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Remembering Gene Cook

Ned Groth, Autumn 2006

(This account is based on yearbooks, letters and other documents I have accumulated over the years, and while I have striven for accuracy, I take full responsibility for any errors. I am grateful to Dave Griswold for sharing his memories of Gene, and additional submissions by others are welcome.)


For a guy who never graduated from Darrow, Gene was a surprisingly loyal alumnus. He was a regular contributor of a few bucks to the Annual Fund and lots of news to our class newsletters, and he attended most of our major reunions. On one of those occasions, I asked why he seemed to harbor no resentment over being thrown out, near the end of his junior year, for having had one beer on the train back to Albany after spring break. Any hard feelings he had once had, Gene explained, had faded away long since, as he came to believe that Darrow had prepared him to succeed in life. He really felt that if he had not come to Darrow as a teenager, he would have had a different, less happy story to tell.


As Dave Griswold recalls, Gene’s life could indeed have gone in a very different direction. Dave says, “Gene grew up in a blue-collar section of Poughkeepsie, and was a gang member by the age of 14.” But as Gris emphasizes, Gene was a perfect candidate for Mr. Heyniger’s philosophy that every boy deserved a “second chance.” Gene came to Darrow during our freshman year; he and I were JV baseball teammates that spring. But his picture wasn’t in the ’59 yearbook at all (the baseball team shot was published in the ’60 yearbook), from which I deduce that he probably transferred in at mid-year when most of us were freshmen. As I recall, Gene was a sophomore then, but I gather he didn’t cover himself with academic glory during his first few months at Darrow, so come September, he was a member of ’62. In this class photo (this one’s from our junior year), Gene is the second tallest guy in the class, between Joe MacLaren and Bob Willock, in the back row.

I didn’t form much of an impression  of Gene for the first year and a half or so. We were in different dorms, different classes, and except for that JV baseball team, we played different sports. I thought of him as a nice guy, good athlete—a power-hitting outfielder, on the quiet side. Gris recalls that Gene was tough, and street-smart in ways beyond what most of us who had grown up in more genteel circumstances could fathom.

During our junior year, I got to know Gene a bit better, as we both took Horton Durfee’s chemistry class. One winter day in the lab, something, idle curiosity probably, inspired me to look up phenolphthalein in the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics that was in the lab. Phenolphthalein is that indicator compound we’d used in acid-base-titration lab exercises; it turns pink when the solution turns basic. But when I looked it up in the Handbook, a footnote told me it also had a medical use, as a “cathartic.” Being a smart-aleck kid with a big vocabulary, I knew what a cathartic was. (As I learned later, phenolphthalein was the main active ingredient of Ex-Lax.) I must’ve mentioned my discovery out loud; Gene and I looked at each other and realized this knowledge could be put to some good use. I filled a small test-tube with phenolphthalein solution from the lab supply, corked it, and slipped it into my jacket pocket.

Gene and I were also sitting at the same table in the dining hall that night. The master at our table was a certain immature first-year teacher who had been the object of unending abuse from the fine Darrow boys. Gene was sitting at the end of the table, next to the teacher, and I was next to Gene. He gave me a look that said “have you got it?” I nodded. Gene waited until the teacher’s water glass was empty, and the man was distracted, then calmly picked up the water pitcher, poured himself a glass, and lowered the pitcher under the table, between us, where I emptied the test tube full of phenolphthalein into it. Gene then “noticed” that the teacher’s glass was empty, and said “Here, Sir, let me fill that up for you.” He then said—“Ooops—empty,” and in the long Dining Hall tradition of “He who kills, it fills it,” went off to empty the pitcher’s contents, rinse it out and refill it. The next day, the teacher didn’t show up for classes. We were told he was attending a teacher-education seminar in Pittsfield. That was the story they gave us, anyhow.

When I look back on that, I’m amazed--at how stupid and cruel we were, at how smooth and calm Gene was, about how cool we both were as we improvised an assault our unlucky faculty target. I learned something about myself that day, and about Gene. Neither of us hesitated the least bit. He was fearless, and carried off both the covert action and the acting job with professional polish. If we’d been in the Marines, I’d have wanted him for my platoon leader.

