J Harwood and Louise Cochrane

The Cochrane Rockville Library has always been more than just a place to check out books. It has been a community gathering spot where you could visit with neighbors, attend a garden club meeting or, on election days, vote. It’s the local precinct.

And it’s also the sort of place where, if you time your visit just right, you might be able pick up a few homegrown tomatoes or cucumbers.

“People would bring in vegetables from their gardens that started to overflow this time of year,” said Donna-Jo Webster, former branch manager of the library, before adding with a laugh, “We always ate well around August and September.”

The library was quiet — as libraries often are — when I showed up Wednesday morning, but the hush might have hung a little heavier than usual. The library lost a good friend Monday night when trucking magnate J. Harwood Cochrane died at age 103, a little more than seven months after his wife, Louise, died at 99.

As longtime residents of Rockville, tucked in the lovely countryside of western Hanover County, the Cochranes were longtime supporters of the library, and they had a lot of friends in the community.

“They were such giving people,” said Beth Jeffords, an associate at the library. “They’ve been wonderful to the community. We are all very grateful.”

The Cochranes were well-known philanthropists, having given large sums to organizations such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Richmond Symphony and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, but their charity began at home.

The Cochranes, who lived for 50 years at Walnut Hill on the South Anna River, not far from the library, donated land and helped finance construction of the nearby International Mission Board’s International Learning Center.

When word came that postal officials were planning to bring in a prefabricated post office to replace the community’s aging one, the Cochranes stepped in, essentially said, “That won’t do,” and had an architect draw up plans for a brick post office that resembles the historic Hanover Courthouse. The Cochranes wound up building the post office and leasing it to the postal service.

The Cochranes also developed a subdivision in the area, built a gymnasium and did things like invite Scout troops to their property for field trips. But as a lasting contribution to the community, it’s hard to top the Cochrane Rockville Library.

For many years, Rockville didn’t have a public library with roof and walls, and instead was served by a bookmobile sent by Pamunkey Regional Library. In the late 1970s, the Rockville Woman’s Club spearheaded an effort to convert a yellow 19th-century farmhouse into a library. The farmhouse worked well as a makeshift library for a few years, but then became too small as the library operations grew.

Liking the idea of creating a place for the community to come together and learn, the Cochranes stepped in and donated land and construction costs to construct a colonial-style building that opened as the new library in 1985.

The library was a great success and a source of great pride in the community as it came to serve as a hub of activity. By the early 2000s, though, the library was “bursting at the seams,” said Webster, who besides being a former branch manager is a lifetime member of Friends of the Rockville Library.

A library expansion was to be on the ballot as part of a countywide bond referendum — until it wasn’t. Webster said the library was told it could be a decade before the expansion plan might be part of a bond referendum. That’s not being put on the back burner, that’s being put on a stove three streets over.

“Word got back to Mr. Cochrane,” Webster recalled. “He thought about it for all of about a minute or two and said, ‘I’ll tell you what: I’ll donate whatever it takes.’”

He paid to renovate the building. The newly expanded library opened in 2005.

“One thing that always struck me about Mr. Cochrane was his humility,” Webster said. “We wanted to call it the J. Harwood Cochrane Library or the Harwood and Louise Cochrane Library. He politely refused several times over, saying he really hadn’t done anything other than write a check. Eventually, though … he agreed to the name change, ‘But only if the building is renamed after my family.’”

Burned in Amy Mendelson Cheeley’s memory is a scene from an event at Walnut Hill in the summer of 2004. The Cochranes invited Friends of the Rockville Library to hold a “barn sale” on their property to raise money toward the library expansion by selling old furniture and other items donated by the Cochranes and the community at large.

It was a hot, steamy day, recalled Cheeley, a former president of the Friends group.

“Late in the day, after the balance of the items had been sold, the Cochranes … walked hand-in-hand down the road from the barn to their home, and it was quite a distance,” she said. “I remember just watching them walk away, and it struck me as amazing that these two individuals, who had donated millions of dollars to charitable organizations, museums and the arts, had volunteered not only their property and money, but their energy and love to be with us at the sale. They were always gracious and humble.”

By Bill Lohmann
Richmond Times Dispatch
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