Helping to Rebuild After 9/11
UW-Parkside alum aids recovery effort as special assistant to New York's governor
By David Buchanan
As special assistant to New York Governor George Pataki, Robert Cole shared the sorrow of New York City and his state when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers.
In the months since Sept. 11, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside alumnus has experienced another emotion: pride.
"I think this showed the best of New York and showed what New York is really all about," says Cole.
A political science graduate, Cole was working in his Albany office when the first tower was attacked.
"Nobody knew what had happened," Cole recalled. "I was watching the TV in my office when the second plane hit. Then, of course, the first thought was: 'Where is the governor?'"
As it turned out, Governor Pataki was safe in his New York City apartment. And even before the dust settled in lower Manhattan, emergency plans and recovery work were underway.
"At that point, everything worked perfectly," Cole says of the emergency plans. "As the governor has said several times, there's no state that could have been more prepared than New York. Our state emergency management office took over. Government did what it needed to do right away."
Despite the assurance provided by the state's quick response, Cole says nothing could prepare him for what he saw when he visited Ground Zero.
"I was there two days after it all happened, and to walk into Ground Zero for the first time " Cole says, his voice trailing off. "Even though you're there, it's hard to believe these two massive buildings actually came down. That's something you never get over."
Cole says the number of people who escaped the buildings amazes him, and he calls it one of the greatest evacuations in history.
Cole's opportunity to witnessand assistNew York's recovery came after a detour west. A native of New York state, he enrolled at UW-Parkside on a racewalking scholarship. His goal was to compete in the Olympics.
"Somewhere along the line, I became a political science major," Cole says. "I really wanted to try to make an Olympic team, plus I liked Parkside. I went out and visited and it was exactly what I was looking for."
UW-Parkside Political Science Professor and Department Chair Anne Gurnack immediately saw Cole's public service potential.
"Rob always had superb people skills," Gurnack recalled. "He's a very nice person; a thoughtful, polite individual."
As Cole neared graduation, he had the opportunity to put what he learned in class to work back home.
"In 1992, I applied for an internship and went to work for then-Assemblyman Pataki," Cole says. "I worked in his field office and also worked on his campaign. He was running for the state senate that year. He won by about 450 votes and became Senator Pataki."
A few years later, Cole was in Atlanta training for the Olympic racewalking team when he decided to permanently switch from walking to runningrunning a portion of Pataki's campaign for governor, that is.
"Up to two days before [the election], the polls had us down as much as 18 points. We won by three or four points, so don't believe polls," Cole says with a laugh.
After Pataki won the election, Cole became his special assistant, supervising the governor's personal appearances and traveling with him. Now, he's helping his home state recover from Sept. 11.
"New York is strong. New Yorkers have huge resiliency. I've never seen us quite this strong and together," Cole says. "Everybody is united and determined."
David Buchanan is director of public relations at UW-Parkside.