For decades, James “Cookie” Cook, 72, used the sports he loved to teach, coach and be the surrogate father needed by hundreds of Minneapolis youth.
Cook, from Crystal, died May 6 of a heart attack. He left behind his wife, Betty, seven children, nine grandchildren and an even larger family of track, football and boxing students, whom he taught to avoid drugs and violence and cling to discipline and hard work.
“He put a work ethic in me that really stuck,” said Blaine Williams, who ran track and played football under “Coach” in the 1980s at Henry High School.
Williams, 47, said Cook’s drive and regimens won games, state track meets and so much more. Cook picked up team members from dicey neighborhoods ruled by drugs and gangs.
“He was pretty fearless when it came to defending us,” Williams said. “He made it clear that this kid belonged to him and he advised the gang members to make sure the kid [stayed] OK because they were special. He made sure his kids had safe passage. Jimmy would pick up, drop them off, confront or do whatever he had to do. It was like he was sent to be a father to us and prepare us to be men and make good decisions in life. He was a great coach, but a far better father figure.”
Cook played that role at school. At night. At dawn. When the phone rang, Cook came. “There was not a young African-American boy on this Earth that he was afraid of,” said Betty Cook, his wife of 35 years. “One time there was some trouble with one of his boys. Jim didn’t call the police. He called his brothers. I said to him: ‘You are going to confront four young men? Who are gang members? And who maybe carrying guns?’ He said ‘Hell yes!’ He was tough.”
But Cook’s legacy almost died before it began. As a teenager, he moved with his mother and siblings from Florida to Minneapolis, where he “nearly froze to death” and suffered bouts of pneumonia. He eventually recovered, acclimated and went on to play sports for North High School.
Cook joined the Air Force in 1961 and was stationed in an integrated unit in the South. There he boxed, taught boxing and drove military dignitaries. But when he was off duty, restaurants refused to serve him or the other blacks from his barracks. That prompted fights and won loyalty from white bunkmates who walked out of restaurants in protest.
Cook left the Air Force in 1965, returned to Minneapolis and started the Minneapolis Police Federation’s boxing league, a project Cook designed to give the city’s youth a positive outlet. Cook went on to college, running track and playing football for North Hennepin Community College and for the University of St. Thomas.
“He won his races. He was good and he looked good,” said Betty, who met him at a college track meet. “Jim was very, very competitive. Everybody knew that. He would tell you, ‘If you are going to get out there and run with me, you better have wings on your feet.’ ”
Armed with a degree in health and physical education in 1976, the “Tommie” known for 5:30 a.m. workouts became a Minneapolis health and gym teacher. He taught classes and coached track and football at Lincoln Junior High, Henry High School, Emerson Elementary and other Minneapolis schools. He and Betty married in 1979 and went on to raise seven children: Mia, Shandala, Jamie, Timothy, Jason, Shalom and Jidana. All became school athletes.
Cook retired from Minneapolis public schools in 2007 and turned to his other love: fishing. For years he’d haul his boat, children, nephews, co-workers or students to fishing spots in Minnesota, Canada and Wisconsin. There he’d talk about their victories and how to tackle city problems with smarts, discipline and an eye on the future.