Jan. 5, 2006
By Macklin Reid (Dec. 28) in the Ridgefield Press
John P. Cooke `59, who won an Olympic rowing gold medal, organized an invasion force, built a school, helped found a political party and always spoke his mind, died Dec. 26 at his Connecticut home.
He was 68, the husband of Torrey Matheson Cooke, the father of three and grandfather of four.
During a 28-year career with Emery Air Freight, he oversaw the construction of buildings all over the world, including Emery's "hub" in Dayton, Ohio, a project that occupied him for seven years.
Mr. Cooke died "at his home in the presence of his family, after a brief but courageous battle with cancer," his family said. "John's spirit, courage, strength, tenacity, loyalty and humor will be sorely missed by all his family and friends."
John Patrick Cooke was born in Ansonia on April 9, 1937, to the late Thomas J. and Sophie K. Cooke. He attended Ansonia High School and graduated from Yale University in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in industrial administration. While at Yale, Mr. Cooke was a member of the crew and rowed for what has been described as "the most successful U.S. rowing team ever to compete in the Olympics." The team left the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia with two gold medals, three silver medals and a bronze.
Torrey Cooke, his wife of 42 years, recalled meeting him for the first time at a wedding in Philadelphia. Though he'd won at the Olympics -- and, later events would show, was interested in making an impression on her -- he didn't mention it. "Never said a word. Somebody else said `Do you know that guy has an Olympic gold medal?' He never bragged about it," she said.
"He was the number three man (in the eight-man shell), and that's usually the steam engine," Mrs. Cooke said. "He was a powerhouse. He was a terribly strong young man."
He went on to coach at Yale and stayed active in rowing throughout his life, refereeing, judging, and being involved in various rowing associations. He refereed the Head of the Charles race in Boston for 20 years, and officiated at competitions up and down the East Coast.
"His passion, really, was that sport. He just loved every bit of it," his wife said. In 2001 he earned the United States Rowing Association's Jack Kelly Award, named after one of his Yale teammates, and given annually for "superior achievements in rowing, service to amateur athletics, and success in their chosen profession, thereby serving as an inspiration to American rowers."
"I'm not that distinguished. There are more qualified and deserving recipients," he said at the time. "Rowing is a team sport and there is no star. We are all in the boat together."
Mr. Cooke's most recent rowing achievement was to spearhead a national fund-raising campaign for construction of the last U.S. Olympic team's eight-man boat, named the Rusty Wailes in honor of another of his old crewmates.
Mr. Cooke had been planning a trip to Australia later this year for the 50th anniversary of the Melbourne games where his team had won gold. He and Mrs. Cooke had been there for the 25th anniversary.
"We were all going to go to Australia," she said. "There was a natural affinity with the Aussies, and we became friends."
After college Mr. Cooke enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was commissioned as a second lieutenant at Quantico, Va., in 1960. He served in both Okinawa and Japan as a member of the Third Tank Battalion, before ending his active service in San Francisco as a captain.
In 1962 he planned the loading and initial combat array for a secret mission -- the 1962 invasion of Thailand -- that was one of the early involvements of U.S. troops in what became the Vietnam War.
He later helped found Ridgefield's detachment of the Marine Corps League, and enjoyed marching with fellow Marines in Ridgefield's annual Memorial Day Parade.
"He flew the Marine Flag and the American Flag. He was always a great patriot," his wife said.
After his military service, Mr. Cooke accepted a job with Emery Air Freight, headquartered in Wilton. He supervised the building of Emery facilities around the world.
"He picked the right place for the buildings and saw that they were designed and built to the specifications," Mrs. Cooke said. "Materials handling is what air freight is all about."
He received an MBA in 1980 from Manhattan College, and finished his career as Emery's vice president of facilities and material handling systems, retiring in 1993.
Mr. Cooke's construction experience proved useful in the start of what was to become a long involvement in town affairs.
From 1967 to 1974 he chaired the High School Building Committee that brought the new high school building on North Salem Road in on time and under budget. Recently expanded and renovated, the building is still in use by some 1,700 students.
He also served as a co-president of the Branchville School PTO, served on an early Charter Revision Commission and on the Board of Assessment Appeals. With the late Bill Allen he helped found the town's Independent Party. In 1993 he was elected to the Zoning Board of Appeals on the Independent ticket, becoming the first Ridgefield resident elected to a townwide office on a third party slate -- at least in the 20th Century.
Mr. Cooke was also a family man, "He just loved his children and grandchildren," Mrs. Cooke said. "He'd go to the hockey games, the soccer games, the football games."
A football player before he became involved in rowing at Yale, Mr. Cooke coached youth football when his son played.
Besides his wife, Mr. Cooke is survived by two daughters, Emily Nolan of Shepherdsville, Ky., and Rachel Mills of Freeport, Maine; and a son, John Patrick Cooke Jr. of Lantana, Fla. He is also survived by his three brothers, Terrence, Anthony, and Paul, by four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks friends to consider making a donation to one of the following charities: The American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org; The Marine Corps League, www.mcleague.com, or The National Rowing Foundation, www.natrowing.org.
Cooke is one of Yale's all-time great rowers