I first ran the Cohick Half Marathon in 2012, the year I moved to Springfield. The word “Cohick” was prominent on my long-sleeved racing shirt. I simply assumed “Cohick” was a local company that was a race sponsor.
I’ve come to learn it is not a company. It’s a man: Maynard Cohick, an attorney who lived in Republic who died at age 41.
He was on an expedition to summit Annapurna I, the 10th highest peak in the world at 26,545 feet in the Himalayas, when he was buried by an avalanche.
His body is still there, above the clouds in Nepal. He left behind a wife and three children.
Only three months after his death, the first Maynard Cohick Memorial Half Marathon, 5K and fun run were held, sponsored by the Ozark Mountain Ridge Runners. The first race drew 176 runners. It started at Catholic High School.
In 2007, the race became part of the Bass Pro Shops Marathon Weekend. That includes the Conservation Marathon and the News-Leader 5K.
Those races will be contested Sunday, Nov. 1. I will be running the Cohick Half Marathon again.
Who was Maynard Cohick?
Maynard Cohick was an adventurer who lived life full-throttle. He saw things few of us will ever see. He embraced risks few of us would ever seek.
He scaled mountains, sailed the South Pacific, he skydived, scuba dived along the Great Barrier Reef, surfed, did rock climbing, ran, biked and trained like a madman.
He did everything with passion and what friends say was a contagious enthusiasm.
To prepare for the agony of high-altitude climbing, he would load a backpack with 125 pounds and trek up the 10 flights of stairs 10 times a day at Plaza Towers.
Before he left for Nepal, he once asked a judge for permission to wear a pair of massive hiking boots in court to help break them in. Motion granted.
Retired attorney Bill Hart recalls their climb up Longs Peak, 14,259 feet in the Colorado Rockies. They had started at 1 a.m. with the temperature at 20-below. Hours later, they made camp.
Hart and Cohick and two other men huddled in their tent.
“He opens the tent and throws his sleeping bag out,” Hart says of Cohick.
“I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’
“He said that he wanted to see how cold it gets.”
He headed west for adventure
Weldon Cohick Jr., seven years older, taught his brother Maynard to swim.
There were three boys and three girls in the family. They grew up in a five-room house without electricity or running water outside Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, 84 miles west of Wilkes-Barre.
Their father was a carpenter. He also was an alcoholic and an abusive husband, according to a book co-authored by Maynard Cohick and his wife, Jeanne.
Maynard’s mother eventually asked her husband to leave, which he did, according to the book, published in 2016 and edited by former News-Leader reporter Susan Atteberry Smith.
“All he did was sit around and smoke cigarettes and drink,” Weldon says of their father. “My mother was the hero of that family.”
Weldon will be 88 on Nov. 5. Only he and sister Maxine survive.
Weldon tells me he shared a spirit of adventure with Maynard.
“I taught Maynard how to swim in a little stream about a mile from our house,” he says. “Whatever I taught myself, I would teach my little brother Maynard.”
One day, Weldon went swimming in a stream with his buddy Harry. They were about 14. Maynard, 7, was with them.
“I was saying that I had taught Maynard to be a good swimmer,” Weldon says. “So Harry says he wants to race Maynard across the stream, touch a rock, and come back. Harry told Maynard he could beat him and Maynard said, ‘I don’t think so.'”
“The crick was not that wide but it was 6 to 8 feet deep. I told them when to go and my brother beat him by about three or four arm strokes. It just tickled me that I taught my little brother to swim so well.”
As a boy, Maynard read about history’s great explorers and told his family that he, too, would be an explorer, according to a 1979 News-Leader story.
His first job was as a linotype operator at the local newspaper in Pennsylvania. A linotype machine was once used to set metal type for newspaper printing.
This was a skill Cohick would fall back on as a young man. He would set sail for a trip halfway around the world, for example, and return to find a job at newspapers around the world to pocket enough money to finance his next journey.
Cohick graduated high school in 1955 and stayed home for a year working at the paper.
Once he had saved enough, Cohick headed to California to join his brother Melvin.
He sought neither fame nor fortune. He was in pursuit of adventure.
He found it. He climbed every tall mountain in California, Oregon and Washington.
He sailed from Hawaii to Los Angeles.
He and a friend bicycled 1,200 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles, sleeping in fields at night.
He fell in love with Jeanne Meyer, who had moved from Indiana to California when she was 6.
She told him she would wait for him because, first, he had plans to set sail again — this time to New Zealand.
