Cooke, a winner

July 29, 2013 

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.

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