Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Cotton’s approach: helpful, positive, pleasant, hard working

cotton_400Tammy Cotton was born in a doctor’s office almost close enough to the Chatham County Courthouse to fall under its shadow. All but a few of her nine siblings were born there as well.

“My daddy was a truck driver and my mom had to be there with us,” she said. “We didn’t come up rich. We had a garden that our dad made us go out and pick, and I used to cry all the time about that.”

The family never got everything they wanted, she said, but they all had what they needed most: each other. She is proud of the fact that she and all her siblings graduated from Northwood High School in Pittsboro.

“We were a happy family. A giving family. A close family. We always do from the heart,” she said.

Cotton grew up dreaming of becoming a model, but when she finished high school, her first priority was getting a job and going to work. Not that she had a choice.

“My dad always said, ‘If you are not going to go to school, you have to work. You are not going to stay here for free,’” she explained.

She started out with what she calls “little itty-bitty jobs,” working part-time at the state liquor store while working as a cook at a hamburger joint in town so she could earn enough money to buy her first car, a Chevrolet Sprint.

Cotton drove that Chevrolet 16 miles each way to her first “real job” at Glendale Hosiery in Siler City and stayed at the mill until it closed down eight years later.

Next, she worked at a Cato’s store but ended up spending as much money in the store as she earned. “Oh God, I can shop,” she said.

To make ends meet, she began cleaning houses and office buildings on the side, and later got a job as a waitress at one of the nicest restaurants in Pittsboro. It was there that she ran into her old high school principal, who asked, “Do you know anybody looking for a job because I just fired every custodian I had.”

“I said, ‘You are right on time because I am looking for a fulltime job,’” she said. “And he said, ‘The job is yours. Come see me on Monday.’”

Shortly afterward, Cotton began to think about getting a fulltime job as a housekeeper at Carolina.

“I kept putting my application in over and over, but nobody called,” she said. That is, until a temporary position became available on the midnight shift at the Smith Center.

Her response: “I’ll take it.”

The temporary job turned into a permanent job and she stayed at the Smith Center for several more years until she took a day-shift position taking care of whatever needed to be done at three buildings on the other side of Manning Drive: Thurston Bowles, Mary Ellen Jones and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In the 16 years she has worked in Chapel Hill, she has also worked part-time at her old high school in Pittsboro, putting in a few hours of cleaning each day after finishing her shift for her job at Carolina.

Cotton has come to understand that being in the right place at the right time was how good things happened in her life. It was how she met her husband one morning as she was walking to her car and he jogged by.

“He left a note on my car saying he would like to take me out,” she said, “and I didn’t know who he was. I asked my sister Abigail about him and she said, ‘Oh, he’s a wonderful man. I go to his church.’”

They went out for the first time in August 2007 and he proposed in December that same year. After the wedding, they moved into the house in Siler City that she had saved up to buy on her own.

This past September, they celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary.

Cotton said she did not think life could get any sweeter until she got the phone call from former chancellor Holden Thorp last spring telling her she had been awarded a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

More than 20 people nominated her for the award, including many who described how lucky they feel to have her working the day shift in their buildings. In their nominating letters, they all mentioned the same qualities: Helpful. Positive. Always pleasant. Always busy.

One said, “She’s what I consider a ‘people person’ because she genuinely cares about people and wants good things to happen for them.”

Cotton feels very lucky as well.

“The Lord has really blessed me, I’ll tell ya,” she said.