Cohick was part of a crew of five on a 52-foot cutter that sailed through tropical islands such as Tonga, Tahiti and Bora Bora.
In Auckland, New Zealand, he landed a job at the newspaper. But in Sydney he landed a letter from his draft board.
The Army sent him to Seoul, South Korea, where he served in a missile battalion for two years and took the time to earn a brown belt in judo.
Jeanne still waited. Finally, from Seoul, he proposed in a letter.
They were wed on Aug. 10, 1963, in Anaheim, California.
Cohick worked as a policeman in Fullerton, where he enrolled in college.
Their son Steven was born in 1964 and daughter Julie in 1965.
According to the book:
“Maynard wasn’t making enough money as a police officer to climb mountains, so after he graduated from college, he decided he wanted to go to law school. He applied to law school at the University of Southern California and at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and he heard from Mizzou first.”
Jeanne’s parents lived in Forsyth at the time.
Cohick entered law school at 29. In Columbia, he worked as a police officer again. It’s also where their third child, Jennifer, was born in 1970.
Cohick graduated and the family moved to a Springfield apartment. His first job was with the firm Kirby & Lewis. In 1972, he became Republic’s city attorney.
They bought a house in Nixa for $18,000. Then, they bought 10 acres in Republic, large enough for horses. Jeanne had been a horse person since she was a girl.
They lived in a trailer on that 10 acres as Jeanne’s dream home was built.
Maynard, on the other hand, had a different, loftier dream. He wanted to climb Denali (formerly called Mount McKinley) in Alaska. It stands atop North America at 20,320 feet.
The Plaza Towers workout from hell
Jennifer Cohick, now 50, returned to Springfield when her mother became ill in 2015. She died in 2017. Jeanne Cohick never remarried after Maynard’s death.
“She felt like my dad was it for her,” Jennifer says.
Cohick was not a big man. He was 5 foot 7½ and 150 pounds. But his fitness regimen was freakish. He had sculpted himself into a high-performance machine of muscle and lungs.
He lifted weights and ran five miles every morning and occasionally ran the 15 miles from his home to his law office in Springfield.
Jennifer as a little girl would sit on his back as he did push-ups.
She remembers her father’s brutal training at Plaza Towers.
He loaded his backpack and hiked up the 10 stories of the Plaza Towers. His law office was nearby.
“As kids, we would go over with him and race him up the stairs — only we would use the elevator,” she says.
His account of his Plaza Towers workout is recounted in the third person in the book; it draws from the journal he kept.
“To build up strength in his legs, Maynard strapped a 125-pound box of weights to his massive Kelty pack frame and began carrying it up and down the stairwell … At first he was able to make only three or four nonstop trips up and down the stairwell, but gradually, he increased the number to 10 nonstop round trips a day. It was working. Each week, Maynard could tell he was gaining strength, even though this method of training was a crude form of torture.”
Cohick said this to News-Leader reporter Frank Farmer in 1976:
“The last day of training, Paul Fisher, who teaches mountain climbing, came by and with my backpack on, I picked up Paul and carried him and down the stairs. I knew I was ready for Mount McKinley.”
Hart, who was with Cohick in Colorado, says Cohick had almost convinced him to try to summit Denali with him in 1976.
“He was very enthusiastic, and it was contagious,” Hart says.
“I was starting to collect all the gear and I was doing a little bit of hiking. I can’t stand to run. I checked out the train schedules. Finally, it dawned on me — ‘Hey Bill, this is crazy. You are going to die.’”
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He backed out and, Cohick, in turn, was kind and generous.
When Cohick boarded the plane to leave for Denali he opened his journal. Jeanne had written a note:
“The feelings I have at this time are mostly of pride at what you’re doing. A little fear creeps in now and then at what could happen, but, knowing you, that fear is senseless because I know your will — alone — will bring you back.”
The first climber to ever reach Denali’s summit did so in 1913. Cohick was well aware that 40 others had died trying, including seven in 1967.
He succeeded; he made it to the summit on May 31, 1976.
A clearer appreciation of life
Cohick’s mountaineering sights elevated, as did his expertise.
Cohick summited Nunkun Mountain in the Himalayas in 1977.
He wrote about it for this newspaper on Sept. 4, 1977.
“From my assault with another group of Americans on the 23,410 foot Nunkun Mountain in the Punjab Himalayas of Kashmir, India, I could just as well this minute be lying buried under tons of ice and snow and rock, or my body could be frozen stiff and hidden forever in some inaccessible crevasse.
