A Savvy Businessman with a Generous Heart

William A. Cooke's life and legacy are synonymous with real estate and philanthropy

by Tammy Purcell
Louisa Life Correspondent

When Mary Kranz needed money to expand the literacy programs offered by Adult Community Education, the local non-profit under her direction, she turned to the William A. Cooke Foundation for help. In late 2008, Kranz applied for a grant to aid her organization in meeting the rising demand for basic literacy education in Louisa County. Soon after, she received a $5,000 check, earmarked for her cause.

ACE is one of many non-profits in Louisa and Orange counties that have benefited from the Cooke Foundation.s generosity. In early July, the foundation awarded nearly $75,000 in grants to nine local organizations and institutions including gifts to the Montpelier Foundation to fund field trips for Louisa and Orange county youth, Louisa County Public Schools to underwrite the 'Teacher of the Year' awards and the Goshen Baptist Foundation to repair the homes of local families in need. In addition, the foundation doled out nearly $150,000 in college scholarships to Louisa and Orange students. Since 2002, the charity has awarded over $2.3 million in gifts, providing $450,000 for the construction of the Louisa Arts Center's Cooke-Haley Theater, awarding $125,000 to Shriners Children's hospitals, giving about $70,000 to help with the restoration Montpelier and pouring over $1.3 million into its scholarship fund, to name just a few endeavors.

The foundation's namesake, William A. Cooke, a local businessman who died at 97 in 2001, amassed a real estate empire matched by few in Central Virginia. The company he built, William A. Cooke, Inc, continues to thrive today, funneling its profits from rentals and sales into the charity's coffers. During his life, Cooke quietly and consistently supported charitable causes and he envisioned his foundation, set up in 1972, as a way to give back long after his death. That he dedicated the bulk of his estate to charitable giving reflects Cooke's deep Christian values and commitment to his community, friends and associates say, and is an apt legacy for a savvy businessman with a generous heart.

A long, fearless life

Born in 1903 and reared at Oakleigh Farm near Buckner, William Allen Cooke witnessed many changes during his life, some of which helped make him a very wealthy man. Through it all, Cooke-the youngest of George and Nannie Cooke's 12 children-held tight to the lessons instilled in him as a youth, using them as a guide in business and beyond.

George and Nannie Cooke raised their son in a strict, unpretentious Baptist home and, along with his maternal grandfather, Rev. Littleberry Haley-who preached at many local churches and served as the first superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools-imparted their adamant faith. Cooke read the Bible, listened closely to his grandfather's sermons and internalized a belief in Christian charity, honesty and the supremacy of the Ten Commandments.

Cooke's time in the tobacco fields at Oakleigh taught him the value of a hard day's work. Long after his tenure as a farmer was done, Cooke kept to the same sun-up to sun-down schedule, often working over 70 hours a week until late in his life. In addition to his real estate business, Cooke still found time to do legal work and hold public office. For years, he was a substitute judge and he served as the town of Louisa's mayor during the 1940s.

Beyond his faith and work ethic, Cooke was a fearless child. He once told Kenny Lancaster, a close friend who sold real estate for Cooke for over two decades that, as a boy, he slipped out of church and walked across an ice-covered mill pond nearby. When the ice cracked and he plunged into the water, he didn't panic. "He held onto the ice and eventually they came and found him. He said he was never scared. He was cold but he could never remember being frightened," Lancaster said. Cooke's willingness to take risks and knack for shrugging off hardship would pay handsome dividends later in life.

Littleberry Haley's commitment to education also drove Cooke. He boarded in Louisa in order to finish high school. With little money and a farm to tend, he couldn't attend a traditional college so he borrowed money from his uncle to take correspondence courses in law from LaSalle Extension University in Chicago, quickly completing his coursework and passing the bar exam at just 21.

Much of his studying was done from the Blue Ridge Sanatorium where he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. The illness was the first of several health problems Cooke endured. He survived cancer in his 60s, often driving himself to his treatments in Richmond, and twice had hip replacements in his 80s. Characteristically, he pushed aside the ailments. When friends asked how he was doing, his trademark response was simply, "I'm not at my best."

After obtaining his law degree, Cooke set up shop near Louisa's courthouse. Eventually, his willingness to take chances led him in a new direction. Despite the economic woes of the 1930s, Cooke began borrowing money from friends and investing in real estate. "The difference between a problem and an opportunity was all in one's point of view. Mr. Cooke saw opportunity where others couldn't,"Lancaster said.

