ to dinner, a friendship was born that would significantly affect the lives and fortunes of both men.

For every page of every comic book, there exists a pen-and-ink storyboard. Gaines and his editors had employed accomplished artists to illustrate EC’s many different titles, the archives of which were stored in a vault at MAD’s offices.

During his annual convention trip in 1970, Russ saw original, artist-signed EC artwork for the first time. Compared to crudely colored renderings in pulp comic books, the quality of the original black and white drawings was startling.

“You need to re-publish these stories in their original form, as the fine art they are,” Russ said. “EC fans would love it.”

“I’m too busy with MAD,” Gaines replied. “Why don’t you do it?” And so he did, starting in 1971 with EC Portfolio One, his first offering to collectors, and continuing until the Complete EC Library, a compendium of every issue of every EC genre, had been published in 66 hardbound volumes, a process that took 25 years. Many EC fans subscribed to the complete library in advance of its completion, a young Stephen King among them.

MUSICAL LIFE

After becoming aware of his music in the early 1950s, the three Cochran brothers became obsessed with learning to play guitar in the style of Chet Atkins. Sibling rivalry was a driving force as they competed to see who could best figure out what their guitar hero was doing.

During Christmas break in 1960, Russ, Rick and Mike borrowed a 1953 Cadillac from their dad’s car lot and drove to Nashville. Walking into RCA’s famous Studio B recording facility on Music Row, they announced, “We’re the Cochran brothers from West Plains and we’re here to see Chet.”

They succeeded in meeting their idol, who introduced them to RCA staff as his friends from Porter Wagoner’s hometown. The friendship that began that day grew through many subsequent meetings over the next 40 years, ending only with Atkins’ death in 2001.

PUBLISHING CAREER TAKES OFF

Russ’s publishing ventures quickly gained traction, as did his reputation for making high quality reproductions and original comic art available to collectors. The satisfaction and excitement of this new pursuit led to loss of interest in being an educator.

In 1974, he resigned his tenured position at Drake University, moved his now growing family back to West Plains and set about renovating the historic Zorn building just off Court Square. The upstairs of the two-story brick building became the family’s townhouse residence, while the downstairs served as headquarters for his auction and publishing projects.

The ground floor also had space set aside for showing 16mm prints of classic movies, complete with an enclosed projection booth.

In 1978, Russ published the first issue of West Plains Gazette magazine, a labor of love for the town he said had raised him. The magazine, devoted to recording the histories of families, individuals and events in the West Plains area, was enthusiastically received.

Based on that success, Russ enlisted the help of brother Michael, who resigned his position with KFRU in Columbia, Mo., to move back home and take on the duties of managing editor and lead writer. Starting in spring 1979, the Gazette published four issues per year covering a wide range of historically relevant subjects.

Numerous elders still living whose families had participated in the region’s development were glad to share their recollections and old photos, making the Gazette a storehouse of priceless stories and images that can never be sourced again. Thirty issues were published before the magazine ceased publication in 1987.

“We didn’t make a dime on it, but it was very rewarding in terms of satisfaction and fun,” Russ told longtime Ozarks journalist Mike O’Brien. “And I don’t believe there is another small town on the planet as well-documented as West Plains’ history is in the Gazette.”

Chet Atkins, a supporter of the magazine, said its stories and photographs reminded him of his own upbringing in the Clinch Mountain region of east Tennessee. Favorably impressed, he agreed to Russ’s proposal for doing a biography on his life and career using his various guitars to denote important milestones.

The result was the highly acclaimed “Chet Atkins-Me and My Guitars,” written by Michael and published by Russ in 2001. The success of that book–it sold out two printings–inspired the brothers to continue their literary partnership with “Les Paul: In His Own Words,” published in 2005, and “Hopalong Cassidy: An American Legend” in 2008.

DEALING IN ART

In addition to Bill Gaines, Russ also established lasting relationships with Frank Frazetta, the reclusive genius regarded as the godfather of 20th Century fantasy art, and Carl Barks, the artist who created the character of Uncle Scrooge McDuck for Walt Disney.

As the exclusive agent for both artists, Russ became the go-to person for patrons eager to acquire their paintings, causing their values to skyrocket. Prior to the digital age, his West Plains office was an international nerve center for buyers and sellers of original works by famous artists such as J. Allen St. John, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Jack Davis, Will Elder and many others.

As an acknowledged comic art authority, Russ worked with Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses to provide appraisals and provenance, and became the buying agent for celebrity collectors including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Michael Jackson. Another client, producer/director John Landis, recruited him to play a homeless panhandler in the 1992 film “Innocent Blood,” allowing Russ to add ‘Hollywood actor’ to his resume.

PRESERVING W.P. HISTORY

With Zorn building renovations completed, Russ turned his attention to multiple buildings around West Plains’ historic Court Square, buying, stabilizing and upgrading 18 aging and neglected structures before selling most of them, often at a loss, to buyers who took them to the next level, assuring their longevity.

One of the first he purchased was the Crozier building, 42 Court Square, which became the home of Rick’s Music, his brother’s store that was a popular hub for local musicians in the 1980s.

In 1996, after extensive remodeling that included adding an antique backbar, marble-topped counter and soda fountain, John (Jack) Cochran opened the Red Apple Grill. The new eatery included a stage where Russ, Rick and Dennis Crider entertained evening diners as the Red Apple Trio. Later, Dennis, Russ and daughter Amanda continued the Trio tradition, performing twice weekly at the Grill and other area venues for several years.

