Carol Cockrell, retiring executive director of Buffalo Hill Terrace, has a gift for making strangers feel like old friends. She knew immediately that the staff at the senior retirement community shared her gift.
On her first day in 1998, Cockrell received a big hug and warm greeting from the front desk staff the moment she came in the door.
"I felt so welcomed," she said.
Thinking back over her career, Cockrell, 67, said her diverse roles have had a common denominator - hospitality. From serving as a Pan Am flight attendant to helping her husband Gary, a pastor, with congregations and the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, Cockrell has made a life's work of making others feel at home.
"Here at Buffalo Hill Terrace, hospitality is the most important thing we do," she said. "No matter who you are, when you walk in the door, it's a happy place to be."
Besides administration, a good part of Cockrell's job has been conducting tours for potential new residents of Buffalo Hill Terrace, a facility offering both independent and assisted retirement living. She enjoys visiting with them about community living to tamp down their fears.
Cockrell compares Buffalo Hill Terrace to taking a cruise but with a suite instead of a small cabin. Residents have a wide array of activities from exercise classes to going to the dining room for a snack or meal.
"Our chef even does ice carving," she said. "And housekeepers clean up your room."
Best of all, Cockrell said, is the readily available socialization missed by many seniors living alone at home. She said residents make friends and really care about each other.
They have a choice of relaxing alone in their apartment or chatting with staff and others in common areas.
"These people have led very interesting lives," she said. "I love going to resident association meetings and hearing their stories."
Cockrell's life story began in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family moved to California where she attended and graduated with a major in French from California Lutheran University, where she met her husband, Gary.
Her studies included spending a year at the Sorbonne in Paris which helped improve her French - a skill that came in handy on her next job as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways. She flew for a year while Gary started seminary in St. Paul.
The couple married and he spent three years finishing up his seminary degree while she worked at jobs from running a day care to teaching third grade. Cockrell also took graduate courses in education and French.
After Gary finished seminary, they moved to North Hollywood where Cockrell had the first of their four sons and Gary became pastor of his first congregation.
"We were at Emmanuel Lutheran for three years," she said.
She and Gary moved on to pastor the congregation of Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California. In 1980, the family moved here for Gary's position as executive director of Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp.
"We loved it in Palo Alto," she said. "But we were called to come here."
It was a major change from sunny California but Cockrell adjusted easily to the climate after her childhood in Minnesota. She laughed as she remembered arriving here in the slush and snow of March.
The area had very few stores and choices of merchandise 30 years ago.
"I had a terrible time finding boots," she said.
Cockrell stayed home with her four children and was really active in their church. As the children got older, she worked part time at the camp during some of their 17 summers living at the Lutheran camp on Flathead Lake.
"It was a great place to raise children," she said.
Cockrell enjoyed greeting people arriving at camp and putting on coffees to welcome visiting pastors. The call came to join Buffalo Hill Terrace while she was with Gary on a sabbatical pastor position in Lodi, Calif.
She recalled that they asked her to consider a position in administration or in development. Cockrell was taken back and didn't know if she had the skills to do either job.
"I thought ‘My goodness, why are they considering me?'"
After a lot of thought and prayer, Cockrell called and accepted the administration position. She decided her strength was working with people in management and marketing.
"Every one of us has been given gifts and we need to use those gifts to benefit the ministry," she said.
When she arrived from Lodi in November of 1998, Cockrell stayed in a Buffalo Hill Terrace apartment since their family home had been rented for a year. The experience gave her great insight into what it was like living in the retirement community.
"I had two weeks of training with Gail Boveng - I was really glad that she was just a phone call away," Cockrell said. "It really went well. Of course, you always have a steep learning curve in a new job."
Over the years, the job evolved to a point that Buffalo Hill Terrace divided her position between two new people. Tracy Bridges takes over the tours and marketing while Carla Wilton was hired for the administrative functions.
Wilton has a degree in social work.
"I think that will be a great gift for this ministry," Cockrell said.
She leaves just as Buffalo Hill Terrace launched a $14 million expansion including a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center, a commons area for assisted living, six new assisted-living apartments and eight new independent-living apartments.
"I'm excited for the staff and assisted-living residents to all be in one place," she said. "Now the travel time for staff takes a couple of minutes. This way, they'll be available immediately."
With a new common area, she said the assisted-living residents will create a community of their own.
Cockrell said the banner she hangs up every Christmas makes her think of the half century of evolution and growth at Buffalo Hill Terrace.
"It says Emmanuel - God with us," she said with a smile.
After her last day on Dec. 17, Cockrell was looking forward to spending Christmas with her family, including all four boys and their families.
Her oldest son and his wife are clothing designers living in New York City. Two sons live in Portland where her second son works as an engineer for Intel Corporation and the youngest is a sous chef. Her third son, who earned a master's in social work, has a private counseling practice and works for Turning Point in Missoula.
She couldn't be prouder of all of them and her five grandchildren.
In retirement, Cockrell envisions playing the piano, tole painting and expanding her computer skills. When her husband retires next spring, they have travel plans to go to Mérida, Mexico, and she wants to spend time with her mother in California.
She said she agrees with a friend's description of retirement.
"Retirement is like a sabbatical - you just let it unfold," she said.
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.