Kimberly Hess on Sarah B. Cochran, the Inspiration Behind “A Lesser Mortal”

Kimberly Hess on Sarah B. Cochran, the Inspiration Behind “A Lesser Mortal”

I grew up with the power of women’s experiences in the stories I heard about female ancestors and relatives. Whether they were politically active, ahead of their time, or overcoming enormous obstacles, each one’s story helped me to understand what I could do. One in particular was Sarah B. Cochran. When my parents and I regularly visited family in southwestern Pennsylvania, I saw artifacts from her life, like the mansion and church she had built, which were being added to the National Register of Historic Places when I was a little girl. I also knew that her decision to put my great-grandmother through college in 1917 still influenced my life many years later.

In that part of the country, it seemed that everybody knew something about her work in the Connellsville coke industry or respected her public and private philanthropy. She was once described to me as the Dolly Parton of the area because of her financially humble origins, generous philanthropy, and humility. As a story, her life struck me as the love child that an Edith Wharton novel might have had with a Nancy Meyers movie: our heroine moves beyond Gilded Age sensibilities and restrictions to inhabit a modern life with purpose, agency, and people who valued her. There is even a fantastic house and a five-minute standing ovation. It was a life that Sarah probably never expected to have and one that historians probably don’t expect to find in its place and time. And, it was a life that I never expected to write about.

Sarah lived from 1857 until 1936 and far exceeded expectations for a woman from that era in southwestern Pennsylvania. But in spite of that, she would be treated as a “lesser mortal” with respect to history; that is, she was left out of the larger historical narrative that featured male contemporaries like Henry Clay Frick or Andrew Carnegie. Born to a poor farming family, she struggled just to have clothes so she could attend school. When she got a job as a maid for Jim Cochran, the pioneer of the Connellsville coke industry, she and Jim’s son fell in love and married. About twenty years into that marriage, her husband and son died prematurely, and Sarah went on to own the coal and coke businesses that had been her husband’s in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. At the time, it was illegal for women to work in or around Pennsylvania coal mines, and some miners even believed women were an unlucky presence around coal mines. While there was not a clear place for Sarah in an industry that was still male dominated, she didn’t leave it. Newspapers reported that she continued to transact business until she was in her seventies.

KIMBERLY HESS  A Lesser Mortal book coverShe also didn’t retreat to a comfortable life; instead, she engaged with the world by becoming a generous philanthropist for causes that mattered to her. She attributed this to a doctor’s advice to help schools and churches as she mourned the loss of her husband and son. Perhaps the lack of fit in mining also helped to smooth her path into philanthropy, where she would have had greater latitude and where women already had a socially acceptable role. When she died in 1936, her private philanthropy was valued at several hundred thousand dollars and her public philanthropy at $2,000,000 (1936 dollars). From her forties through her sixties, Sarah built college dormitories, endowed department chairs, and was a lifelong benefactor and “mother” of Phi Kappa Psi’s West Virginia Alpha chapter. Her philanthropy at Allegheny College even rivaled that of Andrew Carnegie during a crucial building campaign, and she was the first woman to serve as an Allegheny trustee.

Much of Sarah’s philanthropy went beyond generosity to actually shifting power, and often it seemed to be a tool for improving the lives of future generations. In an era when college degrees were becoming increasingly necessary for higher paying jobs and viewed with suffrage as keys to women’s independence, Sarah quietly paid for local people’s college education. Ahead of Pennsylvania’s 1915 suffrage referendum, she publicly threw her weight behind women’s suffrage by opening her estate to host western Pennsylvania’s largest suffrage fundraiser. Ironically, some might have still viewed the home as a woman’s domain and a refuge from politics. However, Sarah was not afraid to bring politics into the home or to publicly own what differentiated her from business competitors: gender. The following year she opened her home again, this time to host the semi-annual meeting of the world’s all-male Methodist bishops. It was reportedly the first time the meeting had been held in a private home, and it was just sixteen years since women were first allowed to be lay delegates at the church’s quadrennial meetings.

As fascinating as Sarah’s life was, it was a life I expected someone else, namely a historian, to write about. My career was in the corporate world for nearly twenty years, but during that time I was also involved with organizations that forced me to consider issues like investments in women’s education, women’s representation in business school, how women have been left out of the historical narrative, and what people might gain from learning stories about female historic figures. When my husband noticed that he couldn’t find information about Sarah online, I created her Wikipedia entry and moved on to a museum blog post, a National Women’s History Museum biography, and a StoryCorps recording.

