“Root, little pig, or die:” the Dr. Cox story

Dr. Cox and President Leahy shake hands at the dedication of Cox Hall.

Dr. Cox and President Leahy shake hands at the dedication of Cox Hall.

The office of University Archivist Dr. Harold E. Cox looks like it belongs in a museum.


Tucked in the back corner of the Farley Library’s first floor, it sits encased by streak-free glass. The furniture looks antiquated, but beautiful. The desk is a strong cherry-colored wood that radiates importance. Not a book is out of place, not a paper where it shouldn’t be.


While much of Cox’s cleanliness comes from a strict military background, where organization is key; much of it, however, stems from the simple fact that he rarely spends time there.


Cox is often seen eating breakfast in the cafeteria, or walking around campus visiting friends; having began working at the university in 1963, Cox knows his way around the people and places on campus. He’s the only person at Wilkes who has been here for every president. He was here when Wilkes became one of the first schools to admit people of color.


He’s seen so much of Wilkes’ history that as university archivist, he’s made it his personal responsibility to collect and preserve it all.


“There’s no other historical memory here other than what Harold has collected in archives,” Bonnie Culver, director of the creative writing graduate program housed in the building named after Cox, said. “He’s made everything about Wilkes.”


Cox, a history professor emeritus who also teaches the required research class to creative writing graduate students, has a deep love for history. Cox spends his free time researching his own ancestry, finding out that he shares lineage with surprisingly famous people, such as Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, the historical Macbeth.


For someone with such a passion for history, it seems sadly ironic that Cox’s own historical memory is continuously waning: Cox suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative illness that causes exponential memory loss and trouble with cognitive processing.


When recounting stories, Cox is candid; he’s quick to share stories of blunderous ex-students and stories from his time as reserve command sergeant major for the U.S. Army; he moves rapidly from smug satisfaction at his own jokes to a teary-eyed somber when speaking of dead friends.


Despite the candid confidence, Cox often trails off, letting long pauses linger between his words. His frustration with the disease is clear, although he still keeps his sense of humor.


“It’s a most useful disease, because you can always excuse yourself,” Cox said. “If anything goes wrong, I can blame it on Alzheimer’s.”


Those close to Cox realize the toll it takes on him.


“I can’t imagine what it’s like knowing you’re losing your mind when you’re as smart as he is,” Vicki Mayk, director of public relations and friend of Cox, said.


“He’s aware that he doesn’t remember,” Culver, a longtime colleague and close friend, said. “That’s the hardest part for Dr. Cox.”


But Cox is a fighter, and he doesn’t give up. Even before his military involvement, Cox has prided himself on his determination and endurance. He lives his life by a saying he’s been hearing since he was a child – “Root, little pig, or Die.”


And rooting he is. Cox is currently part of an experimental drug testing for his disease, where he takes a regiment of pills for a year. He said he feels better than he did, but him and Culver both admit that it fluxuates.


More important than the medicine to Cox is his own willpower and reserve. While sharing stories about the military, Cox mentions the need to be strong and stand on one’s own.


“You don’t raise competent people if you don’t make them think and learn to survive, particularly in this world,” he said.  


“He’s feisty, that’s part of what keeps him going. He doesn’t want to give up. You have to admire that,” Culver said. “Some people stay at home and don’t do anything. That’s not Harold.”


When all is said and done, disease or not, Harold E. Cox is the kind of person to get what he wants, despite the obstacles.


“I came into this world upside down with the umbilical cord around my neck. I almost was strangled to death. There are a lot of people that had probably wished it had happened,” he said, laughing. “But I’m perfectly happy here.”


Root, little pig, or die.