But fortunately, we weren’t in the Marines, we were just prep school boys with practical jokes on our minds. And most of the time, Gene was preoccupied with the normal stuff: classes, sports, and Hands-to-Work. Gene continued to stand out as an athlete. Junior year, he was a star of the varsity basketball team (and was elected captain at the end of the season). He played varsity baseball (the picture at right is from 1960, I think) and I’m sure he played football in the fall, although the yearbooks show no evidence of that. (Maybe he was as good at missing photo shoots as he was at hitting jump shots.) Griswold recalls Gene as a really good football player, a tight end on offense and a linebacker on defense. “Harry loved him,” Gris says.

When it came to academics, Gene was never going to threaten P.J.’s or my positions as ranking scholars, but he was doing all right, and I gather from things he said later, better than he had expected to do. Gene surprised himself by finding out he could succeed in classes, as well as in sports. He said he really learned to write and think at Darrow, and as we all do, he had a specific memory of when it hit him that he was making progress as a student. In Gene’s case, it was in junior year English, when Richard Bethards would endlessly drill us from those workbooks to prepare us for the SATs. Gene discovered that it was working! He was getting it! He enjoyed trying to wrest a positive grade from Richard on a weekly theme (and occasionally succeeded). Gene was a classic Darrow “turnaround” story, except for that little matter of getting thrown out....But Gene was fatalistic about that. It happened, and couldn’t be undone. Nevertheless, in the two and a half years he spent at Darrow, Gene found his feet, intellectually. After that, he knew he could succeed, and he did so, and always felt grateful to Darrow.

Going back through the yearbooks, I discovered something about Gene I didn’t know I knew. He was in the Dramatics Club, sophomore and junior years (well, I knew he could act—as the story above revealed.) Richard Bethards was the drama coach. The 1960 yearbook doesn’t say who played what roles, but they put on several plays. The group photo includes Peter Golden and Kip Smith, the only other members of ’62 besides Gene. The 1961 yearbook says Gene had a lead role in Percival Wiles’ “The Moving Finger.” That year, Carl Sharpe, Howdy Davis and Damon Van Vliet were also in the club. It sounds as if they had a busy and fulfilling couple of years. I hate to admit it, but I don’t recall sitting through any of those productions, though I can’t imagine I didn’t attend them (like, we had a choice?) If anyone else can share memories of Gene’s theatre career at Darrow, please do.




Dramatics Club, 1960 (far left) and 1961. Gene’s in the back row in each photo. (For the full-sized photo and write-up, see page 45 of each yearbook.)




It also seems that I was not aware of all the shenanigans that Gene got himself into in his free time at Darrow. Dave Griswold tells the tale of a major practical joke that occurred “in the dead of winter” our junior year. “Some students,” Dave says, in what sounds a lot like an eyewitness account, “decided to have some fun with Dick Nunley.” They rolled his car out onto the football field and let the air out of the tires. Seemed harmless enough. But they hadn’t counted on the Darrow winter weather. That night it went down to about ten below zero. The tires froze to the ground and cracked. All four tires were ruined, and what had felt like just another bit of innocent hazing the faculty had turned into expensive vandalism. Needless to say, Mr. Nunley was not amused. The perpetrators were never caught, but Gris believes that Mr. Nunley blamed Gene for it. Gris insists the he “knows for a fact” that Gene had nothing to do with it. (So it was probably other shenanigans I didn’t know Gene was involved in.) Dave thinks this incident contributed to Gene’s not being asked back for our senior year. Dave recalls that after The Boss died, in the year when Charles Brodhead was trying to lead the school, Dick Nunley assumed a larger role, and Dave felt that in Dick’s mind, gang members from Poughkeepsie were not the kind of students Darrow needed to attract. Gris believes it was largely Dick’s decision to expel Gene, after that one-beer incident.

In any case, Gene finished high school elsewhere, and the basketball team had to find a new captain (Damon Van Vliet graciously accepted the role). And life went on.

