Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of America’s Sports Car magazine.
On the road through Corvette history you’ll find many remarkable people. There are innovators driven to do things differently, dreamers who saw what was possible next, and renegades who worked around the rules to make Corvette something more than it was before. These people teamed up with great designers, engineers, managers, and skilled workers taking Corvette to that nearly sacred place where everything comes together. . . the assembly line.
This is where Wil Cooksey set the standard for all Corvette Assembly Plant Managers afterwards to build upon. As an enthusiast himself, he brought a love for the Corvette to the job along with an engineering background and his natural leadership ability to take the Corvette to the next level. Together with the United Auto Workers Union, a bond was formed between labor, management and the owners of these cars that remains strong and unbroken to this day.
Retired since 2008, he remains connected to the people and the car he loves. He is a familiar face at the National Corvette Museum where he once served as Chairman of the Board, and you’ll often find him in the middle of crowds at Corvette events all over the country. His friendly smile, gentle nature, and warm disposition give no hint of the difficult path he has taken on his journey to the Corvette Hall of Fame.
Wilmer Cooksey Jr. was born in Fort Worth, Texas on April 6, 1942. His father left home not long after he was born. His mother remarried shortly after that. “He was a handyman,” Wil recalls. “He had wit, charm and a flair for the dramatic.” They had six more children together and lived in a small, ramshackle rental where the inescapable smell of the stockyards permeated the house. Hunger, hardship and doing without were just a part of life for them. Still, they were a close-knit family.
His mother worked two jobs to keep food on the table. Early on Wil felt responsible to help. He took whatever jobs he could find—sacking groceries, sweeping out the barber shop, and clearing debris from construction sites just to do his part. While he missed out on childhood, he forged a work ethic that would serve him well through his entire life.
At that time in history, the only colleges and universities that would allow African Americans to enroll were in the distant northern cities. The principal at his high school believed in Wil though and helped him secure the scholarships and student loans needed to go to Tennessee State University in Nashville.
While working on his Bachelors Degree in Electrical Engineering, something happened to completely change his life. “I met a pretty little girl who caught my eye and ensnared my heart forever,” Wil said. “Her name was Elizabeth Walton; she was a transfer student from Mississippi Industrial College.”
His romance with Liz grew, and eventually they got married in 1963. With marriage he became even more determined to succeed. She shared his work ethic as well, working hard herself, and supporting Wil in whatever he needed to do.
After graduating from TSU, his first job was at GM… General Mills. “They brought me in as a production management trainee. Right from the beginning I knew I wanted to be in upper management. I didn’t know what all was involved but I was willing to learn, and they were willing to work with me.”
His work there was interrupted however, in 1966 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He went to Officers Candidate School and then to California for special combat training. Liz followed to be near him at each base, finding work along the way, but his next stop was to a place she couldn’t go. Vietnam.
Wil served for a year in the DMZ at first as a forward observer and then as the Commander of the 1-40th Artillery Battalion. Like many who experience the horrors of war first hand, he remains scarred and shaped by what happened to him there.
On leave in Honolulu though, he fell in love a second time. This time not with a girl, but with a car. “Liz and I were walking down the street with some other soldiers on leave when I spotted a Black Corvette coupe stopped at a light. It purred like a crouching, sleek-muscled black panther sitting still.”
Maybe it was the contrast of that beautiful car and the life it represented that was so far removed from where he had been in the trenches of Vietnam, but to Wil the seat of that car became the most beautiful place on Earth. As that car drove off a lieutenant standing nearby read Wil’s mind and said, “You’re gonna get yourself a Vette when you get back.” It wasn’t phrased as a question, it was a statement, or maybe better yet, a prophecy.
Wil agreed. When it was time to go back home that’s when he bought a 1969 Black Corvette coupe which would be the first of many. In his time Wil would own several Corvettes. Little did he know that one day, there would be a special edition that would bear his name.
Wil got his job back at General Mills and continued his education earning a Masters Degree in Industrial Engineering. That’s when the other GM noticed him… General Motors.
“They said that if I joined the faculty and taught in their Applied Statistics, Quality and Reliability Engineering area, that they’d give me the opportunity to work on Corvette one day.” True to their word, Wil was eventually offered his dream job. “Joe Spielman was the one with the courage to say that I was the man for that position.” Wil wasn’t going to let Joe down either. “I’ve always had a lot riding on how well I’ve done. Often I’ve had to survive in environments where I was the first person of color to enter an area, so I always felt that there was no way I could let myself fail. I never wanted to be the reason that other people did not get the same opportunities that I got.”
Wil is proud to be the first African American Corvette Plant Manager and the one who served the longest in that position. “I was offered other jobs and promotions within the company, but I wasn’t that interested. That’s not why I came to General Motors. I was thinking that maybe I’d have a chance to do something influential in the Corvette hobby. That was the car that I loved. I already had one when I came to GM. Every day I came to work inspired, watching those cars come off the line that so many people loved. It cannot get much better than that. I think it made a difference having an enthusiast with an engineering background running things, rather than a manager with a business administration background.”
This would not be an easy job though. There were lots of challenges on the way, but for Wil failure was not an option. “Learning to work well with others is a powerful skill in finding success in life. The employees helped us find ways of doing things more efficiently once they knew that they wouldn’t be laid off for streamlining. That really helped us move ahead to do the things that we did.”
As a testament of Wil’s lasting impact on the Corvette world, Chevrolet released the Wil Cooksey 427 Limited Edition Z06, a rare honor only given to one other… fellow Hall of Fame Member in the Corvette Racing category, Ron Fellows.
Looking back on all that he has been through and blessed to do has inspired Wil and Liz to write their autobiography. The book is called No Time to Cry and is scheduled for release at the end of 2013. Adding his induction to the Corvette Hall of Fame will be a fitting last chapter to this part of his story. *Book currently available from the Corvette Store.
“I was hoping my induction would happen while I was still alive and not posthumously,“ he laughs. “I wanted to be able to walk up on the stage to accept it.”
In his typically humble way, he is proud but shares the credit for this achievement with others. “Many people in the Hall of Fame have helped me, strengthened me, walked with me and worked with me along the way. General Motors management and the United Auto Workers Union have been a big part of my working life for over thirty years. Together, we built an icon, a legend, and a car that many people love to own, drive, polish and show off as an extension of themselves. This is truly the culmination of a career that I dreamed about when I was just a young boy. I am truly blessed to have been a part of all of this. The legend lives.”
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