- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Patrolman Robert Cook spends his days answering questions at Tupelo City Hall.

He’s stationed outside the mayor’s office from Monday to Friday. He’s there to answer the phone and help visitors get where they need to be.

“They come and ask where Elvis’ birthplace is,” the 57-year-old Tupelo resident said. “I’ll have people from Australia or England or France. They’ll ask you and you’ve got to understand what they’re saying.”

The vast majority are polite interactions, but people can arrive ready to unleash their frustrations, and Cook is often the first person they encounter.

“Sometimes people are upset and they want to vent. Boy, can they vent,” he said. “But it’s funny: Once they get it out of their systems, they apologize. I tell them, ‘It’s fine. Let’s get you some help.’ I’d probably be mad, too, if it happened to me. It’s not personal. It’s never personal.”

In some ways, the Pontotoc native took his first steps toward the city hall job when he signed up for a six-year hitch in the Army after high school.

He’d grown up with a talent for looking at machines and figuring out how they worked, and the Army put those abilities to use at bases in Kentucky and Germany.

“After I got out of the service, I went to Illinois Technical College and got a two-year degree,” he said. “When you’re young, you don’t think about it. A gentleman told me, ‘You know the work, but you don’t have the paper.’”

At 29, he was the oldest member of his class. Cook knew he wanted that degree, but he didn’t know what it would mean to others.

“I thought I’d lost it one time, and then I saw it in the Bible,” he said. “At home, my mother has the family Bible. She put my degree in that Bible. It means that much to her. I don’t have to display it. I leave it there.”

He came back to Northeast Mississippi in the early 1990s. Some might recognize him from the carousel at the Mall at Barnes Crossing. On and off, he’s worked there for about 18 years, and still can be found at the controls on Saturday nights.

“They’re bringing their kids to the horses and introducing them,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘This is Mr. Robert.’ They introduce me to their kids and they ride the horses.

“They remember you, you remember them. Sometimes it takes a while to remember. But it’s cool.”

Cook credited his military background with convincing him to become a reserve officer with Tupelo Police Department in 1999. He wanted to serve others.

After a six-week course, he volunteered his time to work different events, including fun runs and festivals, to free up regular officers for other duties.

“Reserves are volunteers. You don’t get a dime for that,” he said. “They’re doing what they’re doing because they want to do something for the community.”

When he was laid off from a job about four years ago, he was told about an opening for a police officer at Tupelo City Hall. He’s since worked his way from part time to full time.

“Mr. Cook is such a perfect fit,” Mayor Jason Shelton said. “He’s a trained police officer. He’s here to protect us, but at the same time, he’s such a pleasant person and has such a calm demeanor. He’s the perfect fit for city hall. We’re honored to have him here every day.”

Cook said he loves the chance to interact with different types of people, and he occasionally gets to indulge one of his other passions while on the job.

About a year and a half ago, a visitor wanted to know where he could charge his electric car. Cook directed him to the CDF building.

“I always wanted to see a car made by the Tesla company,” he said. “He allowed me to look at his car. I got to look at the batteries and how everything fit together. It was so cool.”

Cook tinkers with motors and electronics during his off hours, and he plans to stick with his carousel job.

He’s still a reserve officer. He was at Veterans Park to help manage traffic for the Run with the King 5K during the 2016 Elvis Presley Festival.

He also appreciates going to Tupelo City Hall five days a week to help people get where they need to be.

“A lot of time, I’m thankful to God because I don’t quite understand how I got here,” he said. “I like being around people. That’s just me, and I really enjoy it here.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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