Remembering A Great Leader

This year has most certainly been challenging for everyone, but it has been especially difficult for the West Virginia Division of Forestry. Like many, not only were we trying to adjust to the “new normal,” but we were also dealing with a great loss—the unexpected loss of our leader and friend, Director Barry Cook.

If you knew Barry, then you also know sitting still wasn’t his strong suit. He was a mover and a shaker. A dealer and a closer. It was no surprise to those who knew Barry that even during a stay-at-home order he was finding things to do for the Division and around his house. We were all shocked when Barry passed away from injuries he sustained from a fall while painting his house—just one day shy of his 71st birthday.

Since then I have wondered if it was a shock because it was unexpected or because we never saw Barry as vulnerable. All we saw was a vibrant, strong leader who gave everything he had to his family, friends, and employees.

As soon as Barry was appointed, he went to work traveling to all the forestry regions to meet with employees. He gave them the opportunity to express their concerns, listened to their suggestions, and reassured them that they were an invaluable part of moving the Division forward. For the first time in years, employees saw their leader more like they were—wearing a uniform and work boots instead of a suit and tie. It was a refreshing change that did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by the employees. During his three years with the Division, Barry did everything he could to promote employees, increase pay, purchase much needed equipment and improve the lives of everyone that worked for the Division. He wasn’t a leader who just touted having an open-door policy. He was a leader who had one.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions have changed the way we work, celebrate, and worship. However, it wasn’t until we lost Barry that I realized that this pandemic has even changed the way we grieve. Usually the ones left behind can get together to comfort each other, seek understanding, express condolences to the family, and simply pay tribute to the one that had gone on. COVID-19 cheated us—like so many others dealing with the loss of a loved one or a friend amid this pandemic—out of a normal grieving process. We had to grieve the same way we were forced to conduct business—virtually. Updates regarding Barry’s condition, changes in reporting structure and even prayers for him were held remotely. For many of us, it was an impersonal way to have to deal with such a personal issue.

While I understand that technology is an important part of today’s world, there are certain things that can never be replaced, such as personal interactions that make up who we are. We have never really appreciated the value of a strong handshake, a simple hug, frequent visits from family and friends, or the opportunity to say one last goodbye to a person we loved and admired before we were restricted by COVID-19. The good news is this isn’t forever. Eventually the restrictions of COVID-19 will no longer hinder us from honoring Barry the way he deserved. Most of you know that a memorial tree planting service was being planned for this fall but because the pandemic is still prohibiting us from gathering in large groups, we have decided that the Spring of 2021 would be more conducive to an unrestricted service where we can celebrate Barry’s life the way that he lived it—big! I pray the restrictions of this pandemic are not the new normal, but rather are just temporary. It is imperative that the kids today have the chance to experience personal touch and important interactions necessary to become successful adults. Otherwise, how will they know what they are missing?

Years ago, someone asked where I wanted to go in my career. I jokingly told them I was going to run the Division of Forestry. Honestly, it was just a pipedream, but here I am. Prior to being appointed by Governor Jim Justice to lead the Division of Forestry, I spent the last two decades of my career as a regional forester with the Division. Although I am truly honored to be appointed to serve as the new State Forester, it is with mixed emotions that I accepted this position after the loss of my friend. I know that following Barry will not be an easy task, but I plan to continue his management style and much of what he started. I’m going to make it a point to let employees know how much they are appreciated; I’m going to work with our forestry and natural resources partners on issues that promote industry and protect natural resources; and I’m going to have an actual open-door policy.

Finally, on behalf of the Division of Forestry, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank all of you for the outpouring of love and support that you bestowed upon us during Barry’s accident and passing. The heartfelt condolences and expressions of sympathy from our forestry family contributed greatly to our ability to heal and move forward. Barry said numerous times that his goal was to leave the Division better than he found it and there is no question that he accomplished that.