Local PSC officer calls it a career

CHESTER – If life is a highway, like the song says, then Rex Cowey probably has lived life to the fullest.

Cowey, 77, of Chester, has spent the last 21 years on the road as an enforcement officer for the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s Motor Carrier Section.

The job took him all over the Northern Panhandle, and he probably clocked enough miles to make several trips around the state of West Virginia. His retirement on Oct. 31 has got Cowey wondering what life will be like without the road.

“It’s a very interesting job. I don’t even know why I gave it up,” he said with a chuckle.

As a PSC Transportation Division officer, Cowey was responsible for enforcing the state’s laws governing interstate and intrastate commerce – laws covering tractor-trailers, buses, dump trucks, wreckers and other vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds.

Cowey spent most of his time following up on complaints, inspecting vehicles and their loads, and responding to accidents. Unlike other law enforcement officers, he also had the authority to stop trucks without probable cause and do spot inspections of their load securements and hazardous materials.

Enforcement officers carry portable scales that can be used to check whether a vehicle is overweight, and they can put a vehicle out of service if any violations are found, Cowey said.

The last several years have been a strain on enforcement as the state has witnessed an increase in truck traffic related to the oil and gas industry, Cowey said.

“You used to have more time to patrol and do checks. Now, you can’t even keep up with all the complaints” – complaints about overloaded trucks, trucks without proper permits and attendant traffic problems, he said.

“The roads are not big enough or solid enough to handle these (oil and gas) trucks,” Cowey said. “It’s impossible for them to take a curve without going over the yellow line. … I couldn’t even tell you how many trucks have been upset or rolled off the road or flipped over.”

A native of Chester’s Upper End, Cowey began his career in law enforcement while working as a machinist at Weirton Steel. In the 1950s, he did a temporary assignment providing security at Saturday teen dances in the old Chester City Hall, he said.

He later took jobs with the Chester Police Department and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, working as a deputy under Sheriff Joe Manypenny. He was mayor of Chester in the early 1970s and also did a stint as Chester Municipal Court judge.

Cowey said his favorite job back then was directing traffic at the Newell Bridge in the years when trucks still came across the bridge and there was no traffic signal.

“All I wanted to do was direct traffic,” he said, noting that he often did traffic duty with sheriff’s reserve Chief Brian Peters and trained other reserve officers.

On the days of horse races at then-Waterford Park, Cowey donned white gloves and directed traffic with authority and style.

“I’ve got a certain way of directing traffic. My hands fly,” he said. “It’s an act.”

Cowey remembers motorists giving him food and drinks, even Christmas presents, in appreciation for his traffic-directing prowess.

When not at his day job, Cowey and his wife of 52 years, Nancy, 70, stayed busy as the proprietors of Allison’s Restaurant in Chester. Nancy did most of the cooking and baking – her pies earned a reputation as the best in the area – and Rex served coffee and waited on tables when he had the time.

“The more people he has around him, the happier he is,” Nancy Cowey said.

Cowey retired from Weirton Steel after 25 years. The couple sold the restaurant in 1995 after 28 years of ownership.

Since her husband’s retirement, Nancy Cowey said she has been getting sympathy cards from friends who wonder what Rex is going to do with himself.

The couple enjoys spending time with their three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They also frequent local country jams in East Liverpool and Weirton, with Rex sometimes sitting in on the harmonica.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)