photo Hans Ng Yee
Willie Cottrell, who worked for Troy for 57 years, can often be found in the campus dining hall, where he comes for lunch and dinner, visiting with friends and employees.
Hans Ng Yee
It was late into a night in the 1940s. Willie Cottrell, who became a 57-year Troy University employee and now frequents the dining hall for meals, was out at the Conecuh River with his friends, setting up hooks all night long to catch fish. They would then fry the fish in the middle of the night by the river.
Cottrell also watched movies at the theaters in Troy, where tickets used to cost only 10 cents.
Cottrell was born to Joe Cottrell and Annie May Cottrell on July 9, 1936, in Troy. He had three brothers and two sisters, who are all deceased.
He worked for what is now Troy University from 1958 until his retirement in 2015. During that time, the school changed its name and had four chancellors, or presidents: Dr. Charles Bunyan Smith, Dr. Frank Ross Stewart, Dr. Ralph Adams and Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr.
Hawkins described Cottrell as a “dedicated man who has been here for a long time.”
“I’ve been here long enough to see Sartain Hall being built and then tore down,” Cottrell said. “I also remember when Riddle-Pace Field wasn’t there.
“There used to be a student center next to the dining hall, too.”
Cottrell’s childhood was a mix of fun and work.
“I had a fantastic time growing up in Troy,” Cottrell said. “I remember picking blackberries and blueberries to make pies.”
One of the best things in his teen years was when he got his first bicycle.
“We’d be out at night riding when the moon is bright,” he said. “My friends and I would be riding all night long.”
He said the most difficult thing about being a teenager back then was always having a hard day’s work.
Cottrell spent most of his childhood helping his father, Joe Cottrell, on the farm.
“The first job I had was on a farm planting corn and peanuts with my dad; I used to stack sacks of peanuts, as well,” Cottrell said. “My dad would get paid by his employer back then, and he would distribute the pay around our family.
“During harvesting season, I had to peel and cook a lot of sweet potatoes in a pressure cooker. Later, I would deep-freeze it in fruit jars for preservation.”
Cottrell recalled his childhood and the differences between his parents’ discipline and that of parents today.
“If I disobeyed my parents, I wouldn’t be able to get away with it,” he said. “They disciplined me well.
“I remember falling asleep in the cornfield one night. I woke up and tried getting in bed at 4 a.m., but still got a whooping from my mother.”
When he was 21, Cottrell headed towards north in search for more work opportunities. He drove a truck and went as far as Delaware, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. He remembers picking peaches in Pennsylvania.
In 1958, Cottrell came back to Troy and found work with Troy State College; it was the same year when Saga Corp. took over as the caterer of the dining hall.
At Troy State, he and a few other workers would rendezvous around campus helping to set up venues for events.
Cottrell worked with Saga at Stewart Hall, which was the dining hall then and is now the International Arts Center. He would pour juice out of cans, make his favorite sweet potato croquettes for the students and churn ice cream at Eldridge Hall.
Saga is has been long gone from the campus, but the name still lives on as a nickname for the dining hall. Today Sodexo has taken over as the food service company.
Cottrell worked at Saga with his brother, Rodell Cottrell, who died two years ago.
He said his brother, who worked in the dish room with him, would always be watching him and making sure he wasn’t late for work.
“He was withdrawn and quiet, but watches and hears everything,” Willie Cottrell said. “When he talks, he knows what he’s talking about.”
He also remembers attending seminars and training programs on how to do his job and handle food.
Kasandra Miller, a cashier at the dining hall, has known Cottrell since her days of working in the dish room.
“You really would love talking to him,” Miller said. “He would tell us stories of when Troy University was still just dirt.”
“I’m a family man,” Cottrell said. “My son who passed away last year was a rock ’n’ roll fan, and I used to bring him to watch Tina Turner live.”
Cottrell said that if he hadn’t ended up at Troy State, he would have been a professional singer.
“I love music,” he said. “It’s good for the brain.”
He provided renditions of the Lionel Richie song “All Night Long” and the Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”
Cottrell looks up to his grandparents as his heroes.
“They taught me that if you want something, you have to work hard to get it,” he said. “You got to advance out there.”
Cottrell has seen students who have dropped out and gotten a job at the dining hall and housing office. He advises students to stay in school and make good grades.
“You better suck it all up when you slip and slide in college,” he said. “How are you going to let all the knowledge out when you don’t suck it all up?
“Educate your mind to keep moving. We’ve got to keep up with what’s going on right now. If you don’t get an education, you’ll get left behind.”
Cottrell attended Academy Street High School in Troy but didn’t get to attend college.
His granddaughter graduated from Troy University a few years ago and graduated again from Troy Online last year. She now works as a parole officer in Atlanta.
At 82 years old, Cottrell drives a mile from his home to the dining hall for lunch every day and some days for dinner. Students in the dining hall recognize him by his brown beret and dark sunglasses.
“I see him around Saga a lot when I’m there,” said TingTing Pei, a freshman business major from Kunming, China. “I’ve rarely seen him without his sunglasses on.”
Cottrell maintains a close relationship with the dining hall staff, faculty members, students and Chancellor Hawkins.