For a few years, after most of us graduated, we went our separate ways. Then in 1968, I began writing our Class of ’62 Newsletter. In his enthusiastic response to my first letter asking for news, Gene expressed surprise that any of us remembered him, and said it seemed like a million years since he was at Darrow.  He filled me in on his life since he’d left us. He had gone right to work after high school, selling office equipment and computers for Olivetti-Underwood. He didn’t go to college, except for taking a few night courses related to his work or that he just found interesting. He was living in Racine, Wisconsin at the time, said he had been “bouncing from coast to coast” for several years. Moved to California in 1964, lived in Newport Beach, worked in Anaheim. While living there, he took up skydiving, “which opened up a whole new world for me.” Got pretty good at it, became an instructor, and a member of an exhibition team, called “The Skyscrapers.” But he got hurt (torn knee ligaments), took a trip to Racine, and while he was there, the local Olivetti dealer offered him a job, so he stayed. When he wrote, Gene was about to report for induction into the army. Given the shape his knee was in, he didn’t expect to make it through basic training.  Gene said he was still single but had finally met someone worth marrying, and they had been planning on a June wedding, until Uncle Sam called. Whatever the military had in store for him, Gene knew he would not be sent to Vietnam, because he had two brothers already serving there. At the end of his six-page letter, Gene said “So much has happened to me in the past six years that it would take an 800-page book to tell it.” He said life had treated him well and he’d had a really good time, and was looking forward to more of the same.

After that I heard from Gene pretty regularly—his news was featured in most editions of the Newsletter (which can be found elsewhere on this web site—so I won’t repeat all the details.) In 1969, he reported that his military experience had lasted all of six weeks until, as predicted, he was judged physically unfit to serve. Given that speedy resolution, Gene and Colleen went ahead and had that June wedding (June 1, 1968). John Patrick (they named him long before he arrived) was due in May ’69. Gene was still skydiving, but Colleen had decided not to take up the sport, and Gene was glad about that. After his brief stint in the army, Gene went back to office equipment sales, which he found an exciting and fast-changing (and profitable) field.

Subsequent years brought shorter letters (all our lives got fuller) from Gene, with updates and milestones. 1971: John was a year old and “a real bruiser;” Gene still an avid skydiver. 1972, still in Racine, Gene in touch with Pete Loomis, not far away in Elgin, IL; 1972, Gene enrolled in college, a pre-dental program at the U. of Wisconsin-Parkside; said it was hard going back to school after 10 years, but managed a 3.8 GPA his first semester. He’d quit his job to fit school in and was “peddling TVs part-time at a local store.” He had a tuition scholarship and a loan but they were “living in the lap of poverty.” 1972, Shannon arrives, on St. Patrick’s day. John hits the “terrible twos.”

In 1973, an article on Gene appeared in the Racine Journal-Times, chronicling the challenges he faced going to college “11 years after high school.” The story had these three great photos, of Gene in a lab where he worked part-time, with Colleen and the kids at home, and tending bar (the other of the two jobs he was working to try to make ends meet while he was in school.) The story said Gene was taking a semester off to try to save some money, but it wasn’t working out. They were close to broke, and it looked impossible to afford three years of dental school. So Gene was giving up his plan to be a dentist and rethinking his future. As Gene told the reporter, “I’m an optimistic person, but I’m very tired of being poor.”

1974: I talked to Gene on the phone, during a Darrow telethon in February.  He had quit school for good, and taken a job with ESB, Inc., a company that made specialty batteries. He and Colleen had bought a house in Racine and spent the better part of two years fixing it up.  1975: Life pretty much the same, John now 5½, Shannon 3½ , still working for ESB, his job involved traveling all over the continental US. Screwed up his knee again, playing basketball, needed surgery. 1978, same job, same house, same wife, kids getting bigger, coaching kids’ teams, and his work travels had taken him to San Francisco, where he had called Lester Henderson, reported Les was doing fine. 1979, when I was living in Washington, Gene called one night from Atlanta (where he went often, and usually saw Griswold) and said he’d be in DC in a few days. We got together for dinner and some music in Georgetown, the first time since Darrow we’d seen each other. Gene said ESB was “reorganizing” and a move—up or out—might be in the offing for him.

1980, the move came; ESB split into three parts and Gene was promoted to marketing director for the Exide division. With that job change came a move to Furlong, PA, near Doylestown, uprooting them after 13 years in Racine. He’d had surgery for diverticulitis, gave up part of his colon, was staying in shape with racquetball, fitting the house with solar panels, starting an electronics export business on the side.

