Professor George Colvin Cochran, 45-year law professor at the University of Mississippi, died June 19, 2017, at the age of 80. The cause of death was complications from melanoma.
An educator and civil rights scholar, Cochran leaves a singular, enduring legacy with the law school and a half century’s worth of its graduates.
According to Interim Dean Debbie Bell, “It is hard to imagine the law school without George Cochran. His students remember him for his intense, challenging classes and his amazing memory of materials and cases. Over the years, he was quietly generous to students in need, a fact a number of our graduates have mentioned to me in the last two years.”
Cochran was born December 1, 1936 in Maysville, Kentucky. He graduated from Cranbrook School in Michigan and from North Carolina State, where he studied textile engineering, played football, and was active in student politics. In his early 20’s, he worked briefly for his family’s Kentucky textile mill before serving two years as a 2nd lieutenant in the US Army Airborne infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Cochran graduated first in his class from the University of North Carolina Law School and served as Editor in Chief of the law review. He was inducted into the Order of the Coif, the premier legal honor society. He clerked for US Supreme Court justices Stanley Reed and Earl Warren, including service on the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.
Professor Cochran practiced law with Steptoe and Johnson between 1966 and1968. That year, he and his wife Nancy Newbold Cochran welcomed his only child, daughter Reed. Though he and Nancy ultimately divorced, Cochran considered her to be his greatest love and their daughter to be his crowning accomplishment.
Cochran worked as Director of the Duke Center on Law and Poverty from 1968 until 1972, when he accepted a faculty position at the University of Mississippi of Law School. There, he found his true calling as educator and scholar.
Professor Cochran arrived in Oxford while Mississippi was still resisting the outcomes of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the legislature having expelled faculty members who supported the Supreme Court decision. As one writer has observed, “Professor Cochran joined the law faculty at a turning point. From early in his career he played an important role in transforming the law school from a parochial institution into a nationally respected” law school. He taught constitutional law, federal jurisdiction, Supreme Court practice and related seminars. For nineteen years, he also taught during the summers at Fordham Law School in New York. Also in New York, he collaborated with the Center for Constitutional Rights, considering one of its founders, Morton Stavis, to be among his greatest friends and mentors.
Altogether, Cochran was attorney of record in seventeen constitutional law cases. He and his good friend Wilbur Colom successfully challenged single sex education at Mississippi public universities in the U.S. Supreme Court. Cochran was also one of the nation’s leading experts opposing punitive actions against public interest attorneys. And he was instrumental in establishing the Mississippi Innocence Project, which was renamed the George C. Cochran Innocence Project by unanimous vote of the faculty in 2015.
To his students, Professor Cochran was best known for his spirited and provocative lectures on constitutional law, civil liberties, and especially free speech. Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, one of his students, wrote: “He offended liberals and conservatives alike. He taught us that the price for living in a free society is that we will be offended. Get over it. This is what democracy does. We can’t be frightened by speech.”
While the professor was notorious for his gruff demeanor and salty language, Cochran’s students never doubted his devotion. He continued teaching after retirement, through this spring. Indeed, he was in the classroom only a few weeks prior to his passing.
Cochran’s favorite hobby was sailing. He and Nancy owned “Young Tiger” in the early years of their marriage on the Chesapeake Bay. Later, he and Wilbur Colom would sail “Misty” to Cuba, by legal invitation, with their daughters Reed and Niani among the crew.
Professor Cochran is survived by his daughter Reed Cochran, his sister Frances Cochran Sanders, niece Ann Sanders Anderson-Behrend and nephews William Henley Sanders, John Poyntz Cochran and William Duffield Cochran IV.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Avenue, Oxford, MS, designated for the George C. Cochran Scholarship in Law Endowment or to the George Cochran Innocence Project.
Visitation is scheduled from 5 pm to 7 pm on Thursday, June 22 in West Hall at Waller Funeral Home, and services will be at 11 am on Friday, June 23, also at Waller Funeral Home. A memorial service and celebration will be held at the University of Mississippi at a date to be determined.
In honor of Mr. Cochran’s service to our country, the flag of the United States Army will be flown at Waller Funeral Home.
For more information, visit Waller Funeral Home’s webpage.
By: Professor Mike Hoffheimer