The original Red Apple Drugstore building, 5 Court Square, was converted into public offices for Russ Cochran Publishing in 1985. From this base, Russ dealt with art collectors and book buyers from around the world, assisted by Angie Meyer, his secretary for 25 years, and longtime assistant Chris Rock, who managed mail order operations for 35 years.

Russ and fellow preservationist Toney Aid, historian and author whose family businesses have been in the same location since the 1880s, are largely responsible for the intact architecture that is now the hallmark of downtown West Plains.

THE HOLLENBECK HOUSE

In 1980, he undertook a project many townsfolk thought impossible: moving a multi-story, early 20th century house — the former home of West Plains Journal publisher Arch Hollenbeck  — from its original location on Broadway to a vacant lot next to the Zorn building.

With the house set to be auctioned for removal, Russ brought in veteran house mover H.D. Mayo to determine if relocation was feasible. After due consideration, Mr. Mayo said yes, it could be done.

The move took place on a balmy Sunday, with the old mansion carefully eased off its original foundation into the middle of Broadway. Riding on steel beams supported by multiple axles, it crept east to Washington Avenue, then south for the uphill climb to Court Square.

Curious spectators gathered on both sides of the street to witness this one-house parade. City police provided an escort to keep the route clear of traffic. Utility crews led the way, dropping power and telephone lines where the height of the house was too great to pass under them. Navigating half way around the square and up Aid Avenue to a 90-degree left turn was deemed undoable by doubters, but Mr. Mayo’s prediction was proven true when the old house came temporarily to rest in a parking lot behind Aid Hardware.

A few weeks later, after a foundation was completed that included cut stone from its original site, the house was moved across the street and elevated into position beside the Zorn, where it sits today.

SAMMY, SALLY AND BUCK

In 1990, fulfilling a childhood fantasy that began with Tarzan, Russ acquired Sammy, a baby chimpanzee. In time, two more chimps, Sally and Buck, were added and became a familiar sight to passersby who would see them lounging in their network of cages outside the Zorn.

Russ delighted in taking them for walks around the Square, much to the surprise of people they encountered. He even took Sammy along on one of his New York trips, smuggling the little primate into a Broadway theater to see a performance of Les Miserables.

With Shirley as their primary caregiver, the trio lived out their lives as members of the family.

WEST PLAINS OPERA HOUSE

The crown jewel of Russ’s efforts as a preservationist was the West Plains Opera House, his last and most epic undertaking.

The three-story brick edifice was the pride of a prospering town when it was built in 1893. On its ground floor were the post office and opera house foyer, while the upper floors housed the West Plains Armory and a combination basketball court and performance hall.

By 2000, when Russ acquired the block of square property that included the 107-year-old building, demolition was being considered. Instead, he gave it a new roof, overhauled electrical, heating and cooling systems, and installed an elevator to make the second floor handicapped-accessible.

The reborn venue hosted concerts by singer/songwriter Wil Maring and master guitarist Robert Bowlin, Nashville singer Suzy Boggess, and renowned guitarists Richard Smith and Tommy Emmanuel. New tenants in the adjacent properties brought fresh energy to the downtown area.

In addition to the opera house becoming a popular wedding venue, other businesses in the block included a cable TV station, bicycle shop, bookstore, learning center and Cafe 37, an elegant restaurant.

Toni Chritton Johnson, former Gazette employee and Cafe 37’s proprietor, purchased the properties in 2005.

RIVER RETREAT

For the past 25 years, Russ spent much of his free time at a rural home overlooking the North Fork River in Ozark County. Over that time, his bluff-top aerie hosted numerous guests and was the scene of many musical and family get-togethers.

Nearby Dawt, with its low water dam and historic mill, was the scene of countless family outings during his youth and remained a hallowed place. As young men, he and his brothers were baptized into the First Christian Church. Russ quietly maintained a Christian faith throughout his life, attending the small Clear Springs Church near Dawt where he played guitar and led the congregation in singing cherished old hymns.

In 2019, declining health forced him to give up his retreat above the river and return to the Zorn, where he passed away. Russ Cochran Publishing will continue to operate with Shirley Cochran now the acting CEO. John Cochran, COO, has been running the business for the past 10 years and will continue to do so, assisted by Charlotte Craft.

According to Russ’s last wishes, there was no public funeral. Robertson-Drago Funeral Home provided cremation services.

CAME HOME TO MAKE HIS MARK

At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Russ Cochran was a charismatic, larger-than-life presence. He could be stubborn in business dealings, a trait offset by his generosity in helping family, friends and strangers when they were in need.

West Plains has embraced many colorful characters in its history, a defining quality that shaped the community’s collective soul. Russ was one of the last connections to a tradition of accepted eccentricity, of daring to be different and having the backbone to face the consequences, of finding a way to get something done when others said it was a lost cause.

He never held public office, but his legacy to the town he loved will have a lasting impact far beyond politics. He was a son proud of his heritage, a father who loved his children, a husband who called his beloved wife a saint, and a doting patriarch to his grandchildren.

A multitude of friends and colleagues from many walks of life will note his passing with sorrow. He came home to make his mark on a world that won’t be the same without him.

The Harlin Museum of West Plains’ Gala Event in tribute to the West Plains Gazette and its creator, Russ Cochran, initially scheduled for Saturday, has been postponed until a later date due to the coronavirus pandemic. For information call 417-256-7801 or email info@harlinmuseum.com.

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