At this point Gene had stopped writing letters (I think he secretly feared Richard Bethards would see them and give him a bad grade), but he’d call me now and then, or I’d call him at telethon time. By 1980, I was living in New York, so Gene and I were only about an hour and a half’s drive apart. It took us a while to get together again, but in the spring of 1982 Bob Lang threw a party on the occasion of a visit from Dave Griswold. Gene and Colleen drove up, I drove down. Below, Gene, Bob, Colleen, Dave. I was there too, but didn’t manage to get into any of my own photos of the event.








Not long after that our 20th reunion rolled around, and 19 of us turned up at Darrow to celebrate, Gene among them. We fielded an all-62 softball team and thumped the faculty, with Gene playing center field and pounding out a couple of hits. (A Peg Board reporter who witnessed the game was duly impressed, and used Gene’s name in the caption of the photo they ran of the game on the cover of the reunions issue. Unfortunately, the photo was of Joe Coffee getting one of his well-stroked hits.)


As it turned out, the 1982 (pre-reunion) edition of the newsletter was the last one I put out for more than a decade, once marriage, kids and an increasingly demanding job took over all my “free” time. For a number of years, I stopped being in regular touch with the class and lost track of many of you, Gene included. In 1987, I organized our 25th reunion, and Gene was there; this time, we took on the Class of ’57 in a softball game and again Gene had some key hits. And if I recall correctly, Gene played first base this time, to give his knees a break, while his son John played center field. I forgot my camera that year, but the school photographer got a lot of shots. This one shows Carl Sharpe, me and Gene (and Joe, in distant background) standing around waiting to bat.

Starting at Christmastime 1987, Gene and Colleen began sending me their family holiday newsletter every year. These annual missives brought year-sized bites of the Cook family’s progress. In 1987, John started college, at Syracuse; Shannon was in high school, playing soccer and busy with multiple activities; Gene was still selling batteries and was teaching Sunday school, working with high school students; Colleen was working two jobs, in a beauty salon and at a clothing shop. Gene and Col took an October trip to New England, visited Newport RI, Hancock Shaker Village, stopped in Syracuse to see John play in a couple of SU varsity soccer games. Gene said John brought two soccer teammates (boys from Scotland) home with him for Thanksgiving “and I think we spent more on food for those five days than we had spent for all the time since John left in August.”

The theme of pride in the kids, and nose-to-the-grindstone for the parents, continued for the next several years. 1988, Colleen wrote that Gene was still working very hard (for Douglas Battery, now), still traveling a lot, enjoying his work, good at it. He was coaching Shannon’s rec soccer team and mentoring the Teen Forum at church, with many service projects, social events, etc. John was leaning toward a major in Food Management and Nutrition, still playing soccer at SU; Shannon, a junior in HS, was on the soccer team, writing for the school paper, acting in the drama club, singing in the choir, getting good grades, volunteering in a soup kitchen in Philadelphia, and “terrorizing the good citizens of eastern PA behind the wheel of the Cookmobile.” The graphics below (the year’s theme) showed how the kids were growing up.

In 1989, John gave up soccer at Syracuse (a tough decision), to focus more on academics; Shannon finished high school, was going to spend a year abroad before college. The family went to Arizona in January, thanks to Gene’s frequent-flier miles, skied in the mountains, saw the Grand Canyon, all that. Colleen was still working two jobs, and Gene was still “plugging along” with Douglas Batteries and volunteering with the church youth group. 1990, John, a senior at Syracuse, contemplating what comes next; Shannon, in Argentina, skiing in the Andes and living with a wonderful family; Gene got a promotion, was now “twice as buried as I was before.” With the kids gone, he had quit coaching and the youth group and was enjoying the chance to “veg out” now and then. To help fill their empty nest they’d had an exchange student, Roman, from Ukraine, “an eye-opening experience.” 1991, Shannon, back from Argentina, about to head off to Penn State, to major in communications; John finishing up an extra semester at Syracuse; another exchange student (Juliana, from Rumania) helping fill the empty-feeling house; Colleen “creating beautiful women and peddling duds,” Gene still “pushing batteries,” had another “banner year,” but doing too much traveling. He had missed dealing with kids, and was volunteering at church again, teaching confirmation class.

