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‘Stay With It:’ Fitness big part of Kearney centenarian’s life

Mary Jane Skala, Kearney Hub Feb. 5th, 2021

KEARNEY — As he does three times a week, John Cochran worked out Wednesday afternoon at the Kearney Family YMCA. As he merrily chatted with a few friends, he did sit-ups, bends, leg exercises and more.

Not bad for a man who will turn 101 on Sunday.

“Thirty years ago I was doing 90 sit-ups. Now I do 16. Once I passed the age of 100, I could tell a difference,” he said as he toned up his shoulder muscles on a machine. “I like these kinds of exercises.”

Instead of modern workout clothes, the retired UNK professor wore a red plaid long-sleeved shirt, brown trousers and black socks and black shoes.

“Here I am, I’ll be 101 in a couple of days, and my digestion is still relatively good. I sleep well at night. In the past couple of years, I’ll wake up at 1 or 2 in the morning. I always have good reading material on hand, so I read for an hour and a half or so and then go back to sleep and sleep the rest of the night,” he said.

“I used to get out to Cottonmill Park at least once or twice a week and hike 6 or 7 miles all around the trails. That’s a beautiful park. I really enjoyed that, but in the past year or so, I haven’t been doing as much hiking. A year or two ago they said I had a lateral vision problem and they took away my driver’s license, and with all this isolation, I can’t do anything anymore,” he said.

With that, Cochran moved to another machine and began doing sit-ups. Now that he can’t drive, his daughter, Tamara Long of Kearney, takes him to the Y three afternoons a week.

Ray Longoria, executive director at the Y, first met Cochran when he joined the Y staff 11 years ago. “He’s always in a great mood ready to tell a story. I’m always inspired when I see him here. We’re glad to have him as part of our Y family,” he said.

Cochran was born with the itch for fitness.

As a college student in Portales, New Mexico, he jogged 9 miles three days a week long before jogging became trendy. He has taken long-distance bike rides. He used to jog at Cottonmill Park and run on mountain trails in Colorado.

Cochran has climbed Mount Washington, a 6,288 peak in northern New Hampshire. At age 76, he climbed Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at 13,161 feet. The day after that 12-hour, round-trip climb, “I could tell I’d had a good workout,” he said.

Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on Feb. 7, 1920, Cochran’s life has been energetic, too. He briefly worked in shipyards at Connecticut (“I was no good. I learned I had 10 thumbs on each hand”) and spent time in the military before heading to Eastern New Mexico University. There, he scrapped plans to become a clinical psychologist and majored in speech and hearing disorders instead.

He worked in Salt Lake City, then at a college in San Marcos, Texas, “but I detested the heat and humidity,” so he headed north to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he opened a university’s speech and language department.

Returning to the lower 48, he spent a year in the Bronx and then “escaped” to Kearney in 1973 to teach communication disorders at what was then-Kearney State Teachers College, now the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

He retired in 1988. “Coming here was an excellent move. This is a nice town. I’ve met some very nice people,” he said.

His wife Averil died seven years ago. Along with his daughter, Cochran has a son John who lives in Albuquerque.

Just three years ago, Cochran was exercising at the Y five days week.

“For a time years ago I took up jogging, but 20 years or so ago, I read that jogging after age 70 is not a good idea, so I quit,” he said. He quit even though his doctor told him that, at age 70, he had the circulation of a 17-year-old.

Cochran keeps moving. He stayed away from the Y only when it closed last spring for COVID-19 and returned as soon as it reopened.

“Everybody I see up here, whether they’re teenagers or people in their 50s or whatever, I say, ‘Stay with it. Stay with it. You’ll be glad you did.’ You’re maintaining a higher level of resistance to viruses and breakdown of various kinds,” he said.

Moving to another machine, Cochran grinned and quipped, “I’m not quite where I was 50 years ago.”

Who is?