Long-time co-workers more like sisters after 23 years

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District
Published June 17, 2021

f life is more fun when your co-workers are your friends, then office administrators Patty Cockrell and Donna Bowling have hit the jackpot. The pair of long-time friends have been by each other’s side through hardships and triumphs, all of which led them to find fulfilling careers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District.

For 23 years, the pair have worked together, first in the private sector, and for the last decade in the Upper Kentucky Area in Sassafras, Kentucky. Cockrell serves as the Office Administrator for the Upper Kentucky Area Office, and in an office merely steps away, Bowling, serves as the Office Administrator for Carr Creek Lake. 

Both women were working together in a private industry factory when it shut down without notice. Cockrell, employed there as a machine operator for more than 14 years, and Bowling, an auditor for 13 years, felt lost. 

When it seemed they had no options, a community program for displaced workers provided the pair with hope. 

“It was an opportunity to get my college degree,” said Cockrell. “My husband told me it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” Looking back now, she says it was one of the best decisions she ever made.

Without looking back, they enrolled in Hazard Community College in Hazard, Kentucky, in pursuit of business degrees.

Cockrell, who had been out of school for 38 years, and Bowling, for 35, were intimidated, but determined.

“We didn’t know what college later in life would look like,” said Bowling. “We were determined though, to graduate and find jobs. Patty would come to the house and we would study for our exams. We got through it together.” 

Cockrell recounts that even when Bowling had a back injury, she wasn’t going to let her fail. “I grabbed her pillow and pulled her books and made sure she didn’t miss her final exams.”

“We had all of the same classes together, and we were each other’s biggest cheerleaders,” said Bowling.

Their co-workers say this is symbolic of how the pair has always been—there for each other and devoted to the mission set before them. 
Both women excelled at college, making the dean’s list every semester and graduating with 3.8+ GPAs. They were also each the first in their families to graduate from college. 

As they were finishing their last semester of college in 2011, the nearby USACE area office was in search of two new administrative officers. When USACE personnel contacted the local college for potential candidates, instructors there pointed to Cockrell and Bowling and recommended they apply for the vacant positions. 

“I was in the right place at the right time when this came along,” said Cockrell.

“We were in a motel together in Cincinnati, Ohio, when we both got the call. She got the call first, and 10 minutes later I got the call,” said Bowling. Immediately the pair started jumping up and down. 

“It all worked out, and all it fell right into our laps,” said Cockrell.

They have been thankful for the opportunity to work for USACE ever since.

“Here’s how great these people are to work for: the day I was on my way here for the interview my mom passed away,” said Bowling. “The crew here was so thoughtful from those very first moments and told me they would do the interview two weeks later.” 

They claim it is the people in the Upper Kentucky Area that have made it feel like home for the last decade. “We’re just like family,” said Bowling. We’re all here for each other.”

Cockrell echoed that sentiment. “We’ve been through some doozies, and we’ve been through them all together,” said Cockrell. “It’s a great place to work, and I would recommend it to anybody.” 

“Not to mention the Corps offers so many opportunities,” said Bowling. “The benefits of a job with USACE are countless. Beyond a doubt it’s the best job I’ve ever encountered,” said Bowling.

Cockrell says she enjoys working for USACE because of what it represents. “We have such a diverse mission that even some people that live around here don’t understand what all we do.” 

“It’s just a pleasure working here,” said Cockrell. “It’s not a job where you get up and want to come to work. It makes your mindset different coming to work here.”

As administrative officers, both have similar, yet different duties. Cockrell serves the entire Upper Kentucky Area, often supporting the other lakes such as Cave Run, Buckhorn, and Taylorsville lakes. Bowling serves as the dedicated office administrator for Carr Creek Lake and says the first thing she does each morning is start a pot of coffee for the team.

Project Manager Jesse Saylor, who has been at Carr Creek Lake for more than 22 years laughed from across the office and said, “Don’t let her fool you. She answers every phone call, she greets every visitor, she simply does it all.”

“The place doesn’t run right without them,” Saylor said.

And, nobody is quite sure how it will feel without the two working together as Cockrell will retire at the end of the year to spend more time with her three children, eight grandchildren, and 17 great grandchildren. 

While Cockrell has enough to keep busy, Bowling isn’t ready to face the thought of her friend not being there by her side. 

“It’s going to be heartbreaking. I don’t even want to think about it,” said Bowling. “Shoot, it’s been 23 years we’ve been side-by-side working together. It’s going to be so tough.”

Upper Kentucky Area Manager Willie Whitaker sums it up best saying, “We have been through a lot together these past very quick ten years, we have laughed a lot and cried a little; we have been through births and deaths, comforted each other in times of sorrow and found humor in the most intense deadline driven mission requirements.  I would proudly say that our administrators are not only the backbone of the agency but the driving force in which all things revolve.  My toughest days on the job are when Patty and Donna are off that day. If you want something talked about give it to Management—if you want something accomplished give it to an administrator.”