“Probably one of the best reasons I can offer for climbing mountains is that it makes the gray areas of my life a little more black and white when viewed from the high isolation of a mountain peak. It is as though I am able to rise above all the daily problems and considerations which I have as a husband, a father, a lawyer, a friend, and am able to see my role a little more clearly.
“… If mountaineering did nothing else for me, I would say that it is all worthwhile if it has taught me to appreciate the simple pleasures of life, especially my family and friends.”
In August 1978, he viewed the world from the 24,595-foot summit of what was then called Mount Communism in Russia. The location is now in Tajikistan and is called Ismoil Somoni Peak.
Cohick wrote about this expedition, too. At base camp, he noted, he walked past the graves of 16 climbers who lost their lives in 1974. Then, there was the final assault to the top.
“… I awakened before daylight and began dressing. My fingers bled as I laced my boots and I was coughing up chunks of blood and mucus as I crawled from the tent into the soft snow, fired up the stove and began fixing hot drinks for the others as they began to stir.”
He described his moment on the top.
“… Flags flew, shutters clicked. We ate, drank and sought to identify the distant peaks of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They sky was clear and the panorama of rugged snow-covered peaks was unbroken for hundreds of miles in each direction.”
Cohick knew the dangers of high-altitude climbing; it was a sport where if you lost your gloves, for example, you could lose your hands.
He also knew fear. He told News-Leader reporter Farmer in 1976:
“Many people like to kid themselves about how brave they are. But when you are hanging out on a ledge somewhere, where death could happen instantly, you may find out you are not as brave as you thought. Fear can take over the body, destroy the ability to reason and think.
“But to get to that point, and bring yourself under control and think rationally, to work your way out of it and lead others out — that is satisfaction.”
Annapurna was the highest summit he had attempted.
Cohick had made no mention of some day scaling Mt. Everest, the top of the world at 29,029 feet.
Instead, he talked about travelling to the South Pole in 1980. He would not only need to carry a backpack but he would need to haul a sled, as well.
Two other climbers died with Cohick on Sept. 19, 1979, in Nepal.
Farmer, who passed away in 2014, wrote that sad story. Farmer was one of six people who spoke at Cohick’s memorial service at King’s Way United Methodist Church in Springfield on Oct. 20, 1979. Farmer had talked to Jeanne, now a widow, for that story.
“I thought if anybody would come back, Maynard would,” she said. “I have never been afraid for his life. I guess I thought he had nine of them.”
Cohick’s older brother Weldon tells me he was having breakfast with their mother in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he heard on the radio that a mountain climber from the area had died in an avalanche in the Himalayas.
“What was that?” his mother asked.
Weldon promptly excused himself and walked to the nearby residence of his sister Maxine. He told her Maynard had died. They, in turn, told their mother.
Hart says he saw less of Cohick after he passed on the Denali effort. In fact, he did not know Cohick was in the Himalayas until he read about his death in the newspaper.
I ask Hart if he was surprised.
“No. Mountain climbing is risky, particularly when you get to the Himalayas, with that much snow there are avalanches all the time. … You are obviously sad that one of your friends has died. But I remember thinking that if you have to go that is the way Maynard wanted to go. It was emblematic of his life.”
“It would be like cutting off his breath”
Jennifer Cohick was 9 when her father died. She was too young to know the dangers of his pursuit.
“I thought my dad was a superhero,” she says. “I just never thought he would never come back. He trained so hard. He had men’s lives in his hands.”
She feels her connection to him every time someone mentions that they once heard him talk to a local group about climbing the world’s tallest mountains. He spoke often in the Springfield community.
“He had a great sense of humor,” she tells me. “He was really funny. He was gentle — but stern when he needed to be. And he was a family man. As much as he trained and worked out, he had time for his family.”
I ask if she feels cheated she lost him at such a young age. It was her mother, she says, who gave Jennifer away when she married at 28.
No, she says.
“I feel just like my mom did. I would never have wanted to keep him from doing what he loved. He did not want to die of a heart attack or in a car crash.”
Her father had told her mother that if she wanted him to stop climbing mountains he would.
“My mom felt like it would be like cutting off his breath. She would never have done that.”
“I think very few people live their dreams,” she tells me. “And my dad did. My mom was OK with that. He died on top of the world.”
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper 8½ years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, email@example.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.