Karen Garloch

Gene Cochrane retiring after 36 years with the Duke Endowment

A statue of James B. Duke stands in the courtyard behind the new Duke Endowment building on East Morehead Street.
A statue of James B. Duke stands in the courtyard behind the new Duke Endowment building on East Morehead Street. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

When Gene Cochrane was growing up on a farm in northeast Mecklenburg County, he worked the fields and drove the tractor alongside his father. Inside the house, his mother taught him to set the table, knot a necktie and write thank you notes with a sleek black fountain pen.

“You won’t always be on the farm,” he remembers her telling him. “You’re going to have to learn some manners.”

Cochrane used the fountain pen from his mother all through college and has replaced it many times. At 67, he still keeps one in the pocket of his suit jacket – and others on his desks at home and at work. These days, he’s writing notes almost every day to thank the many people who have touched his life.

He retires at the end of June after 36 years with the Duke Endowment, a private Charlotte-based foundation established in 1924 by N.C. industrialist James B. Duke. The endowment, which is worth more than $3.3 billion, has given away more than $3.4 billion in grants for child care, health care, higher education and rural churches in North Carolina and South Carolina. The new president will be Rhett Mabry, who has been with the endowment since 1992.

Cochrane has been president since 2005, but he has been with the endowment since 1980, during which time he directed both the health care and higher education programs. After getting a master’s degree in business administration from Appalachian State University in 1972, he worked for a short time at Charlotte Memorial Hospital (now Carolinas Medical Center). That makes him one of few endowment employees who has applied for grants as well as helped decide who gets them.

In his early years with the endowment, Cochrane traveled the Carolinas visiting grant recipients to see how the money was being used. In eastern North Carolina, he remembers a community where endowment money helped operate a health clinic inside a double-wide mobile home on one acre of a soybean field that was donated by a local farmer. Clinic patients were mostly migrant laborers.

“I’ll always remember the faces of those people,” Cochrane said, “… and the generosity of that farmer.”

Under Cochrane’s leadership, the endowment’s focus shifted over the years from funding buildings and capital projects to supporting long-term programs. They include the Nurse Family Partnership, which matches visiting nurses with first-time pregnant women and girls. Another paired wellness coaches with rural United Methodist ministers who need help getting healthy.

A milestone came in 2014, when Cochrane oversaw construction of the endowment’s first stand-alone headquarters. The $40 million, three-story structure of limestone and marble – and its outdoor fountain in front – stands at the corner of Morehead Street and Myrtle Avenue in Dilworth.

Previous offices had been rented in high-rises on Tryon Street. The new building gives the endowment “a physical presence,” Cochrane said, and provides meeting space for other charitable groups. Coincidentally, the location was once home to a Shoney’s restaurant that was a “major hanging out place” for Cochrane and his friends from Garinger High School in the 1960s.

In his corner office on the second floor, a framed photo of that drive-in with the “Big Boy” sign reminds Cochrane of his younger days.

In retirement, he’ll have more time to putter around on the family farm, off Rocky River Road near the Cabarrus County line. But he plans to pursue other interests as well.

This summer and fall, Cochrane and his wife, Jean, will travel to Vancouver, Wash., where he’ll spend four months as a visiting scholar at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. When that’s finished, he plans to work with Charlotte programs that focus on alleviating hunger. Whatever happens, his fountain pens will stay busy.