Editor’s Note: In honor of Valentine’s Day, we bring you this story about Utah State’s First Family and how Noelle and John Cockett have balanced time-consuming careers while raising a family. As you read the story, you’ll notice some highlighted text. Click on those highlights to hear the Cocketts tell their story in their own words. If you prefer a smoother, more interactive experience with additional photos, select the link below.
Nearly every morning for 25 years, John Cockett’s ‘96 Toyota Camry made the 45 minute trip from Mendon, Utah to Malad High School, just across the state line in Idaho. Cockett spent those 25 years in various administrative roles, including 14 years as a principal, and moonlighted as the school’s basketball coach. At the end of each day — sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes late into the evening — Cockett and the vehicle would make the return trip to their home on the west end of Cache Valley.
During those same years, Noelle Cockett soared through the ranks of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences at Utah State University. She first climbed the ladder from assistant professor to associate professor, then full professor to dean to research director to university provost. Finally, in 2016, she settled into the wooden office with sparkling glass windows on the southeast end of Champ Hall and became USU’s first female president.
Through the increasing demands of the couple’s respective careers and the addition of their two children to the family, Noelle and John Cockett have built their relationship on a a commitment to spending quality time with each other and a love of the outdoors.
River of love
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is a 104-mile long whitewater tributary that runs through the middle of the River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. It was on that river, during a rafting trip in 1988, John and Noelle realized they were in love.
The Cockett’s love story started four years earlier on another river near Oregon State University. Noelle was in a raft, John was in a kayak, and their mutual friend Paul suggested the three rent a living space together for the upcoming fall semester.
At the time, Noelle was in Corvallis working on her PhD. in animal science while John was still in the process of earning his undergraduate degree. The two lived with Paul and saw each other frequently elsewhere on campus— Noelle played rugby and John played lacrosse — when, in 1984, Noelle took John to a local steakhouse for their first date. Four years later John returned the favor when he proposed at a similar steakhouse along the Klamath River. Later that year, the two were married in Park City.
Time is love
Though the couple is nearing the stage of life where they’ll be left with an empty nest — their son, Dylan, is now 22 and their daughter, Chantelle, is 17 — it’s not likely that their busy schedules will alleviate much. John gave up the hour-and-a-half round trip about three years ago to take a position as the technology director in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at USU, but the husband and wife rarely see each other on campus.
Both Cocketts say their key is to ensure the time they do have together is meaningful.
“We don’t get a lot of time, so we really have to make those times count,” John said.
Since Noelle began serving as president, their quality time together has transitioned from going out in the evenings to relaxing in their Mendon home.
“If we’re home, we’re home,” Noelle said. “There’s been a lot of Friday nights just I’ll pick up the pizza, John figures out what movie we both might enjoy, and that’s a Friday night.”
Though most of the time the couple spends together is relaxing at home, they agreed short but plentiful vacations are valuable — like a quick, weekend trip to Switzerland the couple left for on Friday, where they met with an Aggie alumnus living near the Geneva River.
“It’s more quality time than quantity,” John said. “You want to really schedule in time where we have time for each other.”
Some evenings, the couple will settle in with some good books, another one of their shared passions. Their definition of what constitutes a good book differs, however.
“She’ll come home from the library with a stack of novels maybe six or eight books high,” John said. “I’m more of a reader of technical journals.”
The Cocketts’ family life isn’t always quiet reading time or weekend trips to Europe, however. It took a significant amount of communication to raise their children with their busy careers.
“It’s a tag team,” John said.
Most days, the two would check in sometime during the afternoon to coordinate dinner and other evening plans.
“We call it dividing and conquering,” John said.
As a basketball coach, John’s commute frequently happened late at night after games. He often found himself shoveling snow around the Camry, scraping ice off of its windows, facing more snow on his way home, and then doing it all over again the next morning.
Meanwhile, Noelle was often booked in meetings with researchers, alumni and other university officials while she worked as dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, and then as university provost.
“Definitely a tag team,” Noelle agreed.
That “very special river” in central Idaho and the other rivers like it that these outdoor enthusiasts frequent have become a core component of the Cocketts’ lives. The outdoor activities, Noelle said, are a type of capstone at the center of their marriage and their family.
“I’m fairly physical and I enjoy doing physical things,” Noelle said, smiling as she pointed to photos of the couple rafting with their children. “It just really appealed to me and John has always enjoyed water. So I think I was like ‘Wow, this is really something I could enjoy and I think John wanted someone that he could enjoy it with.”
The family makes an effort to take a rafting trip at least once a summer where they can be “unplugged from email and whatnot for a long, long time.” Many times in the past, the family has found itself rafting the Colorado River through the middle of the Grand Canyon, a prime location to escape the stresses of work and appreciate nature.
The Grand Canyon trip nearly ended in tragedy in 2009, however, when Noelle thought she had lost her entire family for a horrifying moment.
John and Dylan, then just 14-years-old, took one raft through the rapids without a problem, culminating in an exhilarating ride over the legendary Lava Falls. The two secured the raft and hiked back up, where they met Noelle and Chantelle to take the second raft down.
In retrospect, John said, he was “a little too cocky,” thinking “it was a piece of cake.”
As the young family stepped into the second raft, a violent rapid swept over them, causing the raft to flip. Noelle was pushed onto a small rock nearby, but her contacts had flushed out and she was unable to see her husband or her children. She began to panic when she finally caught sight of her two children, safely with John.
The memory is a constant reminder to be careful, but it hasn’t curbed their enthusiasm for the world. When the weather isn’t suitable for rafting, Noelle and John enjoy skiing at Beaver Mountain and various resorts in Park City, which the two consider a “second home.”
Another favorite vacation spot is Hawaii, where the Cocketts used to visit as many as three or four times a year. Over time, it became a tradition for the family to take a photo at the same spot on Makaha Beach each visit.
Each trip, though, eventually brings them back to “the spot where the sagebrush grows.” As Noelle’s time has become more structured with her presidential position, the couple has made an effort to attend more evening, on-campus occasions together, ranging from athletic events to research seminars. For the Cocketts, that quality time and the shared interests are crucial to keep the fire burning.
Though the couple rarely sees each other on campus, every once in awhile their paths cross and still, after all these years, Noelle said, “it’s kind of a buzz to see him walking down the hall.”