“Shorty” Cox: Beloved Janitor Leaves an Unlikely Legacy

If a student had a skinned knee, if a football player needed his ankles taped or if a younger student wanted a handmade wooden toy, Earnest J. “Shorty” Cox would make it right. If cold weather was approaching, he would stay overnight in the school, stoking the coals in the fire so the building would be warm the next morning for the students and faculty. Shorty is the namesake of The Cox Building in downtown Plano, formerly the Plano High School.

Students at the old Spanish School (a precursor to Plano High) with Shorty Cox at far left, year unknown but pre-1924 // courtesy Genealogy Center at Haggard Public Library

Ernest J. Cox came to America from England in 1893, rumored as a 16-year-old stowaway, and eventually found his way to Plano when he was approximately 31 years old. Shorty, as he was known by his friends, was hired to be the janitor at Plano’s old “Spanish School,” nicknamed for its architecture. A school bond was passed, the Spanish School was torn down, and a new Plano public school opened in 1924.

The Cox Building today in Downtown Plano still bears “High School” across the top // photo Jennifer Shertzer

In the early 1960s, a few years after Shorty’s death, the district named the building in his honor. As inscribed on the building’s historical marker, the Plano Institute opened on the site of The Cox Building in 1882 before a public school system even existed in Plano. In 1891, city officials bought the school and took over operations.

The structure has carried his name in several ways: originally Cox Junior High School, then The Cox Administration Building and currently The Cox Building, which is still occupied by Plano ISD for various offices.

A room on the building’s second floor houses Plano school memorabilia and posters summarizing the building’s history and the school district’s development timeline.

Plano High School baseball team with Shorty Cox at far right from 1923 “Planonian” yearbook // courtesy Genealogy Center at Haggard Public Library

From his office under the stairs in the basement, Shorty did much more for the school than keep it spotless. “I can picture him now in his white t-shirt. He was a jack of all trades,” remembered Paul Wayne “Paulie” Mayfield, a 1952 graduate of Plano High School.

Paulie recalled that Shorty would check out a supply of balls for the students to use at recess. The boys played on the West side of the play area, and the girls played on the East side.

“If you didn’t bring back what you checked out, he’d come get you,” added Paulie, who retired in 1990 after 30 years as a Plano firefighter.

Artist rendering of the new Plano High School from 1923 “Planonian” yearbook // courtesy Genealogy Center at Haggard Public Library

Shorty earned the second nickname of “Doctor Cox” because, as the unofficial trainer for all sports teams, he would treat football injuries and help with other wounds at the school, according to “A Century of Excellence Plano Independent School District: An Historical Perspective” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy. Even the 1948 Plano High School yearbook, “The Planonian,” was dedicated to Shorty.

“In 1945 during an ice storm in the fifth grade,” Paulie remembered, “I fell on an ice patch, and Shorty patched me up on my cheek.”

Shorty, who lived only yards across the street from the school, was also believed to have shoveled coal on Great Lakes ships before migrating to Plano.

Plano High School and gymnasium (now the Courtyard Theater) from 1948 “Planonian” yearbook // courtesy Genealogy Center at Haggard Public Library

The school building and the adjacent former gymnasium were recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 2006. The gymnasium, which was built in 1938 as a project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, was later converted into the present-day Courtyard Theater.

Peggy Mitchell, a 1948 graduate, is quoted on a poster in the Cox building’s history room recalling the enthusiasm the new gymnasium brought to Plano.

“The gym had an immediate impact on the growth of sports in Plano and on student social life,” she said. “It became a concert hall and the new site for senior parties and graduations.”

The 1948 “Planonian” yearbook was dedicated to Shorty Cox // courtesy Genealogy Center at Haggard Public Library

Shorty, who married Bertie “Birdie” Toombs in 1905, was buried in Plano Mutual Cemetery. His wife and daughter, Edith Maud Cox Chancy, are also buried there.

He may have been hired to be school janitor, but E.J. “Shorty” Cox went far beyond that call of duty. Over a span of 30 years, Shorty dedicated his life to Plano students and the school building eventually named in his honor.

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