With his typical dry wit, Cooke joked that people insisted he was going to the 'poor house' because of his many real estate investments. So that he would have a place to go, he said, he purchased the county's old 'Poor House' property, fixed up and rented a number of the plot's homes and years later told the Central Virginian that "it was one of the best buys I ever made."

Through the years, Cooke insisted that things would "break loose," that Central Virginia real estate would one day become a hot commodity. There were times, though, when making payments wasn't easy but somehow Cooke managed to keep his end of the bargain. He borrowed over a million dollars from one investor and eventually paid back every dime. "I always described Mr. Cooke as the internal optimist," said Patricia Lumsden, a loyal employee who, along with Becky Cavanaugh, has worked at William A. Cooke, Inc. for decades. "He overcame personal obstacles, economic obstacles but he was always optimistic. He focused beyond. He met the needs of the problem but always looked to the future."

With the construction of Interstate 64 in the 1960s, Central Virginia.s real estate market began to pick up. For Cooke, the breakthrough he long promised had finally arrived. As property values rose and sales increased so did Cooke's wealth. He had amassed properties in Louisa, Orange, and surrounding counties, opened up an office in the town of Orange and become Louisa County's largest land owner in number of parcels. At one point, William A. Cooke, Inc, which officially opened in 1950, owned over 5,000 acres.

Many of the residential properties the company purchased were sold, via owner financing, as Cooke provided loans to folks who couldn.t qualify for bank credit.

Friends say that Cooke believed in closing deals with a handshake and was a stickler for keeping his word, "With his close business associates, there were never any contracts or written agreements and that demonstrates his trustworthiness," Lumsden said. Just as Cooke was determined to live up to his word, he was adamant in his belief that others do the same.

Despite his wealth, Cooke was a frugal, unpretentious man, who for a number of years, lived alone in a modest old house along Bibb Store Road a few miles outside of the town of Louisa. Lancaster remembers visiting him there on a cold, early morning as Cooke started a fire in a tiny tin heater. "He was just as comfortable as he could be," Lancaster said.

As a bachelor with no children, Cooke's loyal staff was his family and his long-time secretary, Alma Morris, was a key in his success. Morris began working for Cooke in the 1940s and their relationships blossomed over time. In 1978, some time after Morris' first husband's passing, she and Cooke, then 75, married at a small ceremony attended by company employees. "One of Mr. Cooke's nephews asked him why [he remained a bachelor for so long] and he said, "well, I only wanted one woman and she was already taken," recalled Wallace 'Chuck' Tingler, the trustee of Cooke's estate and the Foundation's chairman. "Quite a few years after [Alma's] first husband died, they got married."

Cooke bought a Cadillac for he and Alma around the time of their marriage, the first new car he had ever purchased. But his one concession to luxury didn't extend to the work place. Cooke eschewed technology, keeping all his books by hand and running one of the area's largest real estate companies with electric typewriters and other antiquated equipment. It wasn't until after Cooke.s death that computers were finally welcomed into the workplace.

Cooke's passing in the spring of 2001 left a gaping hole in Central Virginia's business community. But, through his company and foundation.s partnership, he found a profound way to a make difference for generations to come.

A Desire to Give and to Serve

While the William A. Cooke Foundation has ensured that its namesake will long be known as a philanthropist, Cooke himself financially supported many causes during his life. His Christian beliefs, Lancaster said, compelled Cooke to give generously and expect nothing in return. The Louisa County Library received one of his largest gifts, thanks, in part, to Alma Cooke's love of reading.

Cooke also gave his time and talents. He was a charter member of the Louisa Lions Club and the Louisa Ruritan Club, a 70-year member of the Louisa Volunteer Fire Department, a Mason and Shriner. He was a life-long member of Little River Baptist Church and an associate member of Louisa United Methodist Church, where he taught Bible classes late in his life.

Many of Cooke's values and interests guide the foundation in its grant-making. "The way that Mr. Cooke lived his life and the things he was involved in carry over to the foundation. That's why there is a foundation. It wasn't just something he thought about at the end of his life. He was planning for this all along," Tingler said.

For more information about the William A. Cooke foundation, visit www.wacookefoundation.org.