Determination Sets Life’s Focus

O’Neil Cobb had a determined look on his handsome face in the 1948 Washington High School yearbook.
He was ready to take on the world and its challenges that would include becoming the first black U.S. Marshal in Tulsa.
Cobb was part of a class that would experience a number of ‘‘firsts’’ in the transition from a segregated society in Tulsa and America.
At that time, he and other classmates, including Charles Owens, a judge now living in Oklahoma City, Eddie L. Madison Jr., who would become an editor at the Oklahoma Eagle, and the late Dr. Dan Alexander were among 131 young, eager black students ready to make their mark in the world.
Hubert H. Bryant, the first black city attorney and first U.S. Attorney in the Northern District in Tulsa, would have been a classmate, but instead went out of state to attend high school.
Cobb’s career would include a stint in the U.S. Air Force, employment at Douglas Aircraft, and construction before a career in law enforcement that would include service with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department and as a U.S. Marshall.
During this time he would concentrate on getting as much education as possible.
He started, with the help of a football scholarship, at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Mo., with a focus on industrial arts. That time was cut short when the scholarship was revoked because of an injury and he no longer was able to play football.
Joining the U.S. Air Force in 1948 and advancing to the rank of staff sergeant, Cobb got the ‘‘Truman Year’’ — a one-year extension in the service — because of the Korean War.
He smiled as he recalled his service years, particularly how he became known as ‘‘Sergeant Minor.’’
Young airmen — under 21 years old — were getting drunk and in trouble when off duty, Cobb said. The commander was checking the age of the airmen and anyone who was under the legal age had ‘‘minor’’ stamped on their identification card. That restricted their alcohol purchases to beer only.
The commander noted Cobb’s rank and his age. He was under 21 and, having done his job, had been promoted to sergeant.
As minor was stamped on Cobb’s identification card, the commander noted the young airman should be called ‘‘Sergeant Minor.’’ The nickname stuck.
Leaving the Air Force when his enlistment expired, Cobb worked for a time at Douglas Aircraft until he and others were caught in a layoff.
Turning to contracting work, Cobb found projects were limited because banks at that time would not loan money to a Negro.
It was in 1961 that he applied to become a deputy in the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department.
Dave Faulkner was sheriff at that time and the young deputy wanted a job that would provide a steady income. While there he would work with Frank Thurman and Art Lee, both future Tulsa County Sheriffs.
He stayed with the Sheriff’s department until 1964 when he joined the U.S. Marshall’s office. That appointment was noted in the April 20, 1964 Tulsa Tribune with a photo of Cobb and Carl Gardner, another newly named deputy.
He would become chief deputy and later Chief U.S. Marshall at the same time Hubert H. Bryant was named U.S. Attorney by President Jimmy Carter.
Cobb understood police work.
He attended the Tulsa Police Training Academy at the University of Tulsa from April 10 to May 10, 1961. That would be followed by the month-long Southwest Homicide Investigation School in 1962. Then it was the U.S. Marshall Training Academy in Terre Haute, Ind. in 1964 and Department of Treasury Law Enforcement training in 1971.
Cobb found a great deal of similarity in the two law enforcement jobs.
One common denominator was just ‘‘working with people.’’ The other was matching wits with criminals.
Those folks (criminals) had 20 years to sit around and think up ways to beat lawmen, he said. That challenge continues even today in retirement.
Cobb said buildings on his farm have been burglarized four times.
‘‘I caught those involved in three of the burglaries,’’ he said. ‘‘It is just a matter of time before I catch those involved with the fourth break-in.’’
Things have changed in law enforcement since Cobb first started his career with the U.S. Marshall’s office.
In those early years, he would have a case, so his surveillance work and make an arrest.
That arrest might happen at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., he said. Most often, it would occur when a suspect would leave from where he was staying. ‘‘I would call out, ‘don’t move, U.S. Marshall,’ read the Miranda rights and take the person to jail.’’
Now, they send out teams of five or six people to arrest a single person. Maybe that is because of the drugs or other situations that make people more violent today.
Cobb also handled white-collar crime investigations.
When an indictment came down, he would call the accused, providing them an opportunity to turn themselves in. Most of the time, they came in with their attorney. That was efficient and cost effective because personnel did not have to be sent out to make an arrest. Often these people, after appearing in court, were released on their own recognizance (OR).
Cobb also used the telephone technique to help others resolve legal issues that affecting their lives.
He cited times when a man, behind on child support payments, would get a good-paying job. The lady would go to the District Attorney to swear out a warrant for his arrest.
When the man, first contacted by telephone, would come to the office to resolve the matter on his own there was a tremendous amount of success and the embarrassment of being taken off the job in handcuffs was avoided.
Cobb might have received criticism for his actions, but he felt that he was not taking away from the state. By not going to the jobsite to make the arrest, he helped preserve the person’s dignity and any embarrassment for him or his employer.
‘‘I felt I was helping the state because the man’s family needed the money it would have cost to go through the arrest process,’’ he said. The state ultimately got its money because of taxes that were paid — and incarceration was not necessary.
Serving as a U.S. Marshall wasn’t an easy job.
Cobb served as an escort officer for trials during the late 60s and early 70s. He became very familiar with names including the Chicago 7 and Keystone Rage, both offshoots of riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Another group would be the Fenton Valley 5 accused of bombing the Rockefeller Center.
A person from New York in the witness security program was under wraps in Tulsa, he said. ‘‘I escorted him back to New York to testify in the case and brought him back.’’ Unfortunately the witness, thinking he was safe following the trial, went back to New York where he was killed about a week later.
There also was an international flavor to the work.
Cobb was stationed on Guam while in the Air Force and never thought he would return to that Pacific island.
Wrong. In 1975 when he was sent back as security duty for Vietnamese repatriates fleeing their homeland. Some Viet Cong were among the refugees.
It was Cobb’s job — and that of other security guard personnel — to escort the people to offices for interrogation before approving them to go to the U.S. or sending them back to their homeland.
That is when he encountered a unique weapon made out of reinforcing bar.
People, identified as Viet Cong, would cut 5/8 inch pieces of reinforcing bar six-inches long. They made a terrible weapon when thrown at someone.
Fortunately, Cobb wasn’t injured by one of the hand-thrown missiles. Another U.S. Marshall was hurt by them.
Cobb had a variety of escort duty requirements during his career.
He was careful to follow procedures to avoid injury.
One prisoner said he was preparing to ‘‘jump’’ the marshal — if he got the chance.
Retiring in 1985, Cobb started working at the McLain High School detention hall. When young people were assigned to him, he gave them extra homework to complete.
‘‘I felt like they needed something that would help make an impact on them,’’ he said.
It might not have been his job, but he became a counselor to the young people focused only on playing football or basketball.
Cobb challenged these students also to get college degrees in finance, marketing or business administration. That would give them a business sense so they would have something to do when their professional careers ended.
‘‘These young people are living in a false reality,’’ he said. They don’t look beyond that short time they might play professional sports — if they make the grade.
While Cobb might admit that, at 78 years old, his age is beginning to catch up with him, he still maintains a garden on his acreage. He also works with groups from Haskell, Boynton and Coweta, showing the young people how agriculture makes a difference in life.
Reflecting on his law enforcement career, especially with the U.S. Marshall’s office, Cobb said he enjoyed the work as he moved from deputy to senior deputy and to U.S. Marshall.
‘‘I enjoyed my career in law enforcement and I have a good life,’’ he said.
He relaxed for a moment over a cup of coffee, then he looked at his day, face determined to accomplish his scheduled tasks.

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