When his moment came he stood to accept his 2010 high school graduation diploma from Montrose High Assistant Principal Kathy Lemon. Although nearly blind and almost totally deaf, Cook grabbed the microphone and turned toward the crowd to express his excitement.
“I wish to thank each and every one of you for this occasion,” he said. “It must be a first of its kind. Thank you very, very much.”
When he came of age, it was during the Great Depression, and Cook never finished high school. He enlisted in the Army Air Force on Sept. 12, 1942 to serve in World War II.
Close friend Marilyn Cox said Cook regretted never getting his diploma, and when the Montrose School District learned of his wish, it fit right in with their program called Operation Recognition, which awards high school diplomas to men and women who gave up their educations to serve their country during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“After the war, many of these veterans were not able to finish high school for various reasons, but led productive lives and built our communities over a lifetime,” said school district spokeswoman Linda Gann.
The school district works with the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs and the state Department of Education to award full high school diplomas to qualifying veterans, she said.
“This is a small, overdue gesture of our society’s gratitude for the sacrifice these individuals made in the name of freedom,” Gann said.
But it was no small gesture to Cook, said Cox, and he wants to emphasize the importance of an education to today’s young people.
“I wasn’t able to get an education, but I did all right,” Cook told Cox. “I had a good life, but in today’s world you just can’t get by that way. It would have been so much easier if I had a better education.”
But Cook was self-educated, an avid reader until his sight got too bad, and now he listens to books on tape.
“He still tries every day to read the newspaper, and he had a library at his house with all kinds of books,” she said. “He’s still learning, but to me, he’s been a teacher. He’s taught me so many things, and continues to with every visit. He’s very knowledgeable about many subjects.”
Cook was an avid fisherman and hiker all over the country, and began serious photography when he was stationed in Calcutta, India, during much of World War II.
After the war, Cook and some buddies ended up finding work in the redwood forests of California, where he continued his photography, developing photos in his own darkroom.
He was also a decoy carver, and Cox has one of his carved wooden geese – “a beautiful work,” she said.
When Cox asked Cook how he learned to carve, he answered cryptically: “First, you find a piece of wood…”
Cox, who got to know Cook well during his and his wife Nellie’s years of work at the museum, said he is still a great storyteller.
How Cook met his wife is a piece of history in itself, she said. Nellie was married to one of Cook’s good friends, who was killed during a logging accident. He stayed in touch with her, even after she moved back to be close to her parents in Redvale, Colo.
Over the years their friendship grew, Cook moved to Montrose and they were married in 1961, raising Nellie’s three children from her previous marriage.
Cook is steeped in the history of the Montrose area, and got to know many locals through his work installing water softener equipment for Culligan.
“He is so knowledgeable about history, and being the Culligan man, he got to know so many people and got to know the area so well,” she said. “He had some of the neatest stories to tell about people and even today, you mention a name, and he’ll tell a funny story.”
Cook was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant from the 1305th Army Air Force Unit on March 13, 1946. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.