Even as the train stopped running, James Cook gained steam.
Cook worked for more than 20 years on the Great Northern Railway before becoming a certified public accountant — an extraordinary feat for a black man in that era. A Minnesotan nearly all his life, he died Jan. 30 of natural causes after a life in constant motion. He was 89.
The transcontinental railroad that employed him shuttled between Seattle and St. Paul, where Cook grew up.
Working on the train, Cook split each month between the road and home, raising two daughters and a son with his wife of 67 years, Rose Marie. He started as a waiter, ascending to ranch car steward, and even once served Helen Keller.
Cook also laid the groundwork to shift gears.
He completed a business degree in 1970, the same year the railroad was merged to become Burlington Northern. By then in his 40s, he worked long hours, and his daughter, then also a student at the University of Minnesota, would sometimes record his missed lectures so he could hear them later.
In 1969, he started working at Arthur Andersen & Co., then one of the most prestigious firms in the country, and became certified as a public accountant in 1972.
“He loved anything that required math and figures,” Rose Marie said.
The man who recruited him, Jim Brandt, hadn’t spoken to Cook in 30 years, yet recalled him vividly when he learned of his death. The firm, Brandt said, was the first in the region to hire black or female candidates. Cook’s recruitment opened up opportunities for others, Brandt said.
With Cook’s new job, his family soon moved from the south side of Minneapolis to suburban Bloomington. In the next few decades, Cook joined professional organizations like the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants and helped minority candidates secure scholarships in accounting. He assumed other leadership roles, working as treasurer for the NAACP, attending church at St. Peter’s AME in south Minneapolis and offering free financial advice to neighbors.
“We saw the proof of his hard work, of his striving to do better,” said his youngest daughter, Carolyn. “And he did do better.” She now owns her father’s Arthur Andersen calculator and works as an accountant, as does her daughter.
Cook encouraged others to pivot, including his nephew Eugene, who encountered problems working as a black man in the news media. Eugene had a wife and child, so his Uncle Jim advised him to move to sales, where he then built a successful career.
“He led by example,” Eugene said. “He just kept moving, one more step.”
Preferring to travel by ground, Cook took road trips often, visiting family on each coast. Cook’s first international trip to London in 1973 for an audit convention nearly persuaded him and Rose Marie to retire there.
As Cook grew older, he and Rose Marie moved in with Carolyn near Atlanta in 2014.
Just before Cook died, his three children, Richard, Colburne and Carolyn, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren gathered around his bedside. He’d already calculated everything, arranging his funeral and burial and paying off his debts.
“What’s wrong with Papa?” asked Carter Rose, one of his great-grandchildren, as he was laid to rest. “Papa, you’ve got to wake up.”
Cook had given instructions for his burial.
“I don’t want to be buried in the Georgia clay,” he told Rose Marie. “I’d rather be buried in the snow.”
So his family traveled north to bury him in Minneapolis. Services have been held.