I spent two more years researching and writing about Sarah’s life and its context, then supplemented those findings with genealogical research I’d been doing over the course of thirty-six years. Beyond learning more details of her life, I also discovered a woman who became highly productive in the periods we know as midlife and senior years. As a middle-aged woman myself, I thought for the first time about the opportunities and challenges age might have presented to Sarah. I also discovered how difficult it is to find her if you don’t already know she’s there. Sometimes Sarah is portrayed as a coal magnate’s widow, not as an accomplished woman in her own right. She falls through the cracks when writings about the coal and coke region focus on miners’ wives or rely on oral histories from employees of the H.C. Frick Coke Company, one of Sarah’s competitors. Even her occupational information, sometimes portrayed as a blank space or the word “None” on the U.S. Census, wouldn’t suggest any of the  responsibilities or influence that she actually had. Because she was involved in organizations and institutions that mattered to her in specific locations – not organizations that would simply help her to self-promote – there are pockets of deep knowledge in unexpected places instead of widespread, general awareness.

This makes her story important to tell for a few different reasons. First, the fact that a woman has remained invisible after her businesses competed with Frick’s and her philanthropy sometimes rivaled Carnegie’s is a good reason to tell her story. I hope this will inspire others to tell stories of the “lesser mortals” who affected their own communities but remained invisible to a wider audience. This might be done through historic sites, books or articles, or it might be the simple act of donating an artifact to a museum or archive. Representation in museums and archives is critical for demonstrating what roles a diverse group of people has played in history and culture, but it also allows researchers from around the world to discover people. Second, despite Sarah’s very specific interests, there is a universality and timelessness to her story. It is a story about using the power we already have, living with purpose, being resilient, championing others, and publicly owning our identities. In some cases she was the first or only person like herself to accomplish certain goals. At times she wasn’t welcome in the broken system where she operated, so she was forced to create her own place in the world. These challenges aren’t going away, and we can benefit from stories about how people have dealt with them. Sometimes we need to tell those stories ourselves if we want people to find them.


KIMBERLY HESS Black and White Author photoKIMBERLY HESS: During her business career of nearly twenty years, Kimberly Hess served in volunteer leadership roles at the global and local levels for Smith College’s Alumnae Association and Office of Admission, and she was a trustee of the Alice Paul Institute and a board member of the Chubb Partnership of Women. Her writing has appeared on the websites of Thrive Global, the National Women’s History Museum and the Forté Foundation, as well as on the blogs of the Women’s Museum of California and the David Library of the American Revolution. She has a B.A. in Economics and International Relations from Smith College, an M.B.A. in Marketing from Rutgers Business School, and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University. An avid genealogist and traveler, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter.

You can purchase Kimberly’s Book on Amazon.

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“I never wanted to write this memoir.” A Guest Post from Author Gabrielle Robinson.

I never wanted to write this memoir

I first discovered my grandfather’s diaries after my mother’s death, hidden behind books. Although it was already late at night, I started to read immediately. My grandfather, Api as I called him, had given me my first stable home after the war, and I had spent the happiest days of my childhood with him. Since my father had been killed in the war, he was both father and grandfather to me.  As I opened the first of the two little green notebooks, I noticed that each entry was in the form of a letter to my grandmother, mother, and even me, a baby. We had fled the city in February 1945 while Api had stayed behind to serve as doctor during the final period of round the clock bombing before the fall of Berlin. Starting in April 1945, he recorded his experiences every day:

“Towards evening, the sky to the east is a ghastly sea of smoke. I creep out at ten o’clock at night to the clinic under whistling grenades and bombs, a wilderness of fire and dust, behind it, although already high in sky, the blood-red moon.”

Still reading while the first light broke in the sky, I came upon something that hit me like a punch to the gut: my beloved Api had been a member of the Nazi Party. For a while I sat there with a pounding heart, unable to move, and then I hid the diaries again, just as my mother had done, not even telling my husband Mike.

Two years later, Mike and I were relaxing in a coffee house when suddenly I started to cry, and my secret burst out. To my surprise Mike said that I needed to write about the diaries and show how ordinary people get caught in a totalitarian regime. That thought kept me awake at night, and yet I couldn’t get started. It felt like a betrayal. However, for the first time in my life I began to seek out books about the Nazi period. I was surprised how historians stressed the importance of personal experiences, like the diaries, for our understanding of history. So gradually I got up the courage to write Api’s Berlin Diaries. My Quest to Understand my Grandfather’s Nazi Past.

