Jim Cook: Led Sabathani Community Center for 27 years

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 8:43 PM

Jim Cook, a young black man from Pittsburgh, was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic call for racial equality and economic justice during the March on Washington in 1963.

Only three years later, Marine Jim Cook was severely wounded in combat in Vietnam, a war he came to doubt as he also questioned America’s promise.

Decorated for bravery under fire, Cook came home disillusioned to a Philadelphia veteran’s hospital. Confidants say his great spirit inspired him to recover and work toward a better America.

“Jim never bragged about what he did in combat and he earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart,” recalled his wife, Katie Cook, who met and married him after he served. “Jim had PTSD. He was full of shrapnel and bullet wounds. He helped other veterans. He turned the pain of war into positive action.”

Cook, 72, the retired executive director of Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis, died July 31 of a heart attack at his home.

Cook was recruited by Minneapolis acquaintances to join the fledgling Sabathani in 1979, after he spent more than a decade rehabilitating inner-city housing in Pittsburgh and New York.

Yusef Mgeni, one of Sabathani’s first employees and director of facilities and development, recalled that he and Cook sold the long-envisioned mission of a one-stop community center that would house education, job-training, health, senior citizen and other agencies. They raised several million dollars from Minneapolis-area corporations and foundations who bought into their vision.

At one point in the 1990s, there were more than 50 agencies serving more than 1,000 people daily from dawn until after dark with everything from meals for senior citizens to English lessons, job training classes, community college courses and neighborhood meetings.

“I’m a social change person, but I build on an organization of direct services,” Cook said in 2006, sitting in his modest office. “You build change through people, because they’ve changed.”

Said Mgeni: “Jim worked with neighbors, nonprofits, business … Honeywell, General Mills and the other foundations and corporations … and leaders like the late Russ Ewald and Jim Shannon who helped make the dream a reality.”

Cook made sure he worked harder than everybody else. He decided there would be no after-school basketball until studies were completed by grade school kids who showed up for after-school activities. He started chess, book and cooking clubs for the kids and challenged them to develop their skills.

Art Serotof, a close friend and one-time United Way and Sabathani employee, said Sabathani operated Minnesota’s largest program for resettlement of Gulf Coast victims after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When Jim got an idea or made a commitment, not much would stop him,” Serotof said.

“Russ Ewald, who ran the McKnight Foundation, was a World War II Marine. He was a mentor to Jim. He said, ‘Jim, think big.’ And we fixed the building and created this seamless alliance of service and navigators. It was really humming when he retired in 2006.”

Cook, one of several children born to a working-poor family in Pittsburgh, took after his mother, Margaret, recalled Katie Cook. She was best known for planting flowers along the streets of their integrated north side neighborhood.

“He didn’t care about class or color. He believed people could get together and transcend their differences,” said Katie Cook. In addition to his wife, Cook is survived by three adult children.

A memorial service will be held at Sabathani at 1 p.m. Sept. 8.

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