For the past 15 years, Cathy Cox has served as either president of a university or dean of a college in Georgia. She most recently was inaugurated on Aug. 19 as Georgia College & State University’s 12th president.
So, it seems surprising that higher education was never on Cox’s horizon. Political office, yes, but higher education, not so much. Yet every path of her life -- from the one she joined at birth to the ones she chose -- seemed to prepare her for, and obviously led her to, just that.
Cox made history in 1999 when she became the first woman elected as Georgia’s Secretary of State. She continued making history during her eight-year tenure as she implemented many “firsts” for that office.
In its beginning, Cathy’s life was a “very quintessential small-town life,” she said of her childhood in Bainbridge, Ga. “But the quirky part of my life growing up was that we lived in a funeral home because my father was a funeral director,” she shared, describing how her parents and she and her three younger sisters lived upstairs in Cox Funeral Home. She laughed and divulged that she’d get invited to spend the night at friends’ houses, but no one ever wanted to spend the night at her home.
When Cathy was midway through elementary school, her family moved to a traditional home. Her younger years were filled with taking art lessons and piano lessons from her mother, being involved in numerous school clubs including the high school band’s dance line, and many other civic and service-oriented clubs. “My family was so service oriented. That was who we were, always involved in the community and giving time to community causes,” she said. “That’s always been what my family was about and what was expected of us.”
Good citizenship was a given because, in addition to his service through the funeral home, Cathy’s father also was a city councilman and mayor. “My dad was involved in politics from my earliest remembrance,” she said, noting that she and her sisters helped their father’s campaigns. “We’d go up and down the street knocking on every door, giving them cards and asking them to vote for my dad, and then they’d pick us up at the corner and take us to the next street. So, we often say I had the effective genes of a child of a politician to grow up and go into politics.”
When she was a young teen, her father, Walter, was elected a state lawmaker. She reminisced of them reading the newspaper together every morning and discussing the stories regarding legislative matters and her father explained what was happening behind the scenes. “So, I learned all the inner workings of the Georgia legislature and relationships,” she said. “I was just captivated by the workings of the legislature, so I knew I wanted to be in or around legislative politics in particular; I was really fascinated by it.”
As she grew older and contemplated college and her future, Cathy briefly considered art because it was what she grew up with. Her mother, an accomplished artist, had “taught us all kind of things related to art, art appreciation, color design, everything from doing stone rubbings in a cemetery to really learning how to draw in perspective, and to appreciate fine art,” Cathy said. But her mother dissuaded her from pursuing art because it might be difficult to make a living. Her father said he didn’t care what she did as long as she worked and could support herself. “He didn’t necessarily encourage me to pursue politics because I think he thought it was a little rough and tumble for girls. In those days, there weren’t all that many women in the state legislature,” she said. “I just knew I was interested in it, and I never, ever considered higher education even though two of my three sisters went into education. But that didn’t seem to be my calling.” Her third sister is a businesswoman and city council member.
So, she started out in horticulture. The choice seemed natural because she had spent a lot of time working with her grandmothers in their gardens and enjoyed working summer jobs in a plant nursery as a teen. After earning her associate’s degree at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, she got a job at Callaway Gardens. But it only took one summer of working outside in Georgia’s scorching temperatures for her to realize she’d rather have an inside job.
Because she enjoyed writing, Cox decided to pursue journalism at the University of Georgia, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1980. During college and the two years after, she was a crime reporter for The Post Searchlight and Gainesville Times. “I loved being a reporter,” she said. “I don’t know that it’s out of my blood yet. I see some crime tape and I want to go across that crime tape with my little notebook and ask the police what’s going on. I was used to doing that and they were used to seeing me.”
Cox went above and beyond the call of duty and slept with a police scanner so she could go out in the middle of the night to cover crime and fires. She learned from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office how to shoot a handgun, attended autopsies of murder victims, and learned all the backroads so she could chase down whatever was happening. She rode in ambulances to better understand what emergency medical personnel go through in their jobs. And she became a certified firefighter so she could better cover fires and take closeup pictures. “It taught me a lot and scared the daylights out of me,” she said. “But I really wanted to get the turnout gear the firemen wear because it would allow me to get closer to a fire to take pictures. And when I went to a fire in the middle of the night, I wanted to feel productive because these guys worked so hard. So, at least I could roll hoses after I took pictures, to help them out a little bit before I went home. So, I learned so much and gained so much respect for law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, and firefighters, and developed a lot of good relationships with them and had a good understanding of them.”
about it. I never had intended to study law, but I went with the idea of learning about law so I can go write about it. But then I found out real lawyers write all the time. Who knew?” she said with a laugh. “So that changed my perspective and I ended up taking jobs with lawyers and that opened my eyes to what I could do as a practicing lawyer.”
Cox graduated magna cum laude from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, and for the next 10 years, she practiced law in both Bainbridge and Atlanta. During that time, she was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, serving Miller, Seminole, Early and Decatur counties. She served from 1993 to 1996, at which time she relinquished her seat to become Deputy Secretary of State, a position she held three years before she became elected Secretary of State.
It was on the campaign trail that she first heard concerns that she was a woman seeking elected office on the state level. In 1998, no woman had been elected to any statewide office except the school superintendent. “So, every week I had to tell people that ‘yes, a woman could do this job. It does not involve any heavy lifting so a woman could do it as well as any man,’” she said. “But people hadn’t seen it, so they had doubts. It was very frustrating, but I won and then I was reelected four years later, so I hope I opened the door to make that a non-issue.”
