WHEELING, W.Va. — When Jim Cochran entered the world of journalism, he had no idea it would lead to a career spanning six decades. For Cochran, it’s been more than a job or career, it has been his life.
Last week, Cochran, 81, marked his final day on the job at the Journal office of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, a place he called home. His ability to cover any and all of the news and sports in his beloved Marshall County generated hundreds of friendships and trusted acquaintances during his career.
Joining him in the retirement realm last week is Times Leader Area Editor Betty Pokas who came to the Martins Ferry-based newspaper in 1958 with the title County Editor.
As a senior at Moundsville High School, he worked part time at The Echo newspaper and was responsible for publishing the school newspaper. The die had been cast for a future career.
He started out as a copy boy in the newsroom of the News-Register in the early 1950s, after being hired by then-Editor Harry Hamm. Cochran recalls, “He interviewed me over the phone. I guess he liked what I said because he hired me.”
It wasn’t long before that copy boy job – running errands and carrying typed copy from desk to desk – transitioned into writing and reporting on hard news, local color and sports, especially wrestling. Cochran spent 35 years covering state wrestling tournaments, calling in stories over phones he found in janitor’s rooms and coaches’ quarters on the road. That was long before laptop computers made it easier to communicate with the newsroom. He served as president of the West Virginia Sportswriters Association, although he never considered himself strictly a sportswriter.
His reporting job eventually placed him in the Journal office in Moundsville, where he carved out a niche in the community and earned the respect and trust of those he covered on a daily basis. Judges, police chiefs, mayors and the like call him a friend and an important cog in the wheel that keeps Marshall County in the spotlight. Among Cochran’s favorite assignments were his coverage of the former West Virginia Penitentiary when it was in operation and the annual Marshall County Fair.
In 2009, the Marshall County Fairbook was dedicated in Cochran’s honor for all he did to promote the popular event. As for the state prison, Cochran said it was more than a penal institution in the community.
“The prison used to have baseball games, and the public was allowed to go in a watch the games. They had a band that played for an hour before the game and then we watched the ball games. This was before everyone had TV. It was our entertainment, and there was never any trouble,” Cochran said.
Cochran claims to know every crevice of the penitentiary and recalls the good and bad events of his coverage days. He said when prisoners tunneled out of the prison by digging under the greenhouse on the property, he and newspaper photographer Scott McCloskey were first to get in and take pictures of the greenhouse. Then the warden had the greenhouse torn down.
“We beat everyone on that. TV stations showed up, but the greenhouse was gone by then. It was very competitive back then, and we wanted to be first and we were,” Cochran said.
When he wasn’t writing the news, Cochran was helping to record it. He served as scorekeeper for Pepsi’s semi-pro baseball team. Cochran also served 32 years in the National Guard, where he got the chance to meet soldiers from across the state. He has been involved with the Salvation Army and the Lions Club for 50 years and has been secretary longer than any other member. He also works with the local planning commission and historical endeavors and still finds time to write a column, “The Marshall Memo,” which appears in the Sunday News-Register. He will continue to write his column and welcomes the public’s input of items.
Cochran said his job has provided many enjoyable opportunities. He remembers when Hollywood came to town and filmed the movie “Fools Parade.” He even appeared in the film, as did many local residents. Former News-Register society page writer Kitty Doepken had a speaking role.
“I could look out of the window of the office and see them filming. Then one day, there was no one around and I wondered what was up. I found out they were up in McMechen and were blowing up the boat in the movie. I got up there to see that,” he said.
Cochran and his wife, Linda, have made annual treks to visit Major League Baseball facilities across the country, and he looks forward to another such trip to Florida in September. Cochran’s recounting of those trips is popular with his readers. He will continue those trips and visits with his daughter, Melinda, and granddaughter, Lily.
He said many people claim to have been at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, 1960, when Wheeling native Bill Mazeroski hit a game-winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, propelling the Pittsburgh Pirates to the world championship over the New York Yankee. Cochran said, “I really was there.”
As has been the case spanning more than 60 years of reporting, you can be assured Cochran will continue to be where the winners are making news.
Betty Gatchel had not been working at the newspaper for long before she became acquainted with someone who would shape the rest of her life. She went on a bowling date in March 1959 with a co-worker, then-sports writer and news reporter Calvin “Cal” Pokas of Bellaire. That date led to marriage, three children and four grandchildren, as well as a lifetime of working closely together.
Asked what it was like to work day in and day out with her husband, who was named sports editor in 1966 and remained in that role until his retirement in 1995, Betty Pokas offered this simple, good-natured response: “Pretty peaceful.”
It is obvious, though, that their relationship was much more than peaceful. They shared enough adventures to literally fill the pages of a book. Since Cal died in January 2009, Betty has created scrapbooks featuring dozens of articles and scores of photographs that show the awards and honors bestowed on the two of them though the years and detailing some of their many trips together, mostly to a wide variety of sporting events.
From the Kentucky Derby to Ohio State football games and races to benefit charity at The Meadows in Pennsylvania, the couple seemed to see and do it all. Both have been inducted as members of the Martins Ferry Hall of Honor, and their various other inductions and awards are too numerous to list. Horses and cross country races have been named in memory of Cal Pokas, while Betty Pokas is listed in the Barnesville Area Education Foundation Hall of Fame and cut the ribbon to open the 2009 Barnesville Pumpkin Festival.
Looking back at her 44-year career, Pokas said covering the pumpkin show and other local festivals were among her favorite assignments. She also covered crimes, industrial accidents, municipal and county governments and wrote many feature stories about the people and places that make up the Ohio Valley. Among the works she produced were two pictorial books about the history of the local area.
Pokas said she is most proud of what was accomplished in Martins Ferry in response to a piece she wrote about Walnut Grove Cemetery, the city’s oldest landmark. Since she had a minor in history from Kent State, it is no surprise that Pokas paid attention to historic landmarks as she walked her family’s dog around the community. On one of those walks, she noticed the state of that cemetery.
“I was horrified by its condition,” she said. “It was deplorable, with weeds and beer cans everywhere.”
Pokas wrote a Memorial Day feature about the site, calling the problem to the attention of her readers. Soon, members of the Ohio Valley Civil War Roundtable were cleaning up the cemetery, resetting fallen headstones and researching and repairing the Civil War cannon that was located there. Pokas said the Martins Ferry Rotary Club also joined the cause and did a great deal of work there before that organization dissolved.
These efforts mark one occasion when Pokas knows her work made a real difference in the community.
Pokas did take a break from her employment with The Times Leader, spending 13 years at home raising the children she shared with Cal – daughter Judy (Pokas) Mayles and sons Jim and John Pokas.
She said she was “scared to death” to return to her post in 1974, but she did so with enthusiasm and an outgoing, professional demeanor – all traits that she retained throughout the remainder of her career.
In addition to being recognized for her news coverage, Pokas also has been honored as a sports writer. After decades of keeping stats, typing and taking post-game interview notes for her husband, she received a Distinguished Service Award from the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches. And in recent years, she has especially enjoyed following in Cal’s footsteps by writing a column about Ohio State football titled “Eye on the Bucks.”
During her retirement, Pokas hopes to travel, spend time with family and pursue an interest in genealogy. She also plans to take a computer class at the Martins Ferry Public Library.
(Jennifer Compston Strough contributed to this story.)