I set out with two goals in mind. I wanted to give the reader a powerful personal perspective of what it was like in Berlin as Hitler’s Reich collapsed. Working to exhaustion in medical cellars, Api could do little for the wounded and dying. Doctors were left with few medications and without even water after the last drops had been drained from the heaters. He records in graphic detail how streets had become unrecognizable beneath the ruins so that he had to find his way over rubble and through cellars of destroyed buildings. The entire city seemed in flames, the smoke making it hard to breathe. He saw starving people cut up a dead horse in the midst of bombardment.

My second goal was to find out why Api had joined the Party in 1933. In Berlin archives, I found out more about his life. Raised in a Prussian town, he obtained a scholarship to a prestigious Berlin academy to become an ophthalmologist. The only stipulation was that for every semester he took, he had to serve a year as military doctor. The moment he graduated in 1914, he was sent to the Eastern front where he suffered a nervous breakdown and for a while was a patient at the Charite Hospital where just before he had been a student. Within a few months, he was back at the front.

After the war Api set up his own practice in Berlin. The city was torn by violence, strikes, even assassinations. Gangs of young Communists fought gangs of young Nazis; shootings were common. The Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratic government, was unable to prevail. At the same time, the gay twenties turned Berlin into “the Babylon of the new world,” as so many tried to forget the war, the gargantuan inflation immediately after, and abandon themselves to a life of orgies and wildness. Into this world stepped Hitler. He promised to restore law and order; he promised peace and stability, and a return to Christian values. Api, I learned, fit the profile of people who joined in 1933: educated, conservative, veterans of World War I.

In the process of writing, two other themes forced themselves into the book. Finding out more about Api’s life brought up a flood of memories of living with him after the war which I hadn’t thought about for half a century. The other subject that kept pushing itself into my mind was reflections on German guilt, and Api’s in particular. His de-Nazification document categorized him as Exonerated. This was a relief to me, but at the same time I knew that it was too easy and incomplete an answer. Although I do not believe in collective guilt, I do believe that we are accountable for what happens in our countries. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who condemned not only the actions of the bad people but the silence of the good kept ringing in my ears.

Api's Berlin Diaries Book CoverApi’s Berlin Diaries made me confront a past I had evaded all my life. As I grew up in post-war Germany there was complete silence about the recent past. Our history classes stopped with the end of World War I. Neither I, nor as I remember any of my friends, ever questioned this silence. So now, late in life, I needed to come to terms with my German past. I had always been ashamed of being German for the country’s horrendous history of genocide and war, but I had never dealt with the guilt.

It was hard to face German guilt on such a personal level. I kept asking myself “what would I have done if I had lived in the Third Reich?” What small acts of courage or cowardice would I have committed? Would I have given the Hitler salute or dared to refuse? How far would I have been willing to go to help Jewish neighbors? I doubt that I would have had the courage to risk my life and stand up against the Nazis.

I hope that readers of today will come away with two main feelings. First, an emotional understanding of how the “volcanic eruptions” of history impacted my grandfather’s life who had to serve in two world wars and lost his only son, and how these tremors still reverberate with me in the third generation. Juxtaposed with these are my happy memories of Api who loved me and played with me, who taught me Latin and showed me how to build a kite. These passages I hope may trigger readers’ childhood memories of their own that will continue long after they have finished the book. Above all, I hope readers will feel more strongly how all our lives intersect with history. We all have a past and that past is still with us.

I hope that the ultimate take-away that sticks with my readers is one of empathy, of understanding other people’s behavior and mindset, that we may need now more than ever. This will strengthen our faith in our common humanity, in our capacity for compassion and tolerance. Although much of the diary focuses on the horrors of torture and persecution perpetrated by human beings upon one another, it also shows instances of kindness and love that testify to the power of the human spirit to breach the gulf of hate. As Api wrote even in the depth of his despair: “If love once again dwells in all human hearts then also will the life on God’s wonderful earth again become not only bearable but beautiful.”


Gabrielle Robinson Profile Photo with cat.Gabrielle tells stories about people that reveal their personal situation within its historical context.

One reason for her fascination with the intersection of the personal and historical stems from her own experience. Born in Berlin in 1942, her father’s fighter plane was shot down in 1943. After her family was bombed out twice, they fled Berlin in 1945.

To learn more about Gabrielle, the author, and the normal everyday Gabrielle with her cat named…, visit her website, https://www.gabriellerobinson.com/

You can purchase Gabrielle’s Book at Amazon by visiting the book site. Just click the logo below and it will take you to the page. And while you’re there, visit her Author Page for her other books.

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