Good morning, and now good luck

Bill “Good Morning Guy” Cowings bids farewell to fellow ferry worker Lois Johnson. He retired last week after 15 years with WSF. - TRISTAN BAURICK/Staff Photo
Bill “Good Morning Guy” Cowings bids farewell to fellow ferry worker Lois Johnson. He retired last week after 15 years with WSF.
— image credit: TRISTAN BAURICK/Staff Photo

After 15 years of greeting island ferry commuters, Bill Cowings moves on.

Many islanders know the routine.

Wake before light, don rain jacket, crawl to the ferry, grab coffee, line up, walk on, sit down, read the headlines, line up again and begin the Seattle-side shuffle to work.

It’s around this time that the routine hit a bright spot.

“Good morning...good morning....good morning,” ferry plank attendant Bill Cowings said for years to each and every commuter as they stepped off the boat.

People’s eyes brightened a bit. Some already had smiles before crossing his path, expecting their moment with the “Good Morning Guy.”

“You make my day, Bill, everyday,” said a man who stopped to shake hands with Cowings on his final visit to Colman dock.

Cowings, a tall, stately man with a graying moustache, greeted his last boat Wednesday, ending a 15-year career with the Washington State Ferries.

He plans to retire with his wife, Gayle, and move back to his hometown in Fresno County, where his three children, five grandkids and his 89-year-old mother await him.

“I say good morning to everybody because we all made it to another day,” he said. “We should be able to greet each other because this day wasn’t just given to us. We were blessed with it.”

Each of Cowings’ “good mornings” came with a humble smile and slight nod of the head. More than an automated remark, his greeting was earnest and almost custom-made for each passenger.

Cowings greeted a dozen boats a day, with some 4,000 people receiving the Cowings send-off.

He didn’t greet everybody at first.

“I just stood there for three or four years, watching people go,” Cowings said. “Then I started seeing the same people twice a day. I started saying ‘Good morning’ to a few of them. One professor from Seattle University said that it made his day. So I started speaking more and more. Now I try and get everybody. It’s never a chore, never tiresome.”

Sometimes Cowings couldn’t greet everybody. This usually happened while guiding an elderly lady over the plank or helping a traveler lug a suitcase.

“Oh, but people tell me when I forget to say good morning,” he said. “They tell me on their way back.”

While proud to have passed on a dose of daily goodwill during his tenure with the ferry system, Cowings said the “good mornings” have had a positive impact on his life as well.

“It has given me great joy to see other people light up,” he said. “It was a time to not reflect on myself and to give myself to others.”

Cowings twisted his knee over a decade ago while preparing the ramp for disembarking passengers. As the pain got worse, Cowings, 64, increased the “good mornings.”

“Some days, I’m in a great deal of pain,” said Cowings, who recently underwent knee replacement surgery. “But I don’t feel the pain in my knee if I try and greet people. It eliminates that, and I don’t think of the pain.”

Cowings’ retirement, however, came as a bit of a surprise. He had planned to work a little longer, but in a position that didn’t have him on his feet for long periods of time.

His request for a new job with WSF was declined and his hours were going to be cut in half.

Cowings sued WSF for “failure to accommodate” his physical limitations. WSF offered a settlement, which Cowings accepted.

His last day, Wednesday, was the day he signed the papers.

“It was unexpected,” he said. “They told me I was done and escorted me off. I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to everybody that I see every day.”

Part of the agreement reached with WSF bars him from speaking about broader grievances that also led to his early retirement.

WSF spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether said the ferry system “met all requests for accommodation requested by Bill or his physician” in his position as plank attendant. Cowings’ request for a new position, however, was likely not met because he didn’t qualify or none were available, Harris-Huether said.

“It’s not always the position that people are qualified for that are available,” she added.

Cowings says he bears no bad blood toward the people he worked with for many years. He made one last visit to Colman Dock terminal Monday before he moves to California tomorrow.

He hugged fellow workers who allowed him to sneak down the gang plank for a few final goodbyes.

“You’re leaving, Bill?” asked one man as his smile dropped. “Wow. I’ll miss you. Take care.”

Another man noticed Cowings was wearing plain clothes.

“You going on vacation?” he asked.

“No, retirement,” Cowings answered.

The man looked baffled for a second, then raised his fist.

“Let’s go drinking!”

Lois John­son, the on-duty plank attendant, waited a while before moving the boarding ramp, allowing Cowing to shake a few more hands.

“I’ll miss him,” she said. “I’d get hoarse if I said ‘Good morning’ to everybody. There’s only one ‘Good Morning Guy.’”

On board, commuter Bob Katai said he had no idea Cowings was leaving.

“That’s really a bummer,” he said. “You go to work, you’re busy and there’s tons of people on the ferry, but it felt really good that there was still one guy who will say ‘Good morning.’”

Cowings said working for the ferry system was the best job he’s ever had.

“I moved to Seattle in 1974 and just had a bunch of dead-end jobs – nothing substantial – until I found out who I was here.”

And who’d he find?

“A happy person,” he said. “A person who will greet you, know you, give you a hug, shake your hand and welcome everyone, everyone.”

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