It was during this time that she connected with the man who would become her husband. She’d met Mark Dehler earlier when she served on the House Judiciary Committee and Mark, a mediation attorney, attended those meetings for a trial lawyers group; however, they were nothing more than acquaintances in those days. When running for Secretary of State, her campaign staff knew Mark was a pilot and had an airplane, and she needed to be flown to different places on the campaign trail. “I didn’t even know he had an airplane, but he started flying me around the state and I trusted him. In the middle of a campaign, the last thing on your mind is being romantically interested in anybody because you don’t’ have time for that kind of thing,” she pointed out. “But all of a sudden, there it was in front of my face.” Her sisters teased her, saying she just wanted Mark for his plane and would dump him after the campaign. “But he was a keeper, and he was really a great help in developing strategy for me and supporting me through all of the pressure I had to go through, so I really lucked out,” she added. They’ve been married more than 20 years.
Once she was in office, Cox said she knew she was being watched closely because of the doubts that a woman could do the job. She said an unexpected aspect was the focus on her appearance. “Every time I did an interview on TV, I’d get phone calls from people and all they called about was, ‘Oh, I love your hair, where did you get your hair cut?’ or ‘Where did you buy that suit you’re wearing?’. And I’d think, ‘did you even listen to anything I said?’ There were constant comments about appearance, appearance, appearance, and that was frustrating because I knew nobody was calling my male counterparts asking them where they got their hair cut. That over-emphasis was frustrating and, sadly, I think a lot of that is still there for women who run for office. Maybe not as much, but sadly, I think it’s a societal thing that we’re going to have to play through in time.”
Although no woman has been Governor of Georgia, Cox said when she ran for Governor in 2006, she didn’t come across anyone asking if a woman could handle the job or focusing on her appearance. “Maybe times have changed enough that we are mostly beyond that, thankfully,” she opined.
But that also could be attributed to her many accomplishments as Secretary of State, the first of which was working through technology to bring state government into the modern era and accessible to all citizens. Her office created websites to make it easy for searching corporation business information and filing legal paperwork, and for public access to candidates’ campaign information, and for the licensed professionals of more than 200 occupations and professions across the state to renew their license online instead of via mail, thus saving them from possibly being out of work while waiting for their license to be renewed.
But what she is most known for is her work to make Georgia the first state in the nation to implement statewide electronic voting in 2002. After the hanging chads on punch card ballots debacle in Florida, she discovered that Georgia had lost almost 94,000 votes in its election due to antiquated voting equipment. So, she said she, as an elected Democrat, worked with both sides of the aisle and received overwhelming support for the new equipment that would be good for all Georgians at the time.
Next, Cox put in her bid to become Georgia’s first female governor but lost the 2006 primary election. She was in the process of pursuing returning to law practice when she received a call “completely out of the blue” from a trustee at Young Harris who told her they were looking for a president. “And I completely thought he had the wrong number,” Cox said. “And I said, ‘I have a JD, not a PhD, and he paused and said, ‘well at least you have a D, and we want to talk to you,’” she recalled. While she considered the request, she taught at the University of Georgia School of Law for a semester.
When she decided to apply at Young Harris, the search firm told her she was not the “traditional applicant,” so she probably wouldn’t be hired. “But I kept getting these callbacks and the next thing you know, they offered me a job as the president of a college where I had no experience being an administrator,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful to those trustees that they were looking for a different kind of leader and gave me a chance. So, that loss of an election opened up a whole new world to me in higher education that I would never have pursued because I never would have felt qualified to pursue it. … But it changed my life.”
During her decade at Young Harris, she took the school from a two-year to a four-year school, which the trustees desired, and built $100 million worth of new buildings, and doubled the size of the faculty and student body.
From Young Harris, Cox went on to become Dean of Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, her alma mater.
When she was first contacted about applying for the presidency at Georgia College, she recalled the thrill of being on a liberal arts university campus and the holistic educational process. “I thought this could be a good fit for me and I’m really grateful it all worked out,” she said.
- - - - - - -
Story by Lynn Hobbs and Katie Marie McDaniel, published in Lakelife Sept-Oct 2022
Cathy Cox’s advice to other women pursuing their dreams:
“You miss a lot of life if you don’t take a chance and take risks, and you miss this chance to grow and reach more of your own potential if you don’t take more risks. They’ve got to be intelligent risks, but you’ve got to put yourself out there in the world beyond your comfort zone to push yourself to do and achieve more. … I guess I’ve always figured out, ‘okay, if I do that, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Okay, somebody might laugh at me, but life will go on.’ …
"Preparation is always important. Sometimes women are over prepared, but if that’s what it takes, that helps you take that risk. Just know that if the worst happens and you don’t make it, the next chance will be better. …
"Some women have got to move beyond their comfort level, they’ve got to take nontraditional jobs and pathways, and study in nontraditional fields. There’s not a woman who’s going to succeed in business without understanding how to read financial statements. Period. And so women (need) to study accounting and finance and those things that are essential to business success. …
"And take opportunities to learn new skills. That’s why I pursued law school. Law school for me was a great power equalizer. Once I earned a law degree, it gave me the ability to push back against people who had always tried to push me down as a woman. Because I knew what I was talking about, it gave me the tools to push back and to be on a level playing field. I can’t say it enough, you’ve got to take risks."