Harwood Cochrane leaned on his cane inside the glass elevator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and watched as folks on the ground floor of the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Atrium grew smaller.
As the elevator reached the fourth floor and the doors opened to museum offices, Cochrane, who turns 100 later this year, took one last look into the vast, sun-filled space below.
“We’re in the high-rent district,” he cracked.
Age has not dampened his wit.
The impact of one of Richmond’s most-beloved philanthropic couples runs deep.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the VMFA’s J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, an endowment the couple started in 1988 with a $5 million contribution and later contributed to with donations of real estate, including their 458-acre Hanover County estate.
Today that endowment is worth about $35 million. Interest on that principal has allowed the museum to purchase nearly 50 pieces of American art over the past 24 years, including 28 paintings, plus sculptures, decorative-art pieces and works on paper including watercolors, pastels and drawings.
The museum’s most recent acquisitions include Marsden Hartley’s “Franconia Notch,” Walter McEwen’s “The Judgment of Paris” and “Autumn Fruit and Flowers” by Lilian Westcott Hale.
But the museum isn’t the only recipient of the couple’s generosity. From bookworms to hurricane victims to duck lovers, they have shared their wealth with people throughout Richmond.
On a recent sweltering afternoon, the couple sat in a cool conference room at the museum and talked about charity, their life together and an impending birthday bash.
With a single delivery truck, Harwood Cochrane founded Overnite Transportation Co. in 1935 and built a trucking empire that employed 14,000 delivery drivers before he sold it in 1986 to Union Pacific Corp. for $1.2 billion. It was later purchased by UPS.
Cochrane went on to start Highway Express trucking company in 1991 and sold it in 2003.
Harwood and Louise met in Richmond through a blind date, though not with each other. As Louise tells it, she was dating Harwood’s cousin and he was dating one of her friends. But it was Harwood and Louise who ended up together.
He loved the pretty farm girl from Southside Virginia. She loved that he had a job.
“She married me for my money,” Harwood joked, and then Louise, 96, curtly reminded him that at the time he didn’t have much.
He recalled that the newlyweds caught a movie on their wedding night, and the next morning, he set out for New York to deliver bags of sugar.
“She had a few tears in her eyes and (she) said, ‘I hope we’re gonna have a honeymoon,’ ” Harwood recalled. “I said, we’re gonna have a great one,” then he paused. “I’m still working on that.”
The couple raised three children. Today they have seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. They built a home and had a farm — Walnut Hill — on 458 acres in Hanover County, where they spent 51 years.
Their relationship with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts began during the 1970s. Louise spent several years as a volunteer, docent, council member and eventually a member of its board of trustees.
Her husband was appointed to the museum’s board in 1977 after being asked by the late Gov. Mills Godwin.
Louise recalls how Harwood first balked at the idea of being on the board of an art museum. “He said what he knew about art you could put in a thimble.”
Louise, on the other hand, said the years working all over the museum heightened her appreciation of art.
“I began to look up and down the halls and liked what I saw,” she said. “Then I started to paint myself.”
One of her oil paintings hangs in the museum today.
But the couple acknowledged that they were not art collectors when they lived at Walnut Hill. Louise said she worried about the security of having pricey artwork in their country home. Harwood resorted to a more practical explanation.
“If we had to choose between art and another cow, we bought the cow,” he said.
But during the 1980s, they were looking for opportunities to provide financial gifts.
“We were looking for someplace we could make a difference,” he said.
In 1985, they gave funding for construction of a library in the Rockville community. In 2004, they provided money for an expansion of the library, which was named the Cochrane Rockville Branch Library.
After Hurricane Katrina, Harwood dropped off an envelope to the local Red Cross chapter for Katrina aid as the family was making its way out of town. In it was a check for $1 million, the largest gift by an individual in the chapter’s history.
In 2005, the couple moved from their farm to the Westminster Canterbury retirement community. They gave money to improve a pond there that had become a home for ducks and a favorite resting spot for residents and visitors. The pond was named for them.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is another beneficiary, and its rose garden is named for Louise.
But their largest gifts have been to the museum.
In addition to the endowment money, the Cochranes gave Walnut Hill to the museum when they moved to Westminster Canterbury, as well as more than 40 acres along the James River in downtown Richmond.
The proceeds from the sale of both properties went back into the endowment.
“We’ve been very happy working with the museum,” said Louise, adding while she doesn’t select artwork that’s purchased with their endowment, she reviews potential purchases and is asked for approval by museum staff.
Pieces purchased with the endowment include John Trumbull’s “Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress,” Severin Roesen’s “The Abundance of Nature” and William Wetmore Story’s marble carving “Cleopatra.”
An exhibit called “Enduring Legacy” ran from the summer of 2005 to the fall of 2008 as a tribute to the Cochranes.
“The museum would not have the American art collection it has today if it weren’t for the Cochranes,” said Sylvia Yount, chief curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art.
Yount said Richmond is richer for the couple’s generosity.
At the museum, “people can come, pay no money and enjoy this time with works that (the Cochranes) have made possible,” Yount said. “It’s something beyond all of us, something that will last.”
The couple’s contributions are reflected in the atrium that bears their name, the museum’s main thoroughfare. It connects the newest part of the museum with older areas, and was part of a $150 million expansion that was completed in 2010.
For the Cochranes, “life is wonderful now,” Harwood said.
Both stay busy. They remain members of the same church — Tabernacle Baptist in Richmond’s Fan District — where they were married in 1934.
Harwood is working on a program with WCVE-TV Channel 23 and the American Youth Harp Ensemble.
He’s also planning his 100th birthday bash.
About 1,000 people have been invited to his party in November, and though many of the details are under wraps, it’s rumored that some of Richmond’s premier arts groups will perform.
Louise poked fun at her husband’s longevity. Harwood just smiled.
“It’s gonna be a humdinger,” he said.