Remembering Hartford Reporter Bill Cockerham

Andrew KreigMy Hartford Courant pal Bill Cockerham passed away last week from a heart attack after a remarkable career in newspaper reporting.William Cockerham At his best, he was innovative, entertaining and fearless in ways that are rare in today’s corporate-controlled newsrooms.

Some four decades ago, the paper announced his arrival with quaint formality, as indicated at right. The editors listed his precise home address prominently, for example, even though his style of reporting and nightlife made him keep his addresses out of phone books and otherwise confidential for the rest of his career.

Tall, tanned and with a piercing gaze, Bill was my first “benchie” as we shared a two-desk island in the back row of the Courant’s City Desk. He needled me right from the start, June 15, 1970, my first day at Connecticut’s largest paper. Fresh from college, I was assigned to write obituaries. Arlene Olesky, the city editor's assissant and de facto office manager, issued me a pair of long, expensive scissors to clip the obits for reference. To celebrate the end of my first day as cub reporter, I stopped at the nearby Press Box bar. I overheard Bill telling his friends there that he’d confiscated a rookie's scissors to rectify an injustice: He, a star reporter, could not obtain scissors even though he'd been risking his life for stories, including coverage of the city's then-recent riots. I kept quiet but found a machine-tool shop the next morning. At my instruction, it engraved Bill’s name on one of the blades and chopped off the other. Bill thought the gag a hoot, and we became great friends. Arlene, the controller of office supplies, was not amused and it took me years before I was entrusted with another pair of scissors.

Our last conversations were in the same spirit. In 1987, I published the book  Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper, a case study of changes I'd seen in journalism. To help set the scene, I described Bill’s first big story:

 An Army veteran, he’d skipped the traditional cub reporter stints on obits and local news by telling his editors the day he was hired in 1968 that the Ku Klux Klan was secretly resurgent in Connecticut and he could infiltrate it. Cockerham developed contacts in the Klan, submitted to blindfolding and passed muster at open-air, clandestine meetings lit up in the woods by a flaming cross. Although he told the Klansmen from the start that he was a newspaper employee, he pretended to be sympathetic to the group. He played the role so effectively that when he finally told his Klan sponsor that he was going to expose the organization, the bewildered bigot could only blurt out, “Does this mean you’re not coming to the meeting Friday night?”

Cockerham’s newspaper stories caused the Connecticut Klan to disband and its leaders to leave the state. He went on to develop a host of tipsters in the underworld and among law enforcers.

True to form, Bill didn’t like this write-up. “You left out the best part!” he griped about the omitted part. What was that? Read on.

Bill was my pal and so I'd tried unsuccessfully to mollify him by invoking advice. I had managed to obtain representation from a prominent New York literary agent, Peter Shepherd of Harold Ober Associates, who had advised that I edit out nearly everything that was not modern-day and that did not advance the book’s theme.

In that spirit, I discarded along with his profane punch line most of the paper's genuinely glorious history, including bold political fights (that evolved into fights for press freedom) during the Revolutionary War and the Jeffersonian era. Also, I cut out almost all my research about the time a century later when renowned magazine writer Charles Dudley Warner edited the paper. Warner was part of the world-famous Nook Farm literary colony in Hartford shaping the nation's culture along with his close friends Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

But to celebrate Bill’s life, I’ll paint here on a broader canvas. He is portrayed below on Cape Cod by his nephew, Donald Cockerham. At work,  the Courant’s top editor, Mark Murphy, named him to be roving national reporter. Other papers across the country William Cockerhamreprinted his stories far more often than those of the rest of us.

Bill liked to recount tales of intrigue at Connecticut’s highest levels. And here’s the inside story about one of the most important investigative news stories in the state's history. It holds that distinction because it was bottom-up enterprise reporting that resulted in one the first serious impeachment action in the state's history: A powerful probate judge and several other eminent attorneys schemed to loot the property of Ethel Donaghue, a rich, senile spinster who had no close heirs. That plot was especially dramatic. Yet its true importance was that the perpetrators were extremely powerful in Connecticut law and politics (primarily in the dominant Democratic Party), and most of them had been victimizing other helpless wards of the probate system for years with no fear of exposure.

