Remembering John Cooke III: He made an impact here with his time, talent, treasure...and friendship


John Cooke III possessed a larger-than-life personality. He could be admired and loathed. . .all at the same time. He wasn’t shy about sharing his thoughts and often used salty language to add luster to his point.

Sometimes his style put people off. And, yet, others became extremely fond of him, calling him an important mentor.

He died Tuesday morning, Oct. 5 after dealing with a series of medical challenges. After major surgery two weeks ago, he never recovered.

The day after his passing, I shared condolences with his son, John Cooke IV adding that his father could put me in a rage at times. John IV simply said, “Me too.” We chuckled.

All this is part of what made John Cooke a legend here. The stories of inappropriate language, the pounding of a fist on the table and not-so-subtle scoldings are all part of the lore but not the full story.

What is clear is the legacy of philanthropy, vision, hard work and passion for this area that John leaves with his adopted community after a career with McDonald’s. Stories abound about these traits.

John must have been a persuasive sort in his youth. Maybe his Harvard-trained lawyer father, John II, rubbed off on him. Both according to John IV, possessed similar personalities and the two frequently butted heads.

At age 16, John used his powers of persuasion to convince a recruiter that he was actually 17 and old enough to serve in the Navy during World War II. John believed that everyone else counted age incorrectly.

He argued that you were 1 year old during the first year of life; two years old in the second year of your life and so on. So, instead of being 16, John argued that he was actually 17.

The recruiter agreed. Unbeknownst to his parents, John headed to Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago.

When John II learned of this, he traveled to Great Lakes, met with a commanding officer and then escorted his son back home. The conversation back home might have been interesting.

For the rest of his life, John considered himself a year older than anyone else did. John was 93 when he died. He’d say 94. The man was persistent and held strong convictions.

John did join the Army as a radio operator and was eventually shipped to the Pacific theater of operations. He believed that if the United States had invaded Japan he wouldn’t have come home alive.

He appreciated serving his country and made sure veterans of all ages were honored and remembered. At Rotary meetings and community observations for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, he shared observations.

As was his style, he thought deeply about what he wanted to say and came prepared. Excerpts from his speech at the 2016 Veterans Day observation in Elizabeth included these gems:

•“Today is a day of remembrance for the men and women who served. Those of us who served know about war and the battlefield.”

•“We know how easy it is for those who haven’t fought to declare war,” said Cooke. “War is death, destruction and devastation. How well we remember and how we wish we could forget.”

“Real service is to the ones we love and to our community. Real service is to peace. I think that’s the real message and why we came.”

John believed in “real service” to benefit the community. In one way or another he supported a wide swath of organizations with his time, talent and treasure. When it came to the treasure, he was always generous.

Here are thoughts from community leaders:

•Pat McCarthy, retired CPA and Rotary Club of Galena member: “John was a shaker and a mover. He wasn’t afraid to attempt any project. He always did his homework before going forward and was very generous. His contributions had a profound effect on the community. People like John don’t come around very often. Most times they are not really appreciated until they are gone. John will be missed.”

•Steve Barg, Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation executive director: “The first time I met John was at a JDCF annual meeting. John raised his hand and said I have some questions for you.

“He shared that non-profits didn’t run like a business and should. My dad ran a business for 25 years. I consider myself as taking on a different type of approach and being more business minded. This question started an eight-year dialogue about how JDCF could be more business like in our approach to conservation. He was like a father figure for me. I just enjoyed regularly sitting down with him for coffee and chatting about ideas...

“An example: seven years ago we started a little committee about starting a for-profit entity that supported our non-profit entity. We looked at a dozen different possibilities. One of those things we considered, because we had members inquire, was about starting a natural cemetery...

“The largest project I worked with him never got to a final product, the idea of creating a natural heritage district in the Driftless Region...This was a big bold idea that John liked. He liked to think of how to message and communication.

“He was a good leader. He had a lot of bluster. He had a heart for doing things that could help people. He was hard on the outside, soft on the inside. He wanted people to lead better lives. He wanted the history and story of the region to be known. He was a great man and I’m sorry he’s gone.

“He supported our work at a high level. What he brought in terms of thoughts and hard work was something I really appreciated in addition to his financial support. He gave his talent away freely a well as his finance.

“I’m going to miss his smirk and his inappropriate language. I enjoyed him in a lot of different capacities.”

John IV says his father was always a nature lover. When the family lived in rural Kentucky in the 1950s, his father would take the family out for walks. He’d point out trees, insects and animals. There was also the family collection of nonvenomous snacks.

Also, at Rotary meetings after the program, John was usually the first to ask the first and usually second and third questions.

•Don Gereau, Hope Foundation director, “John was a large personality and very generous as was his wife, Marge. He worked on Vision 2020, Hope Foundation, historical society. We sometimes butted heads...

“I think John felt that the community had a responsibility to support itself. When you look at the 100 Club and Community Foundation of Jo Daviess County, he believed the community should step up and benefit the whole county. You shouldn’t get something for nothing. You needed to participate.

“You also can’t underestimate his passion for World War II.

“John could be difficult. Marge wasn’t. They made a team. This loss should be felt by the community. There is now a big void. I’m sad about it.”

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For two consecutive years, Don nominated John and Marge Cooke for the Telegraph Herald’s citizen of the year recognition.

•Tracy Bauer, CEO Midwest Medical Center: “There were so many times as John was developing plans for Prairie Ridge our bond holders and board members would ask, ‘What do you think the odds of Prairie Ridge getting built?’ Every single time I would say, ‘If John Cooke wasn’t involved I wouldn’t have such high hopes. But since John is involved I know deep down in my heart it’s going to happen.’ That’s the best way to summarize him.

