At the helm of a living memorial
As executive director of the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Janet Cobb’s occupation is unique. How unique? Your worksite has a water cooler. Hers has anti-aircraft guns.
Baldwin County raised and retired from a 42-year military career including leadership roles in Kuwait, the Netherlands, and Washington D.C., Army Reserve Major General Cobb was named the park’s executive director in December 2015. In the days of COVID-19 her leadership skills were put to test like never before. Cobb took time to discuss the ship she loves, the business of running a major tourist attraction, and navigating the “Mighty A” through coronavirus seas of uncertainty. – Emmett Burnett
What were your impressions when boarding the USS Alabama the first time?
I am from Elberta, graduated from Foley High School in 1974, and frequently saw the ship as I traveled to and from Mobile. But it was 1995 before actually walking on board. I escorted a friend’s grandson for a tour. My first impression was about the same as everyone else’s. The ship is much bigger up close. It is massive. They don’t call it a battlewag- on for nothing. It felt like we were walking on a movie set.
With 5 years’ experience as director, what are your impressions today at USS Alabama?
Every day, when I drive down “the hill” from Spanish Fort, I look for the ship. It is like coming home to friends. The intricacies of the vessel, the detail, and preservation still amaze me. Knowing I walk the decks where 2,500 men were tightly packed and the sacrifices they made to live that lifestyle, while other people were shooting at them, is still incredible. I have met some of those crewmen – not many are left. But they left a lasting impression on me.
Describe a typical day at the office.
Every day is different, and I enjoy every day. I check email be- ==fore arriving at the park then tend to daily matters – personnel issues, the gift shop, maintenance, and things that pop up. Fortunately, we have excellent people working here. I do a lot on the financial side of the business, engaged with state agencies, and funding. One of the most rewarding parts of the job is walking the deck, mingling with visitors, and interacting with them. The day is never boring.
What is the number one questino children ask you about the ship?
Can I climb to the top?
On the day of the interview, Battleship park has been closed for over a month. How has the coronavirus affected you and your operations?
This is the first time the park has ever shut down for a non-hurricane related event and it has been the biggest challenge in my tenure. Other than an occasional memorial gift and private donations, we have no income (Battleship Park receives no federal or state funding). Fortunately, we have always practiced sound fiscal planning which started under the direction of my predecessor, director Bill Tunnel. We continue to pay our bills and have kept our staff working. They have plenty to do. On the positive side, we are almost a year ahead in our maintenance schedule and are completing projects and restoration work that would have taken months, perhaps years to do if the park was open. Currently our priorities are paying our bills and protecting our people. We run a tight ship.
What will Battleship Park look like in a post-COVID 19 world?
(After this interview, the Battleship Memorial Park reopened to the public. Keep up with updates at ussalabama.com). Visitors would be good to go on the grounds. It is wide open 40 acres. The ship, submarine, and other facilities have reopened with new safety features in place. Plexiglass barriers will be added as need- ed and staff will be in masks and gloves. Social distancing will be practiced between visitors as needed. Most guests stick together with the people they came with such as families. They will use common sense.
Finally, what is the take-away you want Battleship Park visitors to have when they leave?
I want them to remember not just the park, but those who served. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Of the thousands who manned this ship only a handful are left. Soon they and their stories will be gone. That generation is leaving us and I am concerned our memories of them are fading too. This ship represents those who sacrificed, not just aboard the USS Alabama, but all military in all branches. This ship is a memorial to those who served and those who continue to do so. I hope it always will be.