1992 brought another big ’62 reunion, and Gene and Colleen were there.  We didn’t field an all-62 team for the softball game, but several of us, including Gene if I recall correctly, played on the alumni squad and got a few good swings in. What I remember best about that reunion—and the others—was sitting around with a brew or six, swapping stories and getting reacquainted with old friends. We were in Ann Lee that year, and filled up the dorm. Too soon, it was back to real life.

Gene and Colleen’s was chronicled, as accustomed, in their annual Christmas letters. 1992: John was back home, working at a restaurant in New Hope, taking a few courses at the local CC to finish up his degree, playing basketball and working out, making his dad feel like “an old tub.” Shannon had hit Penn State like “a dervish,” a journalism/Spanish major, writing for the campus paper, sorority sister, part-time job, and completed her freshman year in one semester. Another exchange student, Raquel, from Brazil. Colleen and Gene looking at a new phase in life, and starting to cope with aging-family frailties, Colleen’s mom and siblings. Both still volunteering at the soup kitchen. Gene got to Argentina on a business trip and visited the “absolutely stunning” town of Bariloche, where Shannon had spent her year there.

1993, a year of goodbyes: Colleen’s mom passed away (after 87 mostly good years), as did several other relatives and friends. Also a year to celebrate: 25 years of marriage (with a trip to the Virgin Islands); Gene hit 50, was surprised by a wonderful party organized by Col and the kids. Family gatherings, happy and sad, around the country. John starting a new job as manager of a Bucks County restaurant, the Spotted Hog. Shannon planning to spend part of her junior year in Spain. In 1994, more along the same lines. Same four jobs (2 of them Colleen’s, Gene & John 1 each), Shannon off to the U. of Salamanca, in Spain. 1995, John had a new job, working for Wyndham Hotels, was about to move to NJ. Shannon was graduating from PSU (in January ’96) with double degrees, Spanish and International Communications, was job-seeking. Colleen stayed on course, stable as a rock, while Gene’s life took a little detour: His “first (and last) heart attack as well as his 1st through 5th bypasses.” The recovery was going well, and exercise and eating well were currently higher on his agenda.

I talked to Gene sometime in the spring of 1996, and he said he was feeling better than he had in 15 years—working out four times a week, doing aerobics. He was planning to go up to Darrow for alumni weekend, a year I didn’t make it. By the end that year, a lot had changed. Shannon had moved to Dallas to seek her fortune, and was working for GTE. John had left Wyndham, was working at a cafe in Princeton, but had met a woman at Wyndham, Heather, and they had been together for a year. Gene was laid off at Douglas, found a new job with Yuasa Exide (his old company, now Japanese-owned) in Reading, PA, so they were planning to move to Reading. Colleen was working less, preparing to move (throwing out stuff, having garage sales, etc.)  In early 1997, though, via another phone call, I found out they had not had to move after all. Gene had been promoted and his new job was 10 minutes from home, so they were able to keep the house in Furlong. John had moved again—Kansas City this time, working for GEAC, selling computers to hotels and restaurants. John and Heather, now engaged; she still working for Wyndham, in KC. Shannon still in Dallas but with a new man in Seattle, thinking of moving there. Gene and Colleen thinking of downsizing but staying put for awhile. Gene had a bleeding ulcer, needed transfusions, but reported all was well and he was back on track.

1998 rolled to an end, and it was another year of big events. John and Heather were married, at the Jersey shore, and were about to move back to NJ; John would be working with GEAC in Paramus, Heather had a management position with Wyndham. Shannon stayed in Dallas, bagged Mr. Seattle instead, was still with GTE, a manager in charge of their pay phones in prisons around the country. Gene & Colleen remodeled the kitchen (Gene calls remodeling an “instant divorce decision” but reports they managed to survive, barely) and were happy with the end result, once time (and a weekend at the “marriage encounter”) had healed the wounds.

In the fall of 1999 I caught Gene on the phone again, and got some really bad news. He’d had gallstones, and when the surgeon took out his gall bladder, they’d discovered liver cancer. I was kind of floored by the news, but Gene was upbeat. He was taking life one day at a time and making the most of it. He said he drew his strength from interactions with others, and the support he’d been getting from family and friends had bowled him over. He said it had boosted his spirits and resolve incredibly and “it just blows my mind” to see so many people care so much about him.