“John was instrumental with Midwest Medical Center as well. He was a believer in our organization. He started the board nominating committee. He developed the orientation program and manual for new members. He took them under his wing.

“He was the first grand sponsor for our golf outing. He gave his time to so many of us. He was a great mentor to our executive team. His experience was so valuable. He just gave not only of his time and talents, he gave monetary donations that made such a difference.”

John handled the orientation for new Galena Rotary Club members. He also chaired the Rotary Roundtable committee for close to 20 years.

•Joel Holland, CEO, First Community Bank of Galena/Apple River State Bank: “He was a dream big kind of guy and philanthropy was his passion. He was a hard charger.

“I remember at an annual meeting of The Galena Foundation he stood up and said, ‘Everybody here ought to be giving something. Go change your wills!’

“They broke the mold when they made him.”

John also served on the board of The Galena Foundation and pushed for the creation of the Community Foundation of Jo Daviess County and served on its board too.

•Eric Dregne, president and CEO, Prairie Ridge: “I met John initially with Galena Vision 2020. Everyone who knows John knows he can catch you off guard. He says everything on his mind and what he thinks of your ideas. I had a dad who was like that. I walked out of the meeting thinking ‘That’s what my dad would have been.’

“Anything he got involved in, he typically tried to have a leadership role. He put all of his effort into it. He worked outside of the meeting and came prepared. He was generous. He put up money, time and energy. When the ideas were announced for Vision 2020, he put energy in keeping people connected and how they were implementing ideas.

“For me, the way he worked showed his level of interest in the community and that communities mattered. He saw potential for more than what is. He had a continuous improvement mind set.

“John was always thinking well ahead of what things could be. He had been sketching out ideas about Prairie Ridge for years. He’d show me things from eight years ago. He was still doing that. I had a meeting with him a couple of months ago and he wanted to plan what we could be doing in 10 years. John was always leading through commitment and passion. He put his money where his mouth was. A lot of people have ideas but don’t make the full commitment. If John said he was going to do it, he was all in.

“I learned a lot from him. There wouldn’t be a Prairie Ridge without him. He would say there wouldn’t be a Prairie Ridge without the group (the board of directors). He wanted it to be a community-led thing as much as it could be. He wanted it to be a jewel in the community’s crown. He wanted it to be an asset of the community and the community could be proud of. He wanted to do something the community truly needed. He created a really strong vision...

“The thing about John is that he had his own point of view. He’s a little bit of a love/hate guy. I think that mutual understanding allowed us to butt heads on some aspects. There aren’t a lot of people comfortable saying ‘no’ to John.

“John liked giving advice and being a mentor. Losing him is a big loss for the community. We will miss his vision and support.”

I talked to John in early August. He wanted to meet for lunch. He’d been doing some thinking about the community and wanted to share his thoughts. We never met for lunch.

Remember this about John: in his late 80s and early 90s, he steadfastly worked on the multi-million dollar Prairie Ridge project. How many people do that? Prairie Ridge is a jewel in the community crown.

•Nancy Breed, former executive director, Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society: “John was a member of the committees I worked with. He was a visionary and thought a lot about how we move the museum forward, how we move it to a place that is sustainable.

“I admired his persistence. He was recently on the museum new project committee. He kept pushing. At times he’d pound his fist and say, ‘You dumb shits, you can do better.’ He liked to challenge people. He liked to provoke and get new/expanded thoughts on the table and then work shoulder to shoulder to make it happen.

“I was friends with John and Marge, and knew them on a personal level. I enjoyed having dinners out and spending pleasant evenings with them. They became treasured friends.

“Their impact was huge in large and small ways. In large ways, they were continually encouraging a new museum which is huge for this community. It is closer because their hand was on the wheel in part due to his cajoling and challenging. They gave of their financial wherewithal, often anonymously, with no desire for credit or acknowledgement.

“I liked the way they used their donation to encourage others. They challenged us and encouraged everyone to think of philanthropy in our community. Their largesse is shown in the museum’s collection such as the Gen. John C. Smith Civil War letters, the Antrobus painting of Grant at Chattanooga and funding the printing of some of our self-published books.

“When I think of John’s work, it makes me feel small and that I don’t do more. I can’t think of one other couple who has done as much.

“You don’t fill the shoes of a John Cooke. There is no one who can take his place.”

On the second floor of the museum is the “John and Marge Cooke Military Hall.”

In 2003-04, John chaired the Galena Grand Excursion fundraising committee. The goal at first was to raise $125,000, which was then raised to $175,000. At meeting after meeting, John told committee members, “You aren’t doing worth a shit.”

After one meeting I told John, “You know, we’ve raised $150,000.”

He responded, “You guys are doing great. I just want to keep the pressure on you.” He said it with a big smile on his face.

•John Cooke IV, John’s eldest son: “Dad had a lifelong strong ethical and moral center and he lived his life that way. I can’t think of one time he didn’t do the right thing, or at least try to. I always believed the way he lived his life was an example to us all, and while all of us are imperfect, he set the example for me and my brothers with the way he conducted himself, and lived his life. He was a teacher, mentor, disciplinarian and cheerleader, and he leaves a huge void in his wake.”

Talking about his father’s ethical and moral character, John IV shared that after his parents divorced, his father was obligated to financially support her until their youngest son, Jim, turned 18. John supported her for the rest of her life.

Thanks, John...for everything.

by P. Carter Newton, publisher


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