• "To the only guy who can consistently beat me in ping pong..."
    - Soapy Lingle
  • "Don was remarkable on many levels. He experienced life..."
    - Charles Rogers
  • "A large virtue of Don's bicycling was in the person, not..."
    - Monte Crippen
  • "No matter how bad things seemed to be going,Don was always..."
    - John Roecker
  • "My years working with Mr. Cockeram will always be..."
    - Jo Ann Peterson

April 1, 1924 - February 26, 2013

Former Rockwell Hanford President Donald J. Cockeram died February 26 at age 88. Probably more than most people, Don saw dramatic change during his life.

Raised on a farm in rural Oregon in a shack with no indoor plumbing or electricity, Don rose to lead Rockwell Hanford. He never learned to ride a bike as a child, but grew to love the hobby as an adult, accumulating a lifetime total of just over 100,000 miles shortly before his death.

Don fondly recalled his childhood, which was spent without modern conveniences. His parents, Harvey and Verne Strader Cockeram -- who were descendants of Oregon Trail pioneers -- cooked on a wood stove, used kerosene lamps and farmed with horses. As Don described it, "It was a long and interesting road to 1984 when I retired from my position running an operation [at Hanford] that had almost 5,000 employees engaged in complex nuclear activities."

In 1936, Don's parents bought their first radio, a little box with a big horn-shaped speaker that ran off of a 9-volt car battery. Don said this radio finally connected the family to electronics, and that was what made him decide to become an electrical engineer. In 1943, Don enlisted in the Army during World War II. Because he tested high on an Army IQ test, he was sent to study at a university. He hated the experience because he was required to wear his Army uniform and received negative comments about his being on campus instead of on active duty overseas. He was relieved when he was sent to the Philippines as a radio operator.

Following World War II, Don followed up on his interest in radio (the "glamour field of the time" as he described it), and enrolled in the electrical engineering program at Oregon State College (now University).

In 1949, with his engineering degree in hand, Don went to work at Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in Portland. Soon after arriving there, Don caught the eye of Xantha Pappas, an administrative assistant and occasional model. They married in 1950 -- within three months of their first date. On their honeymoon in San Francisco, Xantha taught Don how to ride a bicycle in Golden Gate Park, foreshadowing a hobby that he would later pursue across North America, Europe and New Zealand. Xantha was the love of his life, and they lived happily together until her death in 2006.

With nuclear reactors emerging as a viable power source, BPA sent Don to the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in Tennessee, where he earned the equivalent of a master's degree in nuclear engineering. Don moved to North American Aviation in southern California in 1954, working on sodium-cooled reactors. In 1957, he was sent to Japan for five months to manage the deployment of the first nuclear power plant in Asia. This was a high visibility project for the Japanese, and Don was treated like a celebrity. Supporting her husband, Xantha gave up her national champion Siamese Manx cat and her cat breeding business to accompany him.

Following this assignment, Don became associate director of the Atomic International (AI) Space Systems Department, managing the design and production of the first nuclear reactor to operate in space. In 1975, Don became second in command of AI's facility in Rocky Flats, Colo. Two years later, he moved to the Tri-Cities to take charge of Rockwell Hanford, where he worked until his retirement in 1984.

Don and Xantha adopted their first child, Barry, in 1957 following Don's Japan assignment. Barry and his wife Loretta own and operate a successful restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif. Daughter Janice (Jan) was adopted in 1960, and owns Stage 1 Ranch in Kennewick, where she trains horses and their riders. Jan and Don enjoyed cycling together, and Don rooted for her in her many successful bodybuilding, Jet Ski and motocross competitions. From 1968 - 1972, the Cockerams welcomed Xantha's niece Chris and nephew Soapy Lingle into their home.

For many years after retirement, Don served on the board of directors of several companies and foundations, including the United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties and Kennewick General Hospital. After his daughter Jan's three bouts with cancer at ages 22, 34 and 42, as well as his own prostate cancer, Don gave a large donation to help build the Tri-Cities Cancer Center. He also endowed an Oregon State University College of Engineering scholarship in his parents' names, as well as other contributions to OSU and various charities.

Don was an avid photographer, an interest he combined with his cycling hobby, taking photos of eagles and other wildlife. He also enjoyed playing golf. He scored his first and only hole-in-one as an amateur playing in a pro-am tournament at Richland's Meadow Springs Country Club at age 66. His timing was excellent, as that particular hole had a prize of a new Chevrolet Caprice, which he drove for many years.

Don also enjoyed helping Xantha with her kennel and dog-training business that she ran in Finley. For many years, she supervised the Guide Dog for the Blind program in the area as well.

Don is also survived by his sister, Sue Cockeram Mason of Corvallis, Ore.; grandchildren Rikki Lee Weaver (Matthew), Kaili Michelle Reynolds (David) and Kala Michelle Guess; step grandsons Michael Arnold (Shannon) and Steven Arnold (Leslie); four great-grandchildren and six step great-grandchildren.

The family plans a private celebration of life later this month. Donations may be made in Don's memory to the Tri-Cities Cancer Center, 7350 W. Deschutes Avenue, Kennewick, WA 99336, or online at (click the "Donation" tab).

Published in Tri-City Herald from Mar. 13 to Mar. 17, 2013
bullet U.S. Army bullet World War II