Former City Director Catherine Cook gives extensive exit interview on her approach during 32 years of service to Hope

Now retired City Manager Catherine Cook (center) stands with 12 members of the City of Hope staff during a retirement party that took place January 5.

A large man had come to the Hope Public Works department to enter a complaint. His voice could be heard in several of the offices nearby. But then-City Manager Catherine Cook, fortunately, was on the scene and knew what to do.

“You just have to listen,” Cook said in an interview taken last week about two weeks after her retirement after serving 32 years in Hope’s city government, 26 of them as city manager. “First of all, most of the time, people just want to be heard. People have to be heard. And then if you remember that they’re people, they’re human like you are, that helps you along … And then you know if there’s something you can do.”

As a de-escalation technique, making sure the aggrieved party knows they are being heard generally works, and it is just one among many reasons for Cook’s staying power in a job whose holder receives little praise when things go right or go as usual and all the blame when they don’t. And sometimes receives the blame even for things not in their control: “The worst chewing out I’ve ever taken in 32 and a half years was over the price of gasoline. And that’s not a recent price of gasoline. That was 15 or 20 years ago. I did say a couple of times the city doesn’t have anything to do with gasoline.”

Keeping an even temperament when emotions are strained has been a quality of Cook’s administration she takes pride in. For example, she made it a practice not to send emails if she was angry, but those occasions have been rare.  “I’m fortunate that I’m not somebody that gets mad. I can get irritable, sure, but going back to something my husband would say, if you can stay out of my way for 15 minutes, that’s about as long as I can sustain it. I physically don’t have the ability to really stay mad.”

To be a city manager in Hope’s form of government requires a coolness that applies not just to ways of responding to complaints, but to decision-making, since they are responsible for the day-to-day decisions in running a city and also for presenting options to the city’s legislative branch, which in Hope is called the city’s Board of Directors.

“There are times you have to make really quick decisions, but there are times it’s better, to not make a decision until you have all the information.” Cook said. “Now, that’s not always possible. In most of our lives, we’re not able to get all the information all the time. And you have to make a decision based on the information. And then you can’t kill yourself afterwards and say, ‘Well, if I had known this.’ You didn’t.”

When decisions involve livelihoods, Cook uses counsel she received before beginning work for the city. “It was advice given to me by one of the directors of the Planning and Development District. He said, ‘You don’t always have to make an immediate decision, and really, some things you don’t, particularly as regards people.’ If it’s not just immediate[ly pressing], it’s better to think about that. And then then come back.”

Cook served Hope from 1990 to just last year,  a time of rapid technological change and changing public views about government.  Her adaptability to changing circumstances may stem from a childhood lived in many places and going to eight different schools. Having been born in Denver to a North Carolinian mother who was a registered nurse who could get a job anywhere and an Arkansan father who started out as a teacher but frequently moved with the jobs he held (which included managing a cheese factory) meant living in such places as Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana and Michigan. She spent the most time in Toledo, Ohio and graduated from high school in Arizona.

Her first ambition was to become an engineer, but at Arizona State University she met with an unrelenting foe that has bested many. “I went to college. Like a lot of people, I got through, oh, gosh, a couple of semesters of calculus. I was always good at math. But I realized that the higher it got, the harder it got. And so I ended up getting a B.A., originally in Spanish, and then added some hours for English too.”

She credits her ability to respect the differing points of view of department heads, city directors staffers, business people, lawyers, tech workers and citizens she has encountered to her background in the liberal arts, which included some time in graduate school for English. She particularly remembers being affected by a modernist classic. “One of my favorite books is by Ford Madox Ford called The Good Soldier,” Cook said. “And it has an unreliable narrator. It was my first experience of that, and I keep it in mind because it’s one of those things where you really realize is that we all tell stories through our own perspective. And if there are four of us in a room and the identical thing happens to four of us, even without meaning to, we’re going to tell four different stories.”

After that, she found herself in South Arkansas, taking a job working for the Southwest Arkansas Planning and Development District, which is one of eight districts comprised of six to eight counties, which, according to the Arkansas Association of Arkansas Development Organizations, “provide[s] many services including grant writing and administration for economic development projects in Arkansas.” Cook says her ability, developed by her studies in English, to take in a lot of written information and produce writing based on it helped her win the job and thrive, eventually acquiring the title of Community and Economic Development Specialist.

During her time working for the Planning and Development District, she saw the ability of small places in Arkansas to lift their citizens’ quality of life. “It’s just amazing what they can do as a community working together, right? Like I’ve always said about Hope. Hope can do anything it wants to do if they want it.” During that time she was especially impressed with the way the little town of Tollette (south of Mineral Springs) gained several projects because of its people committing to them fully.

