Saturday, January 4, 2014

They called him "Bubba" (but I didn't)

     Here, more or less, is the eulogy I gave at J.W. Cook Jr.'s memorial service Saturday in Shreveport. He was the longtime assistant principal, then principal at my alma mater, Woodlawn High School, and he was a good friend -- to me and everyone.

Mr. Cook
      We had a great school at Woodlawn in the 1960s, great kids, great athletes. You can debate who was the Greatest Knight of them all; my opinion is it was J.W. Cook Jr. He was Mr. Woodlawn.
      I am honored to be asked to speak today. Don't relish the occasion, very sad for Mr. Cook's family and for all of us. Even though we knew the situation and that this day was coming, which might make it a little easier to prepare, it's still difficult.
      We lost an important figure in our lives, a leader in this community. This is a man we all loved.
      I am honored because if you had told me when I entered Woodlawn High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1962 that I would be doing this, I would not have believed it.
      Here's one reason why: I was scared of Mr. Cook. Really scared. Had that in common with thousands of Woodlawn students.
      Hey, I was scared of all the authority figures -- assistant principals, counselors, teachers, certainly the coaches, and, for darned sure, the principal, Mr. Turner.
      Ah, James Earl Turner, the man the students called The Great White Father ... but, of course, never to his face. Are you kidding? He was the voice from the top of the mountain.
      We learned pretty soon that unlike Mr. Turner -- at least it seemed this way -- Mr. Cook was approachable and he was friendly. I mean, you didn't mess around when he was there -- it was "yes, sir" and "no, sir," and he was firm, but he was also fun.
       Now we know that through 29 years at Woodlawn, he had to deal with a lot of tough kids and tough situations. We know also that he did it with reason and steadiness, with class. He was calm and measured and, above all, fair.
       Twenty-nine years. Amazing. When he left, he was the last link to the original Woodlawn, and the only person I know who topped him in longevity is Linda Loper Bradford, with 39 years on the faculty, starting in 1963 -- the school's fourth year. And Linda was a young girl when she began teaching.
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       Mr. Cook and I talked maybe 3-4 times a year, maybe more if I saw him at events. We had a great relationship, an easy relationship. He was just always the same -- the handshake, a good story or remembrance, comparisons of who we'd seen or recalled from the old days, some Woodlawn memories, and more.
       When he'd call, he might open the conversation by saying, "This is the Cook boy," explaining that's what the older folks in Haynesville might say. And he'd laugh. Or, if he called from his lakehouse, he'd say, "This is the Claiborne Parish Cook branch." It was always something.
And you know what I called him? Mr. Cook. Always Mr. Cook.
       He was Joseph William Cook Jr., known as William as a kid in Haynesville. He became "Bubba" Cook as a student at Louisiana Tech. We, of course, knew him as J.W. Cook Jr.
A lot of people called him "Bubba," right? Not me. Which gets me to thinking ...
OK, will the people who were students at Woodlawn please stand?
      Now, remain standing if you, as a student, called him "Bubba."
      Thank you.
      Could you see someone -- as Forrest Gump -- say, "Hey, Bubba." It just didn't happen.
      Nor did I recall anyone at Woodlawn kidding him about being a cheerleader at Louisiana Tech. Maybe Greg Boring, Charlotte Hudson or Barbara Norrid -- who went from Woodlawn to being Tech cheerleaders in the mid-1960s -- might've done that. But I don't think we brought up that cheerleader business with him.
      When I called him, I might address him by saying, "Is this the esteemed former principal of Woodlawn High School?" But if I was talking to someone else, I referred to him as Mr. Cook.
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Mr. Cook with two of his three granddaughter (photo from his
daughter, Becky Cook Mason's Facebook page)
       We had this in common. Although we both graduated from Louisiana Tech and rooted for Tech, we also were avid LSU football fans. So we invariably talked LSU football. I'm sure he would've enjoyed the bowl game Wednesday, and maybe like me, agonized through it. I'm convinced that a couple of the recent LSU quarterbacks caused him more grief than any Woodlawn student ever did.
       Here are a couple of things I really appreciated about him: (1) In my sportswriting career, he was never critical of anything I ever wrote; in fact, he was often very supportive. You know, we do have our critics at times. (2) He was very kind to my parents, as many people were.
       At times, he would alert me to stories he thought I should read or he would send them to me. In fact, the last story he sent me, last summer, was a story about the Holocaust that he knew I'd be interested in.
       We talked often, too, about Haynesville. He loved growing up in that little town, and he learned a lot about football -- winning football -- there. He was quite proud of the place, and he wanted to take me up there and show me around. Never got that chance, I'm sorry to say.