A tall, burly servant who feared for his life asked for Bill’s advice, but begged that Bill not write a story. To keep his word, Bill abstained from writing. Yet he persuaded the source to talk with fellow reporters Dennie Williams and Mark Stillman. Their impressive work -- which was careful in documentation and daring in scope -- was supported by the paper's management. As a result, the paper exposed the scandal and ended the careers of the main villains. Many of us have similar memories of Bill’s generosity to colleagues and civic concern, usually hidden behind his acerbic manner. Those recollections by his friends are illustrated by inspiring public comments being collected in his death notice and here.

Two more tales: One concerns Bill’s interviews of George Seldes. Seldes, nearly 100 years old, had been a globe-trotting reporter of legendary accomplishment interviewing the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Freud, William Jennings Bryan, Lenin, the young Mussolini, Einstein and many more. In 1940, Seldes followed up his book, The Lords of the Press, by founding a newsletter. In Fact was our nation’s first journalism review because it published stories suppressed elsewhere. The newsletter pioneered coverage of cigarette smoking hazards, for example. But that heresy prompted publisher pushback because of the clout of tobacco companies via the money they were spending to hawk their products via newspaper and magazine ads. To avoid unseemly focus on tobacco,
publishers and trusted editors at major news organizations for decades banned from their pages any mention of Seldes, his articles and books. His by-then left-wing politics provided a convenient rationale to give him the silent treatment.   

George SeldesBill was a smoker who nonetheless saw the public interest. He broke the story that Seldes had outlived his press lord enemies, and was about to publish a memoir, Witness to a Century, which became a national best-seller in 1987. Bill then undertook a follow-up interview, and invited me to drive with him from Hartford to visit Seldes at his modest Vermont home. Seldes, who had begun his newspaper career in 1909 in Pittsburgh, kindly appraised my Spiked manuscript. He told me he had never seen so many reporters as those at the Courant making what he considered job-threatening, hard-hitting comments on-the-record about their own newspaper, all to help their community. Bill was one the most daring and generous in sharing his memorable insights. It's hard to judge whose insights were the best among so many, but reviewers widely quoted his. He made it possible by letting me interview him on-the-record during two long road trips while he was researching his own stories for the Courant. 

Our other car trip was to Connecticut’s shoreline to visit one of the last survivors of the Titanic.
I don't have the clip with me, but I think it was the late Frank Ask, then living in Groton and an infant at the time of the 1912 shipwreck. Bill soon gleaned material sufficient for his story, and was impatient to leave. I lingered to hear more of the survivor's reflections. The old man was eking out extra income as an artist, for example. But the artist refused, as a matter of principle, to churn out scenes of the Titanic's sinking, which sold for high prices because of his experience -- which he could not remember. Instead, he preferred to paint shoreline seascapes that sold for far less. Bill’s profile of him, widely republished around the country, impressed me as being concise while leaving out nothing important.

Recalling his brevity persuades me to wind this up now, even though there's much more worth remembering about Bill's work and life. A huge part of that, of course, is the loyalty and companionship through the decades of his wife, Susan, who wrote me as I composed this of her good fortune to share such a journey.

But as one last part of my own portrait of the man, I want to share for the first time what else Bill told the Klansman in 1968 during their final conversation. If you recall the scene from above, this was just before Bill blew open the scandal to start his career:

“No, I’m not coming to the meeting Friday night,” Bill told the Klanner. “And I’m not paying for your robe either!” 

That’s Bill. RIP, old friend.


Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment. Below is other comment on the topic. / To Wit, Bill and Bob, Colin McEnroe, Aug. 2, 2011. Ah, damn. Bill Cockerham died. I wouldn't exactly call him a mentor. You'd have to be a nut case to let Cockerham mentor you. But he showed me a bunch of things early in my career. He was, as was said of Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know. He was a type of reporter who doesn't really exist anymore, and, on his best days, he was as good as anybody you ever saw. On his worst don't even wanna know. Also gone this year, Bob Murphy, who really was a mentor to me. He was bureau chief when I worked at the Capitol. I started calling him Coach, and the politicians picked it up. He was the quiet kind of coach -- a word to the wise in your ear and never a long, loud tirade.

Connecticut Watchdog, Pro-Active Reporting Is a Consumer Issue (link no longer operative), Andrew Kreig, Aug. 8, 2011. The recent passing of longtime Hartford Courant reporter William Cockerham, one of the paper’s most fearless and memorable reporters for nearly a quarter of a century, raises the question of what readers want in a reporter and in a news organization. I suspect that consumers and good government advocates, on the whole, want at least a few of his kind of pro-active and occasionally judgmental voices as reporters, both on the streets and in corridors of power.