Col. Maria Cribbs: Portrait in Excellence 2001 [The Baylor Line]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Baylor Line
Illustration by Elizabeth Traynor
On January 19, 2001, The Baylor Alumni Association bestowed the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award on remarkable Baylor graduates at a black-tie banquet. Among the four recipients was Col. Maria Cribbs, ’75, executive secretary for U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
IT WAS FOUR IN THE morning on July 17, 1999 when Col. Maria Cribbs’ telephone rang. It was the National Military Command Center calling to inform the executive secretary to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen that John E Kennedy Jr.‘s Piper Saratoga 11 aircraft was lost somewhere off Cape Cod.
Cribbs jumped out of bed and sprang into action. Within minutes, she and other Department of Defense officials began the rescue and recovery process. There was no time to lose.
“Under normal circumstances, the Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard are responsible for rescue and recovery missions—not the Department of Defense,” says the 47-year-old Cribbs. “But this was a special and highly sensitive situation.”
As it turned out, the Department of Defense sent the USS Grasp, a Navy salvage ship with radar and other helpful oceanographic capabilities, to assist in the recovery effort. However, some in Washington questioned the decision to use a military ship to recover a civilian aircraft.
Cribbs spent the next few days fielding calls and letters from those who wanted to discuss the matter with Secretary Cohen. “I had a telephone in each ear for about 24 hours, she recalls.
Being part of such critical and sensitive situations-although not always quite so dramatic-is practically an everyday occurrence for Cribbs. As Secretary Cohen’s right-hand woman, she is responsible for screening, reviewing, and editing all of his correspondence, planning and executing all aspects of his travel schedule, and acting as a sounding board on appropriate issues.
Although such a job might overwhelm some, Cribbs is rarely flustered and is considered the consummate professional by her bosses and colleagues. But Cribbs says she has been preparing for this job ever since graduating with a degree in sociology from Baylor in 1975. In the last decade alone, she has been the director of personnel and the deputy base commander of the Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, the chief of executive services at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and the deputy director of personnel and manpower at U.S. European Command headquarters in Germany.
In June 1996, she was assigned as the support group commander at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Before taking the job as executive secretary to Cohen in September 1999, she served for a year as commander of the Air Force Inspection Agency at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Not bad for a girl who grew up in the rural Texas town of Cleburne. But Cribbs says she knew since childhood that she wanted to dedicate her life to serving her country. She had
good role models. Both of her parents served in World War II, her mother as a nurse, and her father as an Air Force officer in the Pacific region.
“My parents were living examples of how exciting and vital military service can be,” she says. “They would tell me about their experiences. It always made me so proud and sometimes brought tears to my eyes, because their work often helped save or improve another life.”
Cribbs’ three brothers also opted for military or service-oriented jobs. Jerome Cribbs ’76 is a Delta pilot who flew for years for the U.S. Air Force, and Carlos Cribbs ’77 is currently stationed in Caracas, Venezuela, with the Marine Corps. Her youngest brother, Juan Miguel, is a firefighter and is studying to be a computer scientist.
“The Cribbs family is simply wonderful,” says Dr. Pat Wortman, who recently retired from Baylor’s English department. “Maria’s parents provided great role models, and you can tell by just talking to her. Even when Maria was in college, you could tell she was filled with grace and intelligence. She has always been one of those people you can rely on.”
Cribbs gained the confidence of Secretary Cohen soon after joining the Department of Defense. “Maria exhibits all the traits we hold dear in the armed forces: integrity, loyalty, dedication, and leadership,” Cohen says. “She has worked miracles with our executive support team. Things in this department have never operated better.”
Cohen notes that Cribbs’ diverse experience and background have helped to make her an indispensable member of his team. For her part, Cribbs says that the intense pressure, high level of responsibility, and diverse opportunities for service are what make her work so
exciting and fulfilling.
And she admits that her life isn’t perfect. “Finding the right balance in my personal and professional life continues to be a challenge,” says Cribbs. “I do know some women in the military who manage to do it all. Most days, I’m lucky to get my two dachshunds out of the house for a walk.”
Nonetheless, she has no complaints. “Thanks to the Air Force, I’ve been able to do and see things beyond my dreams,” she says. “This is the greatest life in the world.”