NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 11, 2020) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District honored its retiring deputy district engineer yesterday. Few people were physically present due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, but more than 120 employees, leaders, and friends joined the ceremony virtually to make sure they recognized Patty Coffey’s impactful career and unique blend of strong and caring leadership.
Lt. Col. Sonny B. Avichal, Nashville District commander, presented Coffey with the Department of the Army Superior Civilian Service Medal on behalf of Maj. Gen. Robert F. Whittle Jr., Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commanding general, for more than 40 years of outstanding and faithful service to the nation.
The medal noted that her accomplishments are indicative of her humility, integrity, and hard work in representing the very best of civil service. As deputy district engineer, Coffey led the district’s business management program delivery, assuring that assigned local, regional and national programs were executed within budget and schedule.
Avichal praised Coffey and described her as honest, caring, humble, sharp, pensive, and courageous, with an extreme love and passion for being in the Corps of Engineers.
“She has been very successful over a 40-year career because of her ability to empower and shine a light on all those around her, making her and everyone around her better and stronger,” Avichal said.
Speaking via a live video feed from his office in Cincinnati, Ohio, Whittle expressed his appreciation for her many years of service and he further recognized her combination of rare character traits.
“You are highly confident. You are a gifted leader; so, you are also humble and authentic,” Whittle said. “It’s really difficult to find all four of those things in the same person. Somehow with all of the incredible success that you have had, you’ve been authentic and humble, but are still gifted with leadership and are incredibly confident.”
The general also recognized Coffey’s work to revolutionize systems and processes across the entire Corps of Engineers enterprise, awarding her the distinction of being an “Agent Of The Revolution” (Revolutionize USACE Civil Works Program) for leadership that led to lasting and significant change throughout the organization that will persevere long after her tenure as deputy district engineer.
“Patty Coffey DEMOLISHED obstacles in the path of mission accomplishment, BREACHED inefficient bureaucratic processes, and INVIGORATED the drive necessary to accelerate project delivery,” Whittle noted on her certificate.
Through hard work, character and leadership abilities, Coffey rose from an entry level job to the district’s top civilian leader. She began serving as an engineer term technician at Center Hill Lake in April 1980. Over the span of 40 years she worked as a student trainee, park ranger, biologist, environmental section chief, planning branch chief, deputy chief of the Operations Division, culminating with her present position in July 2017.
“Her expertise as a biologist, project manager, planner, leader and communicator has produced exceptional results over the course of her career in every business line the district has, and in numerous ways across the entire region,” Avichal said.
Avichal’s predecessor, Lt. Col. Cullen Jones, also joined the online event to thank and shine a spotlight onto Coffey for her dedicated service, especially during his tenure as commander of the Nashville District, when he also benefitted from her mentorship.
“I can tell you from the headwaters of the Cumberland and all the way to the outflows at Barkley, your fingerprints are all over that organization. Your investment in people, your care and love of the mission is going to be felt into perpetuity,” Jones said.
Looking back on a long and rewarding career, Coffey said her involvement in the Eagle Restoration Project is one of her most enjoyable moments along her journey in the Nashville District. A total of 44 eagles were transplanted between 1987 and 1991 from nests in Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin and then reared, tagged and released on the shoreline of Dale Hollow Lake. Her role in the reintroduction of eagles to habitats along waterways in Tennessee and Kentucky earned her the title of Tennessee Conservationist of the Year in 1991.
“This was an adventure of a lifetime in and of itself,” Coffey said about being part of such a meaningful and important project.
As her roles and responsibilities changed over the years, Coffey said she benefitted from having leaders who tested her and gave her opportunities that allowed her to grow. As she learned from her coworkers and leaders, she grew into a senior leader herself.
Coffey became a leading proponent of the Leadership Development Program at the district and regional levels, serving on steering committees and even as champion of the program. With her experiences as a participant of LDP, Coffey said she knew building relationships, learning new perspectives, and exposure to senior leaders provided employees tools for success that greatly benefitted the organization.
As deputy district engineer, Coffey led the project planning and management of the Chickamauga Lock Replacement Project and Kentucky Lock Addition Project, mega projects that have economic importance for the movement of goods and services along the nation’s inland waterway system. She managed and directed all programmatic activities in the Nashville District, including program and budget development, preparation for Congressional testimony, oversight of program execution and reprogramming actions. Further, she managed all civil works planning functions, including plan formulation, economics and environmental resources.
“Each position I held was like my dream job,” Coffey said. “I have always gotten excited about the actual work of the Corps and its importance.”
When the ceremony concluded, Coffey thanked everyone for their wonderful tributes and took a few moments to recall what it was like when she first joined the Corps in 1980 and there were no cell phones, to several decades later when she worked as a senior leader to restore essential services in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“I am probably most proud of the times when we, the Corps of Engineers, didn’t let what we ‘can’t do’ get in the way of what we ‘can do,’” Coffey said.
She added that she is excited for the future of the Corps of Engineers and is a better person having served with everyone in the district.
“There’s so many of you that are growing into such strong, amazing people to be really good leaders for the district, so I’m excited for you.”
She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1984, a Master of Science degree in biology from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee, in 1998, and a mini-MBA from Belmont University. She became a Certified Project Management Professional in 2008.
Coffey has received numerous awards during her career such as Commander’s Award for Civilian Service, Achievement Medal for Civilian Service, Outstanding Achievement Award; and numerous Commanders’ Coins, performance awards, special act awards, and on-the-spot awards. She also received the Bronze Order of the De Fleury Medal in 2018, given to those who render significant service or support to an element of the Engineer Regiment.
During the retirement ceremony, Coffey received letters and accolades from Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James; Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, 55th chief of Engineers; Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee; the district’s senior leaders, and employees.
(For more information about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, visit the district’s website at http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps, and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)