Meg Lowman, David Cooke will be missed around Raleigh

November 23, 2013 

Perhaps it was only a matter of time until Meg Lowman left Raleigh for career advancement. Still, it’s hard to see the former director of the Nature Research Center, at the state Museum of Natural Sciences, depart for California.

Lowman, a biologist with a national reputation, carried good-naturedly the nickname “Canopy Meg” because she studied forest canopies on five continents in the course of her scientific research. The Nature Research Center, a $56 million complex, was her baby, and with its huge globe outside the museum in downtown Raleigh, it drew over a million visitors during its first year, making it the state’s most popular visitor destination.

Lowman deserved credit for the amazing job she did, so it was not surprising that there was some consternation when the museum’s new director, Emlyn Koster, eliminated her job, though he made her “ambassador” to the scientific community and praised her skills.

Lowman now will be a leader at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. There, as elsewhere nationally, she’ll continue to be called the “Einstein of the treetops,” a moniker first coined by the Wall Street Journal.

This is a monumental loss for a museum that has a national reputation thanks to the work of Lowman and retired director Betsy Bennett. Koster, who has a good reputation of his own and is reaching out to the community, will face a challenge in replacing Lowman.

And in the same week that Lowman was leaving, Wake County Manager David Cooke, who has run the county for 13 years, said farewell in a series of get-togethers. Cooke did a terrific job, from bringing in the new Justice Center under budget to protecting county workers’ jobs during the low points of the recession. Easy-going but tenancious, Cooke also showed considerable political skill in working with Democratic and Republican commissioners, some of whom often confronted each other in disagreements.

Cooke, an all-American wrestler at UNC-Chapel Hill (considered one of the top wrestlers in the school’s history), came to the job following Richard Stevens, who like Cooke retired from the post in his early 50s. (Stevens was 51; Cooke is 53.) He’d had big-city experience in Charlotte for a time, and that was helpful in Wake, a growing and increasingly urban county.

Cooke’s skills and his popularity have been in evidence over the past month, when various groups have celebrated him with gatherings. He had a hand in the Marbles children’s museum. He protected public services like libraries. He sometimes had budget tussles with Wake school leaders but never lost his cool and was rarely heard to criticize anyone or any organization publicly.

A search is on for Cooke’s successor, but it’s not going to be an easy one.

Cooke, and Lowman, are both examples of the good fortune this community has enjoyed in its leaders. Let’s hope our run of luck continues.

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