JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Before Thad Cochran of Mississippi became one of the longest-serving U.S. senators in history, he earned varsity letters in four high school sports, delivered milkshakes as a restaurant carhop, became an Eagle Scout, was a college cheerleader and fraternity president and served in the U.S. Navy.
“This all-American boy became an all-American leader,” Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant told more than 300 mourners during a funeral Monday at Mississippi Capitol.
Cochran was 81 when he died last Thursday at a veterans’ nursing home in Oxford, Mississippi. The Republican was the 10th longest-serving U.S. senator in history.
Cochran was elected to the U.S. House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1978, holding power for several years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and bringing billions of dollars to Mississippi for agriculture, university research, military contracts and disaster relief. He retired in April 2018.
He was dubbed the “Quiet Persuader” because of his gentlemanly demeanor.
“He was an icon of a better era and a role model for anyone and everyone who serves,” Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said.
Cochran’s flag-draped casket was displayed Sunday at the University of Mississippi law school in Oxford. On some roads and bridges leading to the state Capitol on Monday, firetrucks hoisted large American flags in his honor.
The marble-lined Capitol rotunda was filled with spectators, some standing to watch from galleries overlooking Cochran’s casket in front of his portrait.
“Thad Cochran was arguably the most celebrated public servant in the history of our state,” said Republican Philip Gunn, speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Dozens of people who worked for Cochran attended the service, including Ron Jackson of Washington, who is now senior director of government affairs for Catholic Charities USA. When Jackson went to work for Cochran’s Washington office in 1974, he became one of first African American congressional staff members from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Jackson worked for Cochran for three years and said Cochran treated him and other staff members the same way he treated constituents and congressional colleagues — with dignity and respect.
After the funeral, Jackson recalled how, as a young staffer, he was walking between a House office building and the U.S. Capitol one day when U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, a Democrat from Texas, stopped and asked him who he was. Jackson told her he worked for Congressman Cochran. He said Jordan responded: “‘We like Mr. Cochran. We are friends.'”
Lynnette Johnson Williams said she worked on Cochran’s 1984 Senate campaign before being hired to work on his Senate staff. She remained more than nine years, with part of that time as his press secretary. She was among the first African Americans to work as a press secretary for any U.S. senator.
“He was a teaching boss, a caring boss. … It was the best job I ever had,” Johnson Williams said after the funeral, which she attended with her daughter, Naomi Shelton. Shelton grew up knowing Cochran and worked as a summer intern for him in 1997.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont are scheduled to speak Tuesday at another funeral for Cochran in a Jackson church.