In their holiday letter, Gene’s health was in the foreground, but not the only news. After a year living in Bay Head, John and Heather were moving to Washington, DC; she was taking a new job, he was moving up the ladder at GEAC. Shannon was still in the DFW area, still managing the jailhouse phone division, was active in the Jaycees, and had taken the Foreign Service exam, was awaiting the results. Colleen, in addition to having to cope with Gene’s surgery, having him home all day on disability, endless visitors traipsing through the house, worrying about the future, was diagnosed with diabetes herself, and had begun exercising and managing her diet. As Gene put it in closing the holiday letter, they’d both had a pretty rough go of it lately.

By now Gene and I were e-mailing each other, and now and then we’d talk on the phone. I caught up with him in the spring of 2000, and he said he was undergoing chemotherapy, every 3 weeks, pretty rough, had no hair left. But he was working out and feeling better, and Colleen had taken a course in massage therapy, with him as the main beneficiary. He was realistic—his cancer had been advanced when they found it—but still optimistic, and looking at the bright side—all the closeness and love and strengthening of family ties his illness had brought about. We talked about getting together at Darrow for a reunion—it would be our 38th—and Gene was hoping, in early June, he could make it. He sent out an e-mail to the class asking who could come, but got no responses. I was actually planning to go (my brother would be there for his 35th) but had been too busy to reply to Gene. We talked about maybe having a regional ’62 get-together in New Hope or someplace close to his home, in July sometime.

That was the last time I spoke with or heard from Gene. He didn’t make it up to Darrow for that reunion, and before I had gotten anywhere trying to organize a gathering in New Hope, the Big Guy Upstairs, as Gene liked to refer to him, called Gene’s number. Many of us got an e-mail from Shannon on July 8, 2000, telling us Gene had passed away that afternoon. A funeral was held on July 11, in Doylestown, and I drove down for it. I was the only member of ’62 who made it, and I was very glad I did. I’ve been to too many funerals, but this was one of the most uplifting I have ever attended. The priest who officiated clearly knew and loved Gene, spoke of him as a long-time friend, and the service was a testament to how much he’d meant to his family, his church, and his community. There must have been more than 300 people in attendance, and I got the feeling that Gene’s holiday letters had reflected his customary modesty, and had barely begun to tell us how important he was to his town and its people.

That Christmas, I got one last newsletter from Colleen (it had been Gene who always loved doing it, and she wrote one last one, for him). She described Gene as someone who always “gave his all”—to God, to being a husband, a father, to his work, to his friends, and as she put it, “to conquering his cancer, because it never conquered him.” She quoted Gene as saying his last six months was the best six months of his life. He was positive, upbeat, at peace and didn’t waste time thinking about what might have been. At Easter, Gene and Colleen visited John and Heather in Washington and went to services in the National Cathedral. John was sales director with MSI Software (computer systems for medical businesses), Heather had the same job title for an internet-based photography company. Shannon, still in Texas, was moving up at Verizon (which had acquired GTE) and was a big shot in the Jaycees, still dreaming of the Foreign Service. Colleen was going through an adjustment period, working part time at the beauty salon and working out at the gym, listening to Gene’s voice whenever she felt like giving in.

Gene’s passing left a big hole in our class, too. We missed him at our 40th, which he’d have enjoyed immensely, not the least because we had honorably hung up our cleats. For a tough kid from Poughkeepsie, he made a fine life for himself, worked hard, succeeded in business, devoted himself to his family, and to serving others. He did an enormous amount of good in his life. His desire to give back to those people and institutions that had given to him showed in his devotion to his Darrow class. He might have had plenty to be bitter about, about his Darrow experience and at various other points in his life, but that was not his style. He expressed few regrets, maintained a positive outlook, learned from every experience, kept moving forward, focused on the silver lining in even the darkest of clouds. For a guy who didn’t graduate with us, he was a pillar of strength to our class, over the years. He’s gone, but he lives on, in our memories, and in the lives of his children. May he rest in peace, and may he always be a part of the Class of 1962.

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