Bill Cowles Reflects on Career and the UCF Spirit of Camaraderie

 In Alumni, Public Administration

Sheila Young, Past President for the Greater Orlando Conference of the Blind, presents the Community Service Award to Bill Cowles, Orange County Supervisor of Elections, for the office’s work on voting accessibility for the blind.

By Camille Murawski ’98

He was not born in Orlando, but for more than 40 years, Bill Cowles ’76 has made the Central Florida community his home. Actively involved in a number of organizations, Bill also maintains close ties with UCF through his participation with the School of Public Administration, and through his many friends made during his time here. Bill recently shared with us some of his memories about UCF and what he is doing now in his role as Orange County Supervisor of Elections.

When you enter Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles’ office, you will not have an indication of his political inclinations – the supervisor of elections is an elected office, which Cowles strives to run in a non-partisan manner. There are family photos, of course, of Bill and his wife, Cheryl, as well as their two sons and their families.

And though there is no campaign memorabilia, you will become immediately aware of his preferred collegiate allegiance – with all the black-and-gold swag, you sense that if the UCF Knights were a viable candidate, they would have Cowles’ vote.  Cowles, who graduated from UCF in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration, received the UCF Alumni Professional Achievement Award from the College of Health and Public Affairs in 2007. Naturally, it is displayed prominently in his office.

Cowles’ office also pays homage to his long affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America. Cowles achieved the rank of Eagle Scout when he lived in Miami, where he also attended community college. When Cowles was looking to further his education, he chose UCF largely because one of his Scouting friends, Mike Palvisak ’75, had also chosen the campus, and was looking for a roommate.

Cowles and Mike lived in downtown Orlando for a time, and commuted to UCF without the benefit of the 408 ending at Challenger Parkway. Then, the toll road ended at Colonial Drive, and the two had to take a series of backroads to reach the fledgling campus.

In 1974, a football team was but a distant dream, and our mascot, “Knights of the Pegasus” had recently replaced Citronaut, a half-orange, half-astronaut critter that, thankfully, bore no resemblance to our present-day beloved Knightro.

“There was no such thing as fast food on campus,” Cowles said. “The university was small, and there were about four professors who were teaching all of the public administration courses.”

This past November, Cowles was the keynote speaker at the College of Health and Public Affairs School of Public Administration’s 40th anniversary. He noted that he was one of the first students in the new program. Over the years, Cowles has remained connected to UCF and currently serves on the advisory board for the School of Public Administration.

One of his most challenging courses, Cowles remembered, was a course in public budgeting and finance, taught by the late Jefferson Duffey, an assistant professor and member of the Titusville City Council.

In Duffey’s course, Cowles said, “Our assignment was to build a portion of the Miami-Dade County budget for a fiscal year two years out.  At the end of the course, we were required to present our budget to a mock county commission, which was a group of budget practitioners and elected officials hand-picked by Duffey.”

The course was particularly meaningful to Cowles because he already knew that he was going to go into Boy Scout leadership post-graduation. The not-for-profit organization pays for the salaries of its employees through fundraising, and budgeting would be an important part of the job.

The Boy Scouts also had a hand in introducing Cowles to his bride of almost 39 years. In 1978, Cowles responded to a complaint about one of the local troops from a concerned citizen, who just happened to be Cheryl’s father. The rest was history. As Cowles said jokingly, “It was a prearranged marriage.”

Cowles worked for the Central Florida Council, Boy Scouts of America for 13 years until he was persuaded by one of his volunteers, Betty Carter, then-supervisor of elections for Orange County, to serve as her Chief Deputy.

When Carter retired in 1996, Cowles was elected as the Supervisor of Elections, and has won every election since. Cowles credits Carter for bringing many innovations to the department. For example, Orange County was immune to the “hanging chad” fiasco that gripped other Florida counties during the 2000 elections. Carter had already changed Orange County to optical scan voting.

The Office of the Supervisor of Elections is responsible for more than conducting federal, state and county elections, Cowles said. “There are 13 municipalities in Orange County, and we conduct those elections, too.”

Cowles’ office is also involved in supervising outside elections, which could include votes involving labor organizations, churches, the Orange County Bar Association, and the Classroom Teachers Association.

Perhaps a less stodgy aspect of Cowles’ job involves tabulating the votes for the favorite books of the Sunshine State Young Readers Award Program. This event, which invites elementary- and middle-school students to vote on their favorite book, is part of the Voter Education Plan to introduce a fun civics lesson to children.

Last year, voters chose “Pie,” by Sarah Weeks, and “Stung,” by Bethany Wiggins as their top books.

Cowles and his team are also involved each year in the spring high school student government elections. And, Cowles wants everyone to know that 16- and 17-year olds can pre-register to vote while they are still in high school.

Karl Palvisak ’83, is Mike Palvisak’s younger brother, and has also been part of Cowles’ life for more than thirty years. Karl, also an Eagle Scout, is the chief financial officer of GAI Consultants, and also serves as Cowles’ campaign treasurer. Karl said that it was just “natural” to be part of his friend’s campaign.

Karl, Mike and Cowles are just a few out of many UCF alumni from that time period who are still deeply involved in the Orlando community. “It was a completely different environment,” Karl recalled. And although there were a lot of students who were commuting each day to class, the students that were on campus had to take advantage of the clubs that were beginning to sprout up on campus to build camaraderie.

Cowles also has deep community roots. He is an elder at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, a board member for the Central Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and a member and past-president of the Kiwanis Club of North Orlando.

“We have a lot of great alumni in the area, and Bill has always been a UCF champion,” Karl Palvisak said. “Whenever we’re out in public, he is the first person to start talking about the Knights.”

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