NORMAN — A lifetime ago, it seems, Penn Square Bank had failed and Oklahoma’s economy was in a severe downslide. For a single parent and real estate agent like Carol Coles, those were tough times, but Coles is nothing if not resilient.
She took a job in the Norman city clerk’s office, thinking in a year the real estate market would bounce back and she’d be selling homes again in Norman.
Instead, Coles settled in at city hall and returned to college to get her master’s degree in public administration. For nearly 26 years, she has served as an administrative assistant to city leadership.
Now, Coles is retiring. A reception in her honor at city hall from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Friday will allow friends to say “thank you” for her years of service.
Coles was hired by then-city clerk Mary Hatley, then moved into the city manager’s office a few months later when Eugene Miller asked if she’d like to work for him. She has worked for six city managers and six mayors.
“The role definitely changed, and responsibilities were increased,” Coles said. That included staffing four city commissions.”
“The Human Rights Commission was established by a vote of the people, so it has a really unique mission and function,” former chair Lisa Schmidt said. “Carol really helped us understand that role and what had been tried and was successful in the past and what some of the continuing challenges were.”
Coles’ deep understanding of city government aided in the commission’s work.
“I think her biggest contribution was knowing how the city of Norman works and acting as a bridge between the commission and the city,” Schmidt said. “She works with so many people who are only there for a few terms in the commissions.
“She works really hard to get to know the commissioners and how they can contribute during their service. She’s the constant — she really functions as a liaison.”
Coles helped implement the annual interfaith breakfast to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Schmidt said.
“The city of Norman really prides itself on citizen input,” Coles said.
The commissions are important to her, but if she has any favorite job assignments, those include the youth council and showing the school children around city hall when they come to city council meetings to receive the mayor’s citizenship awards.
The citizenship awards were established by Mayor Ron Henderson, who received a citizenship award in third grade that his mother kept for years.
Youth Council is for juniors and seniors in high school and is often the first look at how city staff and city government work to serve residents.
“Youth Council is probably the most fun of anything I do,” Coles said. “Those kids are so bright.”
Coles also works closely with each mayor, helping them with correspondence and other responsibilities.
“We’ve had wonderful mayors,” Coles said.
She started under Dick Reynolds and has served under Bill Nations, Bob Thompson, Ron Henderson, Harold Haralson and current mayor Cindy Rosenthal.
“Working with Carol has been a joy,” Rosenthal said. “Our close collaboration on the inclusive community dialogues will always be one of my most rewarding efforts as mayor because of Carol.”
Coles is reluctant to talk about herself and gave no clues about how she survived the transition of working for six different city managers.
“It’s almost like you change jobs,” Coles said. “Each new city manager brings in an idea or a vision of the office and how they want to see the city run.”
The longest-term city manager was Ron Wood, who was Coles’ boss for a decade. She also has worked under Andy Anderson, Jeff Raley, Brad Gambill and, for the past eight years, current city manager Steve Lewis.
“Steve is probably the most hands-on city manager,” Coles said. “He enjoys the detail of each department, so he likes to be involved.”
While she doesn’t like to toot her own horn, Coles is quick to praise others. Her proudest memory comes from the 2008 Christmas Eve snowstorm.
She said staff from all city departments worked hard throughout the holiday, pulling people out of cars. A city sanitation worker helped save a mother who was stranded with her baby. Some city staff didn’t go home that night.
“I thought our city employees were exemplary,” Coles said.
The same could be said of her service during various crisis.
“Carol’s service was really on display during the ice storm in 2007,” Lewis said. “Although she was without power in her home for a week, she still spent grueling hours at the office helping internal departments, coordinating public information, assisting citizens and performing a number of other behind-the-scene tasks.”
Coles said Gambill was the funniest city manager she has worked for, but beyond that, she refuses to pick favorites. There have been a lot of years and a lot of good memories. Her competence has kept things running smoothly through various administrations.
“Carol’s been a very versatile assistant for me,” Lewis said. “Whether it’s coordinating our city Youth Council, keeping up with my schedule or fielding inquiries about everything from sales tax collections to barking dogs, she’s always up to the task.”
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