       Of course, I covered a bunch of games up there early in my career, just when Red Franklin was building his championship teams. And Haynesville already meant something to me because I knew a bunch of people with connections there -- Mr. Cook, Lowell Morrison, M.D. Ray, coaches Joe Aillet and Cecil Crowley before they wound up at Louisiana Tech, and most significantly perhaps, Trey Prather's mother and her parents, the Callenders. They were great Woodlawn supporters. Back to that in a moment.
       It's funny. Many of us, of course, associate Mr. Cook just with Woodlawn. But on Tuesday, I got a note from one of my best friends from the old days who attended that high school on Line Avenue ... I can't remember the school's name. He recalled "Coach Cook" as a P.E. teacher at Youree Drive Junior High the year it opened in 1959 and as coach of a Riverside Elementary 65-pound football team.
        I never knew that.
       The next year when Mr. Turner was appointed principal at the new Woodlawn High, he came from years as a teacher and administrator at Fair Park and picked as one of his assistant principals a young man (then 30) who had taught civics at Fair Park from '56 to '59. Good pick.
       Mr. Turner made some good picks, Lee Hedges as head football coach and A.L. Williams as an assistant -- and a heckuva faculty.
       The results were obvious. We had quite a school, quite a school community, and it was the kids who made Mr. Cook feel so at home. He told me that the hard-working, blue-collar type parents and kids reminded him so much of Haynesville, which is a reason he never left when chances came his way.
        It changed some when Southwood opened in 1970 and Dr. Turner -- by then he had his doctorate -- moved there. That was Mr. Cook's opening to become Woodlawn principal. Perfect.
       Like Mr. Turner before him, Mr. Cook had a knack for selecting good people, including many of the coaches. Being a favorite of his faculty and students came naturally.
        I posted three messages on Facebook the past several days about Mr. Cook's passing. The response was enormous. One post had 30 shares ... far beyond anything I've posted in 2 1/2 years on Facebook. And I have seen more than a hundred comments about Mr. Cook.
        Here are a couple:
        -- "What a wonderful example he was to all of us. His life really counted, and that's all any of us can hope for."
        -- "Such a fine person. He was the cornerstone of Woodlawn for so many years. He also had a great sense of humor and always made you feel important."
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        One thing you could count on -- if there was a Woodlawn class reunion, Mr. Cook would be there ... if at all possible. And he remembered so many of the students.
        He endured. He told one of my classmates at our last reunion how much fun it was in the '60s, how easy the discipline part of his job was. Things would get tougher. Integration, to be honest, was difficult for everyone -- whites and blacks -- in the early '70s. Lots of things changed. But he handled it.
        While others bailed out of the public school system or took jobs in the school board office, he stayed. He stayed loyal to Woodlawn and kept the school running smoothly for his 19 years as principal.
        And, back to the Haynesville angle, the Trey Prather angle. After Trey died in action in Vietnam in 1968, we also suffered. Mr. Cook was one of the people most responsible for beginning an annual tribute to the Woodlawn kids killed while serving in the U.S. military.
        The first-Friday-each-May sunrise ceremony -- and many of you know -- is a moving one, around the center of the beautiful quadrangle area at Woodlawn where the stone monument honoring those kids is located. It's always breathtaking and poignant, from the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the bagpiper walking on the school rooftops toward the assembly, playing Amazing Grace. This is a tradition that has endured.
         As long as they were alive, Trey Prather's father and his grandparents from Haynesville were there. Mr. Cook was always there.
         Just like he was at all those Woodlawn football games, 333 in a row. You could count on him.
You knew in the years he was there that Woodlawn was going to be well run, that he was going to do it with honesty and integrity, and -- most important -- he was going to do things in the students' best interests, in the school's best interests. It was not about J.W. Cook.
         It was that way in all in which he was involved.
         I thought the last paragraph of his obituary in the paper and on the funeral home site wrapped it up well: "Bubba loved people and people loved him. He knew someone everywhere he went and touched so many lives throughout his career and will be greatly missed."
         He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, and for us from Woodlawn, a role model. You could hardly live a better life as a man, a better life as a human being. The boy they called William, the man they called J.W., or Bubba -- if you dared -- did well. "The Cook Boy" from Haynesville did well.
         Thank you, Mr. Cook. Thank you to Mr. Woodlawn.

