Do you remember…John Cockrum?

The Sapulpa Administrator was instrumental in integrating Sapulpa Schools in the 1960s.

John Andrew Cockrum, in my humble opinion, is a “once in a lifetime educator.” John Cockrum is the embodiment of what an educator should be. In the course of his tenure as Sapulpa Junior High and Sapulpa Senior High principal, he was mediator, mentor, disciplinarian, counselor, and strident supporter of his students and his school. Cockrum executed these roles with kindness, compassion, and remarkable charisma.

Mr. Cockrum started out his career with Sapulpa Public Schools in 1960 as the principal of Sapulpa Junior High School. In the middle of the 1963 school year,  the High School principal, Mr. Baumgardner, resigned, so Mr. Cockrum became the new High School principal. Following his tenure as prinicipal of SHS, he became District Business Manager, then Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Support Services, until his retirement in 1987.

In the fall of 1965, integration was taking place around the country. Tom Colbert, who is a current Oklahoma State Supreme Court Justice, along with his friends, David Marshall, Gerald Davis, George Riley, Michael Broom, Carl Newton, and other classmates started their first day attending an integrated high school. Justice Colbert remembers the fear and trepidation he and his classmates felt that day.

When they got off the bus, the first person they saw was a distinguished, well-dressed, physically fit man standing at the door. As they walked toward the door, the gentleman, with a smile on his face, told them his name was John Cockrum, the principal of Sapulpa High School. Mr. Cockrum told the students they were welcome at SHS, assuaging concerns about racial discrimination.

This simple act of kindness and compassion is merely one of a multitude of such instances that are a testament to the honor, integrity, and character of John Cockrum.

In 1967, Cockrum set a precedent in faculty policy. Female teachers were not allowed to teach during pregnancy. The teacher had to resign her position and it was not held for her. Barbara Armstrong went to Mr. Cockrum and told him of her plight. John Cockrum, the arbiter of justice, represented Mrs. Armstrong before the Board of Education. She was allowed to finish the school year and return in the fall after her daughter was born.

Mr. Cockrum was the quintessential disciplinarian when  it came to student policy. He had the duty of enforcing the rule regarding not standing in the “White Square.” He was vigilant in ensuring that no PDA (Public Display of Affection) took place under his watch. He also kept a watchful eye on the student body to see that they met the requirements of the dress code. The Honorable Richard Woolery (Rick, to those of us who were his classmates) said that to this day, whenever he encounters his friend, John Cockrum, he automatically checks his shirtail. Rick and I agree that John Cockrum administered the rules firmly, but fairly and without cruelty.

Mr. Cockrum was a good sport about some of the shenanigans the students pulled. In the ‘64-65 school year, some students persuaded another student who worked in the registrar’s office into creating a registration card for a fictitious student, named “Charles Farley.” This charade went on for years, and though I am sure Mr. Cockrum was not fooled by this, he went along with the prank.

The students and faculty produced a book, “Memories of Sapulpa High School 1960-1973,” as a tribute to John Cockrum. The following excerpts are from testimonials in that book:

“Mr. Cockrum, my story isn’t one about academics, but of compassion. I came into your office one day and told you of the situation between my boyfriend and me. He was waiting for me in the parking lot. You saw how afraid I was and helped me get to my car. You didn’t judge me or lecture me. I’ll never forget the kindness you showed me that day. You were my hero.”

Karen Edwards-Williams,Class of  ‘69

“Because he was my high school principal, I have been a better person, and a worthier man. I have tried to earn, to live up to, his good opinion of me.”

Rick Woolery (the Honorable Richard Woolery), Class of ‘69.

“I want to take this personal privilege to acknowledge the outstanding work that you have done for civil rights, educational equality, and encouraging all of us to believe in the American Dream. Well Done Mr. Cockrum!

Tom Colbert (current Oklahoma State Supreme Court Justice), Class of ‘68

“It’s so wonderful to be remembered by a man such as yourself. For flattering me, I say, “Thank You.” God Bless!

Michael Mefford, Class of ‘69

“You’ve influenced so many lives in positive ways, mine among them, and I’m most grateful.

Sincerely, Glenda Silvey, Class of ‘68

“You were fair to everyone and you still have my respect and always will.”

Bob Masters, Class of ‘72

“I have no idea how many women teachers owe a big thanks to John Cockrum since he got that rule overturned 48 years ago. Thank you, John.”

Barbara Armstrong, English teacher 1965-1979

There are many more such testimonials that can be found in the book.

John Cockrum is not only an iconic educator, but he has served his community with honor, and at the same time instilled that sense of civic duty in his students. John Cockrum is past Director of the Sapulpa Chamber of Commerce, and was honored Sapulpa Chamber Citizen of the Year and Sapulpa Citizen of the Year. He is past director, past president and life member of the Sapulpa Lions Club; and elder, trustee and deacon of First Presbyterian Church of Sapulpa. He is a founder, trustee, and first president of the Creek County Chapter of the American Heart Association. At age 93, John Cockrum is still active in the community.

Mr. Cockrum was one of 104 WWII veterans who flew on an Honor Flight to vist the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He received the Meritorious Service Award as a member of the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. He has the honor of being the first member of the Sapulpa Education Association Hall of Fame. These are but a few of the many accolades and examples of community service by John Cockrum.

Cockrum referred to his students as “his kids.” Mr. Cockrum has always taken a “fatherly” interest in “his kids,” calling them by name, when he would encounter them at reunions that he faithfully attends. Through the years, he has attended memorial services for many of his former students.

He was a positive influence and touched the lives of countless students and faculty members. I have never met a more dedicated, kind, compassionate, and caring principal. I am honored to have had him as my principal and take great pride in being an SHS alumnus from that era.

I wish to thank Rick Woolery for granting me an interview and the Sapulpa Historical Society for providing me with a copy of the book, “Memories of Sapulpa High School 1960-1973.”

This book can be purchased at the Sapulpa Historical Museum. Proceeds from the sale of this Tribute are donated to the Sapulpa Public Schools Education Foundation.

About the Author

Long-time Sapulpa resident, Charles Betzler, followed his father, Charlie, into the radio and TV repair business. At age 9, he fixed his first broken radio and his first love is vintage audio equipment. In his 50 + years of technical work, graduation from OSUIT, and years of Continuing Education, Charles, in his capacity as Emergency Management Director of nearby city, designed the Emergency Operations Center, and the radio-activation system for the sirens. In his long career, he has repaired every type of consumer electronics from black-and-white TVs to the latest lap-top.

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