Elbert Cox (1906-1993) received the Pugsley Medal on two occasions “for his outstanding contributions to the National Park Service.” He was a nationally recognized historian and preservationist who became south regional director of the National Park Service. He was born in Bayfield, Virginia. Except for one five-year assignment from the NPS outside of the state, he spent his entire life in Virginia. His work, though largely directed from Virginia, had national impact.
Cox received a B.A. degree from Roanoke College and an M.A. degree in history from the University of Virginia. For the next two years, he taught history and English at Tazewell High School. In 1931, he started his illustrious career with the NPS as assistant park historian at Colonial National Historical Park. At Yorktown, Cox found himself almost completely without guidance because historians were a new discipline in the NPS. There was no organized program of research and interpretation because he was one of the first people to be hired. In 1933, Cox moved to Washington D.C. to assist the NPS's chief historian in the difficult task of hiring the hundreds of historians and historical technicians who were needed to supervise the extensive number of restoration projects commissioned under the New Deal's public works programs.
Cox was surprised in 1934, when he was requested to apply to be the first superintendent of Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey. He considered himself to be “inexperienced and untrained” for something as complicated as a superintendency. Despite his misgivings, people who worked with Cox at Morristown talked in superlatives when they reminisced about his qualities as an administrator. Such terms as “beloved mentor” and “one of the most valuable men” were used. Cox was variously described as patient, quiet, careful in his judgments, a harmonizer, and a planner.
Meanwhile at Yorktown, dissension with the actions of the superintendent emerged, and to ameliorate this, the NPS moved Cox into that position. In 1938, Cox quickly diffused the problems and established an efficient and effective operation. The transformation that took place was described by a manager at Yorktown at that time:
At Colonial, when I went there in 1940, the park was well established but had recently gone through some administrative scandals, and Elbert Cox had been sent there as a reform superintendent. It was an excellent move. There was no local scandal while he was there, and he soon won the confidence of the local people who had become rather hostile. There was a large accumulation of historical data in the office at Yorktown, and there were fairly effective field exhibits in place.
The war interrupted his career, and in1942 he entered the U.S. Naval Depot in Yorktown. At the time of his release from the service in 1945, he had attained the rank of lieutenant commander. Cox returned to duty with the NPS as associate regional director, Region One, which was the largest of the NPS regional areas, extending southward to include twelve southeastern states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. He was appointed regional director in 1951. His talents in the field of administration produced repeated successes in such areas as scenic and scientific preservation, and historical building restoration and reconstruction. Cox's pioneering efforts in developing the managerial talents of others contributed immeasurably to the NPS's attainments in scenic and scientific conservation and historical preservation. During the Civil War Centennial, he assisted some twenty parks and neighboring communities in arranging appropriate observances and programs. His perception, tact, and patience resulted in high morale and outstanding loyalty throughout his region. An articulate spokesman for conservation and park programs, he played a conspicuous role in advancing the objectives and programs of the NPS and the Department of the Interior. In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments and dedicated public service, the Department of the Interior in 1965 conferred upon him its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award.
The year 1966 saw his retirement from the NPS, thus ending 35 years of service. All too often unmentioned in speeches honoring public administrators are accomplishments that yield direct benefits to the public. Because of his basic appreciation of visitor needs, he contributed immeasurably to the enjoyment of ever-increasing millions of park visitors who vacation across the U.S. - dividends that continued to accrue to future generations.
Cox spent the next five years as director of the Virginia Commission of Outdoor Recreation. It was during the end of this, his second career, he began an association with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). In 1969 he was named the chairman of the Jamestown Committee. In 1970 he was elected to the board of trustees at-large, in 1971 to the executive committee, and in 1973, he was elected president of the APVA – the first male ever to hold this office. After his term as president, he continued his devotion to the APVA by serving countless hours on both the advisory and the planning committees.
The APVA Presents its annual Preservation Awards for 198l. Discovery, pp.3-4.
Hosmer, Charles Bridgeham. (1981). Preservation comes of age: From Williamsburg to the national trust. Charlotteville,VA: University of Virginia Press.