At the same time, she would work as an adjunct professor at Southern Arkansas University.  There was a year or so when she was on campus at the same time as Jeff Cook, a young man who had parlayed a sales job at his cousin’s business, Dan Cook’s Office Outfitters, into computer sales and service. A mutual friend of theirs finally introduced the two in “March or April” of 1985. It was a match between Jeff, “a true people person” and Catherine, who considers herself an introvert. They would marry that August and stay together 34 years. They had one daughter who now works for the state Department of Human Services.

They would live in Stephens, a town about 20 miles southeast of Camden. After she began working for the City of Hope in 1990, her commute from Stephens was 45 miles. But when she was appointed then-City Manager David Meriwether’s assistant in May of 1993, he said she would have to move to Hope. The Cooks finally did so soon after with Jeff Cook taking a job running Medical Park Hospital’s computer systems. He would eventually discover his true calling as a business professor at UAHT.

While working in Hope, Catherine Cook saw there was much in common among the people here with those she had grown up with. “They’re almost frighteningly innovative, because they’re all people who come from farming backgrounds. And they know how to do a lot without very much. Because in rural areas, people are like that. You’re out on the farm and you can’t run to town all the time. So you figured out how to do something.”

A key example of this took place during the ice storms of 2000, which caused power outages all over the state.  A Hope city employee was able to get gas pumps running, which became a source for fuel in our area at a time when the outages created scarcity: “We were pumping gas for the Housing Authority and the ambulance service. I think maybe even the state police in the county, because we were the only folks that had fuel, and he just got out there and kind of rigged up a battery, one of our guys who is retired now. And we had the gas.”

In February of 1996, when Meriwether resigned as City Manager after nine years in the Hope position to take the same title in Silverton, Oregon, the Hope City Board of Directors appointed Catherine Hope’s Interim City Manager. It made her permanent city manager on April 2 in a unanimous vote, with then Mayor Dennis Ramsey praising her for not only carrying out the board’s policies but also bringing new ideas to the city.

As the city’s first woman to become City Manager, Cook says she was fortunate to have the strong backing of her male department heads. She found that she could count on them in crisis situations and that weathering these times helped her form bonds of friendship. Two in particular, stand out to her today: Fire Chief Dale Glanton, who served the city’s fire department since 1984, becoming chief in 2010 and Public Works Director Larry York.  

“I didn’t know Dale real well, when I chose him as fire chief. But he grew to be one of my and my family’s [best friends]. He was a wonderful person. And Larry York, who was our public works director, you know, within a short period of time of about a year, Larry died, my husband died and Dale died, actually less than a year, about six months,” Cook said.  She said that losing her husband and those two department heads in late 2019 and early 2020 led to the worst time of her life and her service to the city.  

But during that service there is a lot Cook is proud of, many infrastructure projects and upgrades to the park (including two soccer fields), the upcoming Streetscape Project, which will transform downtown Hope, the Sixth Street project. She is also glad that Hope’s economy is so diverse now and happy to have played a part in the growth of UAHT. Still, she admits the few failures linger in her mind, like the 2004 attempt to have Hope voters approve the building of a community center, which was a puzzler since 75 percent of those attending public meetings on the subject wanted it. “You have to, as a democratic person, respect the will of the people,” Cook said.

For young people who may want to go into city management, Cook’s advice is to get into the field early, either through an internship with a city government or by volunteering. “Try and see what it’s like, I think that’s pretty true of any profession. I think that the day to day reality of a profession can be a lot different than the dreams.”

In city management there is no daily routine.  The work often means learning in a short time all about a given subject on which a decision is to be made and it helps if you enjoy this process. “The continuing challenge to city managers, there’s always something new coming up that you’ve got to really get to be an expert on, or at least get your feet wet on pretty quickly. So you go out and you do your research, talk to people, you read all the stuff, you may read even scientific articles,” Cook said.

In retirement now as of December 31, Cook says she looks forward to taking a trip by train across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto. She plans to visit museums along the way, following her curiosity about the plight of indigenous populations. She said she began contemplating retirement about two years ago, influenced by the fact that her husband, Dale Glanton and Larry York never got to retire.

Cook said she is still getting used to the idea herself. “You have to embrace the fact that you’re not going to know what is coming,” she said. But she hopes to stay involved in the Arkansas Municipal League and in city affairs as a volunteer (she was recently appointed to Hope’s Planning and Zoning Commission) and catch up on her reading, especially the detective fiction of Louise Penny. She also looks forward to some quality time with the grandson.

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