Susan Cochrane channeled her own painful experiences as the child of a brutal divorce, violence and alcoholism into a career of uncommon compassion as a legal advocate for children and the indigent, including an 18-year stretch as a family court referee in Hennepin County.
Beginning in 2002, Cochrane also battled cancer. She died of breast cancer Feb. 13 at home in Minneapolis, surrounded by family members, including her husband, Clair Cole, an assistant Minneapolis city attorney; three grown sons, Lee, Tom and Ben Cochrane-Cole; and her brother, Mick Cochrane of Kenmore, N.Y. She was 65.
Mick Cochrane described his sister as a seeker, a Buddhist and champion of creativity and kindness. He said her guiding principle came from the Dalai Lama: "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." Cochrane's life was marked by deep struggles, first as a child of poverty and violence, then as an adult enduring two difficult cancer diagnoses that led to 34 rounds of chemotherapy and multiple brain surgeries. Through it all, she sought connections and compassion. She left tips at restaurants so large that the waiters would follow into her the street to hug her, her brother said.
Cochrane was the middle child of three born to Hamilton and Esther Cochrane of West St. Paul. According to her writings and her brother, the family started out middle class. But their father, a lawyer, was a violent alcoholic who took off, plunging the family into poverty. When their mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Susan and her siblings became her caregivers. After graduating from Brady High School in West St. Paul, Cochrane graduated from Hamline University in 1976 with undergraduate degrees in French and political science.
She earned her law degree through night classes at what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where she also met her husband-to-be, Clair. She worked at St. Paul firms before launching her own practice. In 1988, she went to work for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services in St. Paul, providing services for the indigent. Eventually she became the manager of the agency's St. Paul American Indian Legal Center, becoming an expert on the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Cochrane was appointed to the Hennepin County bench as a referee in Family Court in 1995. Seeking to put heart into the law, she sometimes used unconventional methods, like the time she delivered fruit and tea to an extended immigrant family as they wrestled with a problem.
She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2002. Ten years ago, she learned the cancer had returned and spread. She retired from the bench, but her work in collaborative law continued. She co-chaired an international symposium supported by the Fetzer Institute, helping leaders from around the world to incorporate love, forgiveness and compassion into divorce.
In 2018, she wrote an essay called "Kintsugi: The Golden Joinery of Love" in which she described how she was able to find "healing in a life that for a long time, was not only cracked, but broken apart — and, in a few places, shattered beyond recognition." In 2019, she appeared on NPR's "Weekend Edition" with Scott Simon to talk about her signature song, "Jesus Dropped the Charges" by the O'Neal Twins. She talked about her struggles growing up, coping with cancer and facing mortality. To her, she said, that song embodied "unconditional love."
Cochrane was a member of Minneapolis' Common Ground Meditation Center. She played electric bass, Appalachian frailing-style banjo, piano, classical guitar and harp. She recently completed a memoir, "The Crystal Gavel."
In addition to her husband, sons and brother, she is survived by another brother, Dave Cochrane, of St. Paul. A virtual memorial is planned but no date has been set.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747