11 comments:

  1. From Barbara Shaw Clark: The thing I remember most about Mr. Cook is I never saw him look angry. He had inner peace. I was never afraid of him or Mr. Turner (well, maybe a little bit of Mr. Turner), but I had enormous respect for them and would never have thought to displease them. Wonderful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. From Beverly Ann Tozier Harlan: I am proud to be a Knight and have had the experience to attend Woodlawn in the beginning years under the leadership of Mr. Turner and Mr. Cook.

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  3. From Janice Robinson: Excellent tribute. Very down to earth and all so very true. I'm so glad I was a part of that '60s Woodlawn High School era. Something I will always remember. It helped to make me who I am today.

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  4. From Ann Bloxom Smith: You did us all proud with that eulogy. Thank you for helping us to honor a great man.

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  5. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: You truly have a way with words. Excellent eulogy. He would be proud of you ... but probably would also be humbled.

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  6. From Gin Rolston Weber: This was a beautiful tribute. The entire service was beautiful, especially the cellphone ringing with the LSU fight song.

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  7. From Taylor Moore: Great blog post. I had a conflict and couldn't attend Mr. Cook's funeral. I did see A.L. at another visitation and we had a chance to reflect on "Bubba." He was Judy's principal during the four years she taught at Woodlawn. And I also had Coach Cook at Youree for 7th grade P.E. during his only year there before going to Woodlawn. By the way, that school on Line was named C.E. Byrd and I believe it finished runner-up this past football season for a state championship.

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  8. From Richard Ashford: What a great tribute. I had Mr. Cook as assistant principal for one year before he moved up to principal my junior year. Yes, I was petrified of Mr. Cook. I think everyone was. ... He was a firm but fair disciplinarian. He made a positive impact on my life for sure, to stay on the right course. ... There are only a handful of teachers that made a memorable impact on my life. Mr. Cook was one of those unforgettable figures who left an everlasting positive impact.

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  9. From Tommy Youngblood (FP/LSU): The things you said about Mr. Cook could certainly be said about so many of the men we grew up with. The war vets, the old coaches that were too old to serve but passed down a no-nonsense approach to life. I wish I had been smart enough to talk to them more. I remember that my friend Billy Gann's father was in the second wave to hit Iwo Jima.

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  10. From Nancy Evans: Two of my kids had him as their" leader" and what a leader he truly was. A very special man. Thank you, Mr. Cook, you will be missed by so many but God now has a special Angel to watch over all of us who knew him.

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  11. From Coach Jerry Adams: Good writing -- would not expect anything less. Hard thing, this eulogy thing, how to connect yesterday, what was, with today, what is. To sum up what a person was is a special gift, and that is part of your gift to this world.

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