Family shows activism can make a difference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They often sit apart at sparsely attended County Council meetings, two women with separate interests -- sisters spending their suburban evenings studying the ins and outs of Howard County government.

Mary Catherine, 41, looks amiable but has become a tiger in defense of Howard's threatened historic sites, and her Preservation Howard County group is helping to fight state plans to build a 340-foot-high emergency communications tower just outside the Ellicott City historic district.

Courtney's reserved manner makes her seem quiet, but the 38-year-old's quick mind and organizational skills helped propel the push for a new northeast elementary school, stronger development-control laws and a 12th high school in fast-growing Howard.

Their status as prominent activists is relatively recent, and each came to the role differently, but the fact that they did is no accident. Their parents, Edward L. and Joan Cochran, were leaders in the early years of Howard's conversion from a mainly rural farm culture to a suburban mecca, and the daughters' volunteer efforts carry on this small county's tradition of interested, informed community involvement.

"I think they're independent thinkers like their parents. They're two very encouraging bright lights," said Democratic state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who has known the extended Cochran family for years.

"We hope some of it is hereditary," the women's father said with a laugh. He was a career chemist who served a combined 14 years on the county school board, County Council and as county executive before losing a re-election bid in 1978. Their mother, Joan, a real estate agent, was also involved, and taught all six Cochran children to act for change instead of just complaining.

That impulse goes back still another generation at least, Joan said, to her father and uncle -- both active in South Boston's Irish-American Democratic politics. "We grew up listening to national conventions," Joan said. She was taught to "speak out and speak up." Ed, raised in Harford County, said he remembers pre-World War II Democratic political meetings in the basement of his grandparents' Waverly home in Baltimore.

His political bent came late, after a stint (1964-1968) on the Howard County school board -- then an appointed body.

A Democrat, Cochran pushed hard to speed school desegregation in Howard County, he said, but when he was nominated by local citizens for reappointment to a second term, then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew listened to local Republicans instead and replaced him with a GOP loyalist.

"That just outraged me," he said. That, together with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, led him to get involved "to try to change the system." He ran for a seat on the first Howard County Council, and won.

Years later, in 1997, Courtney got involved because the oldest of her three children was forced to attend a crowded Ilchester Elementary School. She organized other parents and fought.

"I think what keeps me going is that I really learned that a normal, average citizen can have an influence on public policy. I can't believe we won," Courtney said about the new schools, adding that helping others learn the same lesson is "the most gratifying thing to me. Other people watch TV at night. I read e-mails," she said.

Mary Catherine "has pretty much always been active," she said about herself, from student government days in high school to the recent Howard Vision process. That's when the Centennial-area resident became interested in preserving the county's historic sites, and later founded Preservation Howard County to further those goals.

"You need to work to build your county. You look around at this county and see what a great county it is," Mary Catherine said. What some people disdain as the "not in my back yard" syndrome of suburban opposition to change is "a great thing," Mary Catherine said. "Those are folks taking advantage of due process," she said. Without that effort, the result is clear, she feels.

"Clarksville is gone," she said, noting how commercial development destroyed the once rural crossroads before most residents knew what had happened.

Despite their public participation, the two sisters are very different, they said.

"We have different opinions about things. We are very different people," Mary Catherine said.

Courtney agreed. "It's like business. It has no impact at all on our [personal] relationship," she said about their public involvement.

Their parents are pleased, if a bit surprised, to see the daughters' names in local newspaper articles.

"They are very constructive participants in public dialogue. We are proud of that," Ed Cochran said. Courtney's thorough compiling of facts and persistent, but not flamboyant, manner is reminiscent of her father, some say.

"He's reserved, but not shy," Joan said about her husband, who, despite being sole support of his wife and six children, resigned from his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab to run for the $27,000-a-year county executive's job in 1974.

Mainly, the children learned by their parents' example.

Ed Cochran, for example, helped persuade school officials to provide the county's third high school -- Atholton -- which both his daughters later attended.

"When we grew up, my parents were both very involved in politics," said Mary Catherine. At night around the dinner table in their 19th-century farmhouse on 10 acres south of Route 32, their parents discussed bills in the County Council and conditions they thought needed improvement -- from desegregating Howard's schools to fixing the Alpha Road landfill.

The lesson, if unintended, came through clearly, she said.

"It's your duty to try to effect change. You can fight city hall," was what Mary Catherine remembers learning.

It was taught in different ways, Courtney said, like the time in fifth grade she remembers vividly.

"A few kids were misbehaving in the cafeteria, and the principal said we would have assigned seats and we wouldn't be able to sit with our friends anymore. I thought that was so unfair," Courtney said.

She went home complaining, but her mother asked her what she was going to do about it. The result was a petition among the students that changed the principal's mind.

"I think Courtney's the most effective lobbyist that I've interacted with. She has a good understanding of the issues, knows how to approach elected officials and is very reasonable. She doesn't come in to demand. She presents the evidence and then all sides of the issue," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"Obviously, they're very effective. Their message does get through," said County Executive James N. Robey, who after months of public hesitation committed the county to build a 12th high school.

The county is also eager to get approval to build the disputed communications tower, but the dispute has not become tense despite the spirited opposition of Mary Catherine's group.

"I see Mary Catherine at a lot of events. We agree on most things, just this tower we have to work out," Robey said.

"My experience with her is that she's strong and persistent, and yet if she sees that the idea is not a wise one she knows how to back off," Bobo said of Mary Catherine.

Both women shrug off suggestions that they may one day become interested in running for political office as their father did. That's not on the horizon, they said.

Others aren't so sure.

"I wouldn't be surprised if one day they become involved in politics," Robey said.

"I don't think you have to be an elected official to have an impact," Courtney said. She has vivid memories from childhood of being compelled to attend Fourth of July parades in Ellicott City with her father, the county executive.

"I remember not wanting to go," she said.

Still, last month she took her 9-year-old daughter to a Robey political fund-raiser -- a picnic on a rainy Saturday -- only to hear the child ask repeatedly to go home. "I think it's good for them," she said.

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