Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: David O. “Doc” Cooke
Of all the figures portrayed in this book, David O. “Doc” Cooke was arguably the most obscure. He seldom captured headlines or engaged the public’s fancy, but he was by all accounts an effective public administrator of the first rank. Working as a civilian in the United States Defense Department (DoD), Cooke served under 12 secretaries of defense in a career that spanned 45 years. He was sometimes hailed as the “Mayor of the Pentagon.” I discuss Cooke’s life and career in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”
He was born on August 31, 1920, in Buffalo, New York. His parents were schoolteachers, and Cooke originally followed in their footsteps. He graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1941. A year later, he earned an M.S. degree from the State University of New York at Albany. His plans were derailed by World War II. He served in the United States Navy aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania during the war. Following his discharge, Cooke returned to the states to teach high school.
Three events altered the course of his life and career beginning in 1947. That year, Cooke enrolled in the George Washington University Law School, graduating in 1950. Also in 1947, he met a fellow law student, Marion McDonald, and the two eventually married. Finally, he accepted a position as a civilian employee of the United States Navy even as he attended law school at night.
Recalled to active duty in 1951, Cooke was an instructor at the School of Naval Justice before serving as an attorney in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. In 1958, he was assigned to Defense Secretary Neil McElroy’s task force on defense reorganization. He stayed in this potion for a decade. After he retired from the Navy in 1968 and resumed his duties the next day as a civilian employee. He remained a civilian worker within the DoD for the next 34 years.
His long tenure ensured that he would learn the intricacies of a complex federal agency as well as or better than most defense professionals. Cooke was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Administration from 1971 to 1988. Afterward, he served as the Pentagon’s Director of Administration and Management from 1988 until his retirement. His work included a stint as director of the Defense Department’s Washington Headquarters Services. He supported equal employment opportunities for men and women of color in an agency that historically had been a bastion of white males. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People honored him with the association’s Benjamin L. Hooks Distinguished Service Award. He also received the Defense Department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Medal seven times, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, as well as many other awards for exemplary service.
For much of his career, Cooke handled administrative issues that seldom receive public approbation. As a member of McElroy’s task force on defense reorganization, he assisted in the mundane duties necessary to increase efficiency in a large, complex bureaucracy. When Cooke operated the department’s Office of Organizational and Management Planning, he was responsible for the physical plant, security, and maintenance as well as personnel administration within the Pentagon. He oversaw 1,800 employees, controlled 20,000 parking spaces, and managed 280 acres of the Pentagon Reservation on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. These were enormously important tasks, but they did not generate headlines and were known only to a few people familiar with the Department of Defense.
The secret to Cooke’s success, to the extent that it was a secret, was his attention to detail and his technical prowess. He understood the Pentagon’s bureaucratic hierarchy as few others did. He viewed himself as a politically neutral administrator who sought to operate the department efficiently without regard to politics and party affiliation. This emphasis on administrative competence above all else allowed him to survive numerous political storms and changes at the top of the organization without becoming mired in political controversies of the day.
He always insisted that success working inside a bureaucracy was less about the functions and operations of government and more about effective personnel management. “You can think about an organization in terms of a wiring diagram or its skeletal structure of the task skills you need to make it function the way you want,” he once explained to an interviewer. “Or you can think in terms of the people involved. And to loosely paraphrase the apostle Paul, the greatest of these is people.”
Cooke was astonished at the number of times an organization failed to achieve its goals owing to managerial failures. “When I get complaints, and I get a lot of them, from managers who say that people who work for them aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, I always ask: ‘Have you told these people? Have you explained to them what you expect?’ Very often I find they haven’t gotten the guidance and direction they should have gotten.” As Cooke noted, people “constitute our most important resource,” yet often “we treat them like dirt.”
Aside from his management skills, “Doc” Cooke was known for his sense of humor as well as his self-deprecating wit. “I’ve listened to a lot of Doc’s speeches,” one colleague remarked, “and after an opening joke or two, he will invariably have his audience in stitches.” Cooke explained his management philosophy simply. The key is “taking your job, but not yourself, very seriously.”
As someone concerned with security and threat assessments, Cooke promoted renovations at the Pentagon to enhance the structural integrity of the building and keep up with long-neglected maintenance. The General Services Administration (GSA) originally had responsibility for upkeep on the building. Cooke became frustrated with visible cracks in the walls, corroded pipes, and frequently overloaded electrical circuits. The technical requirements necessary to keep up with modern communications and logistical advances were not being made. He repeatedly pushed the GSA to modernize the Pentagon, but agency personnel dragged their feet. The proposed renovations were time-consuming and expensive. Few if any managers at the GSA had the appetite to undertake the enormous burden of renovating the world’s largest office building.
The Defense Department paid “rent” to the GSA for use of the Pentagon, and the money went into the Federal Buildings Fund each year. Clearly, the Pentagon was a “cash cow” for the GSA, yet the GSA was not providing good service for the money. Cooke petitioned Congress to transfer “ownership” of the building from the GSA to the DoD so that Defense personnel could handle repairs and renovations themselves.
Walter Freeman, Cooke’s long-time aide, recalled that “Doc” “set up what became known as the ‘Horror Board,’ and took it with him every time he would go up on the Hill to testify.” The board was a flat panel. Cooke affixed tangible examples of deteriorating pieces of the building. “There would be pieces of rusting pipe, damaged wiring, pieces of asbestos and all sorts of things that showed the building was falling apart,” Freeman remembered. Cooke was so relentless that a member of Congress asked in exasperation, “all right, Doc, but you aren’t bringing that thing up here again, are you?”
Congress eventually acceded to Cooke’s requests, transferring responsibility for maintaining the Pentagon to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Cooke immediately oversaw renovations estimated to cost $1.2 billion and last 12 years. When terrorists piloted an airplane into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the renovations were underway, but they had yet been completed. Security experts praised Cooke’s partial renovations as crucial in allowing Defense Department personnel to escape the building after fires had engulfed the building. "The steel that we used to strengthen the walls, the blast-resistant windows, the Kevlar cloth, all these things working together helped protect countless people," Walker Lee Evey, the renovation program manager recalled.
Aside from his numerous DoD projects, Cooke found time to participate in industry associations and good-government groups. He chaired the President’s Council on Management Improvement during the 1990s. He also supported the Public Employee Roundtable which, among other achievements, promoted Public Service Recognition Week to highlight the work of stellar public servants. Cooke was active for many years in the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) as well as the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA).
On June 6, 2002, Cooke was driving his car two miles north of Ruckersville, Virginia, when he veered off the road. The vehicle rolled several times. Grievously injured, Cooke was transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center. He died there from his injuries on June 22, 2022, at age 81.