First computer engineering graduate provides a lifetime of inspiration

By Lauren Winton

Published: Aug 10, 2020 1:06:00 PM

Eldridge and Rhonda Cook (Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Brannum) Eldridge and Rhonda Cook (Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Brannum)

One Sunday afternoon, Eldridge Cook went to visit his grandmother in Opelika, Alabama. Her church was having “dinner on the grounds,” and it was there that he met the love of his life, Rhonda.

“We met at a church where my uncle was a minister and it was the church Rhonda attended. She was the pianist,” Eldridge said. “My aunt introduced us. She was still in school at Auburn at the time.”

Although he did not graduate from Auburn—though he did take one Auburn class—Eldridge himself has always been a loyal fan. Several members of his family attended Auburn, a fact that was a great source of conversation on his and Rhonda’s first date.

“Our first date,” Eldridge said, “was the Auburn-Georgia Tech football game. After she accepted my invitation she got to overthinking things, and she thought, ‘this guy’s from Atlanta, what if he pulls for Georgia Tech?’ She told me later he next thought was ‘this would be a short courtship.’ But of course, I pulled for Auburn.”

Eldridge’s father and uncle had both attended Auburn, a fact that was not missed by Rhonda.

“After the game, we went back to Rhonda’s house and were sitting in the living room. I look at the bookshelf and saw a Glomerata,” Eldridge said. “It was the same one that mom and dad have on their bookshelf at home. I flipped to the page with my dad’s photo and said ‘that’s my dad.’ Rhonda took it and flipped two or three pages and says, ‘here’s my dad.’ Then I took the book back and flip back to my uncle. And then it was at that point that we realized my dad’s older brother, dad and wife’s dad graduated the same day in 1950. It was a special connection we shared.”

Rhonda made her own appearance in the Glomerata – the first of its kind, actually. She was the first person to graduate with the newly established Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering.

“That was Rhonda,” Eldridge said. “Computers were her forte. When we started dating, she was majoring in industrial engineering with a computer science option. During that time, Auburn came out with the computer engineering degree. She had decided in high school that she was going to program computers. And so when Auburn established the degree, Rhonda worked with her adviser to transfer into the program.”

“It was six months before the next degree was granted,” Eldridge said. “After she graduated, she moved to Atlanta for her job as a programmer for Southern Company.”

Over the course of her career, the types of computers she programmed changed, but her passion for the field never wavered.

 “When she began work, there were no programs for personal computers. Personal computers were starting to develop. So her job basically had mainframes and large format computers to program. Over the years they brought out the personal computer and started having retail programs available,” Eldridge said.

After 13 years living and working in Atlanta, Rhonda transferred to Birmingham, where her role with Southern Company transitioned into a business analyst position. In this new role, she helped research and match available programs to the employees’ needs.

“Although she was not doing the same kind of programming as when she started, Rhonda enjoyed everything she did,” Eldridge said.

Though they were living in Atlanta, Rhonda and Eldridge did not forget their passion for Auburn. They bought season tickets every year and were involved with Tigers Unlimited. But after being introduced to the 100+ Women Strong program, they decided to give back to Auburn in other ways.

“Being the good Christian she was, Rhonda had a heart for young women engineers starting out in their fields. That’s really how we reconnected with the engineering college in 2013,” Eldridge said.

In addition to their participation in 100+ Women Strong, the couple started a scholarship, and provided funds in support of the Brown-Kopel Engineering Student Achievement Center.

“The scholarship event is a lovely thing,” Eldridge said. “It was wonderful to meet the student on our scholarship, though I’m sad that Rhonda never met them.”

Rhonda passed away in 2019, but her memory lives on through her Auburn involvement and generous nature—her story is an inspiration for future women in engineering.

“She was so successful in engineering, being only one of maybe two or three girls in her classes and graduating with the first computer engineering degree they issued. It was because of her persistence. She would just keep after a problem until she could fix it,” said Eldridge.

Like any excellent engineer, Rhonda solved many problems, both through her career and her love for others.

Media Contact: Lauren Winton, lmw0090@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519

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