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Who we lost KY: Remembering 'Mr. C' - Story about Matt Cockrell

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WUKY is collaborating with Martha Greenwald, creator and curator of 'Who We Lost KY' a writing project where friends and families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic pay tribute and in some cases, say their final goodbyes. Today’s essay is written by Michael Collins, and is part of The WhoWeLost Project’s collaboration with reporting students at Western Kentucky University. Tom Powell reads.

Shelby County art teacher, gold coach: legacy lives on after COVID-19 death

Matt “Mr. C” Cockrell was not a typical high school teacher. It made sense that the halls around his class in the art wing of Martha Layne Collins High School weren’t typical either.

The walls are painted with student-designed work led by Cockrell for years before he passed away from a month-long battle with COVID-19 on Sept. 19, 2021.

“He just started taking his kids out to the hall and painting,” current Martha Layne Collins principal Nate Jebsen said. “I don’t think he had permission from the previous principal. Eventually, they got the right permission and just kept expanding and expanding.”

Cockrell and his students designed murals depicting abstract shapes, landscape scenes, original characters and school insignia.

“He wanted his class to be unlike anything he had growing up,” Jebsen said. “[His classes] were very much loud, a lot of people talking, but everyone is engaged in their work and he’s just going around checking and coaching them through.”

His skills and teaching philosophy earned him the 2019 Secondary Level Art Educator of The Year Award from the Kentucky Art Education Association.

“That’s a pretty big stinking deal, but he wasn’t one to tout that unnecessarily,” Jebsen said. “He was just always pushing the limits of what could be done in class.”

Cockrell organized an art show in February 2020 at Science Hill in Shelbyville for students to showcase their art to the community.

Gracie Scrogham, a 2021 high school graduate and former student of Cockrell, said the show was a fun opportunity to connect with her classmates and that Cockrell never made art feel like work.

“A lot of the time some art teacher is just like ‘okay, trace your hand and paint it,’ but he actually had more in-depth assignments for us to do, and I really enjoyed that,” Scrogham said.

Cockrell often combined his love of National Parks into assignments, allowing students to recreate pictures he had taken while visiting parks during summers. Scrogham painted several pieces based on Cockrell’s pictures over the three years he taught her.

“I have a watercolor painting on the wall of my dorm [from his class],” Scrogham said. “I put it up after I heard about him passing away because I enjoyed painting that picture so much.”

Pieces from Cockrell’s class were highlighted by the National Parks Conservation Association in June 2019 for educating students about environmental protection through art.

“I loved being able to look through all those pictures and talk to him about National Parks and stuff like that,” Scrogham said.

Mr. C wasn’t Cockrell’s only nickname; “Coach C” took over when he stepped onto the green to lead the Martha Layne Collins High School Girls Golf team.

Rylee Suttor, a 2019 high school graduate and former Lady Titan golfer, said Cockrell contributed greatly to her success through high school.

“He really boosted my spirits when I was down on the golf course or had a bad hole,” Suttor said. “Golf is so mental. You have to be in a happy mood all the time, and I think he really did that for all of his players in high school.”

Suttor said what stood out about Cockrell was his ability to stay happy even during difficult times.

“He was very happy all the time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coach C really down,” Suttor said. “I think even when he had COVID, he was always happy and always looking out for others.”

Suttor said Cockrell was the kind of person who would want others to use his passing as a time of personal growth and remembrance.

“I would think he would want people to reflect and have a good mood,” Suttor said. “I look at his passing not as a good thing, but we can learn from his experiences and move forward.”  

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