When he took the job as Wake County manager in 2000, succeeding the successful Richard Y. Stevens, David Cooke was the obvious choice for the job. He was a deputy manger, and had previous experience in Charlotte. Stevens had been a mentor, and one has to wonder if Cooke’s retirement from the job at 53 was somewhat inspired by Stevens, who got out at 51 and then turned to politics as a state senator.
Cooke has a literal monument to his skills as a manager in the new Wake County Justice Center, built on his watch and coming in at $30 million under budget. He also steered the county through a monumental financial downturn, and did so, to the gratitude of many county workers, without turning to massive layoffs as a way to save money.
Personable, quick-witted and with a great memory for names, Cooke’s winning ways were evident in his college years at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was twice an All-America wrestler. The sport requires intense training, and an ability to do laser-like focus. But Cooke also brought to his job a well-rounded sense of priorities, with family first. Employees sensed that in him and felt comfortable around him. That made for a strong, loyal work force.
The county manager’s post is a bear of a job. Politics is more and more a part of being a board member, evidenced by the clash between the commissioners and the Wake school board in recent months, but it can’t be a part of a manager’s job. Cooke somehow managed to walk the tightrope and stay on it for 13 years, a long time in his business.
As manager, Cooke dealt with everything from mental health care to buildings to the occasional personnel flare-up. He may choose a big challenge next, but the rope won’t be as high.