Building a Good Life

The Lives of William and Alma Cooke
Picture of a young Mr. Cooke
The Young Mr. Cooke

Why is it that you can give two builders the same tools and materials and come up with two very different buildings in the end? A project is more than the materials and tools. It is shaped by the attitudes, principles, and habits of the craftsperson. William A. Cooke approached life with a craftsman’s mindset, and in building a life he found both satisfying and challenging, he helped other people do the same. Through the William A. and Alma A. Cooke Scholarship Fund, he continues to do so.

Mr. Cooke recognized the value of a good education. Though he had to overcome a few obstacles to acquire his own education, his habit of turning obstacles into opportunities served him well. The school he attended in Buckner only offered three years of high school, so he rented a room from a widow in the town of Louisa during the school week and finished his last year of school at Louisa High School. When limited family funds might have prevented his education from going past high school, an uncle offered to pay for courses.

Mr. Cooke continued his education through correspondence courses from LaSalle Extension University in Chicago. Correspondence study demands a great deal of self-discipline, but he did so well that he finished before he was old enough to take the bar exam. While he waited and prepared for the time when he would be allowed to take the exam, another obstacle presented itself. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent off to a sanitarium for 9 months of rest and treatment.

Sidelined but not defeated, he used the time to concentrate on his studies and credited it with helping him do so well on his exam, “I took it in December of 1924 in Richmond and passed it despite my young age. There were others who were older who were not successful.”

Mr. Cooke opened his first law office in Louisa in the building where the Computer Shak is now located. He’d once said about working on his family’s farm that it was hard, but he enjoyed it and found it rewarding. He carried that same appreciation for hard work to his law career, starting his workday at 4:30 a.m. and putting in ten-hour days. He later opened an office in Madison County as well and went on to serve as a substitute trial justice for 58 years.

The workday might have stopped when the law office closed each evening, but Mr. Cooke didn’t. His free time went to community service. He was a member of the Louisa Fire Department for over seventy years and helped organize the Louisa Fireman’s Fair. He belonged to almost a dozen associations, clubs, and religious organizations.

All this seems like more than enough to keep one person busy, but fortunately Mr. Cooke found room for another interest. During the Great Depression land was selling at bargain prices and on easy payment terms. Those prime conditions led Mr. Cooke to begin what grew into a very successful real estate business. Many of his friends respected his talent for recognizing a good investment. Knowing they could trust him, they invested in that talent by loaning him more than a million dollars over many years.

Not everyone was supportive. Many people warned that buying so much property would land him in the poorhouse. He knew a certain amount of risk went along with investing, but Mr. Cooke didn’t let fear shake his confidence in his choices. In fact, he bought the property where the county poorhouse had been located and joked that if he wound up going to the poorhouse he’d be ready. Ironically that proved to be one of the best deals he ever made. Many years later, he sold options back to the county to build the Louisa Air Park.

While the real estate investments were financially rewarding to Mr. Cooke and those who invested through him, they also gave a chance at home ownership to many people who could not have qualified for bank loans. Many small businesses got their start in stores rented from Mr. Cooke. Mr. Cooke offered simple terms and had a reputation for fairness with his associates, clients, and staff.

Those who did business with Mr. Cooke knew Alma A. Morris as a generous and hardworking member of the staff at William A. Cooke Inc. She began working for Mr. Cooke in 1944 and continued working with him after their marriage in 1978. They worked together for over fifty years until Alma’s death in 1997.

Mr. Cooke donated $300,000 to the Louisa Library in memory of his wife, who loved to read. He made substantial contributions to rescue squads and fire companies over the years, and was a generous supporter of Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Business Computing Laboratory.

Mr. Cooke died May 19, 2001 at 97 years of age, but his generosity lives on through The William A. Cooke Foundation and The William A. and Alma A. Cooke Scholarship Fund. By supporting their educational goals he passes on the tools for other young men and women to build a good life.

© 2002 By Dorothy Hurtt