Teachers, students, and lessons come in many, often unexpected, ways that can alter one’s path in life. Such has been the case with Dr. Bill Cook ’66, a professor of Medieval History at SUNY Geneseo turned philanthropist working to better education access in impoverished and marginalized communities in 30 countries. This semester, Dr. Cook returned to Wabash to accompany the Religion in Africa immersion course taught by Dr. Warner, which will travel to Kenya over Spring Break.
“When most immersion trips go, they primarily see monuments,” Cook said. “That’s a wonderful thing to do, and I’ve done that with lots of students. This is different because it’s a very people-oriented [trip]. I mean, there’s not that much to see in Nairobi; the big event will be to go to the national park and see the animals, but we’re going to [mainly] interact with people [which you don’t usually do much of on an immersion trip].” In many ways, the focus of the immersion trip ties back to one of Cook’s greatest lessons from his time at Wabash: to learn from other people, particularly the people around you. That was one of the main ways he flourished during his time here.
A native of Indianapolis, Cook came to Wabash from Arsenal Technical High School, the first student in 10 years to have done so, after having visited all 48 continental United States (Alaska and Hawaii became states when Cook was a sophomore in high-school) and taking a seven-week trip to Europe. “So I came from a privileged background, from a middle class family, but I was an only child.” Cook said. “But I remember very well, the night before classes at the Lambda Chi [Alpha] house I had just pledged […] one of the seniors (and I got to do this when I was a senior) gets up to the pledges (Lambda Chi had pledges [today, it has associate members]) and says something like this: ‘Gentlemen, we are impressed by all your credentials. We’re impressed by how high you ranked in your class. We’re impressed by how many athletic teams you were on. We’re impressed by how many offices you held in high-school and all the things you’ve done. Gentlemen, we are no longer impressed.’ And I thought, [good grief], I have to start all over again.” Though his world changed overnight, Cook was able to flourish through this change and many others coming his way throughout his life.
Initially, Cook wanted to become a lawyer. However, after taking classes with (now Emeritus) History Professor Jim Barnes, the first blind Rhodes … Scholar, and History Professor John Charles, he fell in love with the subject. “By the end of my freshman year,” Cook said, “primarily with Jack Charles, but also with my advisor, Jim Barnes and others,
I thought, ‘These people obviously are good at what they do. They like what they do. They’re [surely] making a difference in my life. I want to be one of those.’ And, so, I declared my major in History and, from that time on, I said I’m going to be a Historian.”
Cook went to Wabash during a tumultuous time in US history. During his time in college, President John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X were assassinated, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King led the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, and the Freedom Summer happened in Mississippi. However, most Wabash students were oblivious to everything happening because of the limited access to the media at the time. “In our fraternity house, […] we had very strict rules about the one television in the house: it went off at seven o’clock at night and it stayed off until 10 o’clock the following morning,” Cook said. And even when the television was on, people did not watch the news on it. “And, you know, the Crawfordsville Journal-Review (which is still a local newspaper) was delivered to the fraternity house every day. There were 62 guys living in the house; usually, you never got the Crawfordsville Journal-Review. And it didn’t exactly cover the Vietnam War carefully. […] So, I got most of my news during the Summer when I was home. […] It was pretty easy to live in Crawfordsville and not pay too much attention to this.” At the time, Wabash was also a homogenous college, with minimal racial diversity, which made the campus even more isolated from the world, particularly the Civil Rights Movement going on in the South. “My friend, David Kendall, had been to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer,” Cook said. “And I heard his story, but they were still sort of a Report from the Moon.”
After Wabash, Cook got his PhD in Medieval History from Cornell University. This was in the era of the Vietnam War, so the draft reduced the number of teaching vacancies at the more prestigious universities, so Cook’s graduate school cohort had to settle for any position they could get. This is how Cook wound up at SUNY Geneseo. “It had been a state teacher’s college […] but it was just becoming a liberal arts college,” Cook said. “It had a lot of young faculty members like me, who came from the best universities, but who didn’t get the job they wanted to get. […] So, a bunch of us sort of said, ‘well, if we’re going to live our lives here, let’s make this a good liberal arts college.’ So we did.” Today, SUNY Geneseo is a highly-ranked public liberal arts college.
“I went to South America for the first time in 2004,” Cook said. “I accompanied a student of mine from Geneseo, who was doing research on liberation theology.”
Cook first went to Kenya in 2010, when he was invited by a Franciscan friar to come and speak there. “It was incredibly shocking,” Cook said. “I mean, everybody knows that we have real poverty in the United States, and I have seen it in other countries as well. Every place has poverty and some of the poverty is just truly horrific. […] [In Kenya,] you not only see people hungry and begging and kids openly on dope. But you see people who are malnourished. And when you’re Franciscan (because St. Francis was a great saint of poverty), you go right into the slums. I didn’t go see the giraffes first in Kenya, I went to the slums. So, my first impressions are having a couple of big guys with me who would protect me walking through the slums.” The Religion in Kenya immersion trip will have a similar experience heading into Kenya.
During his travels, Cook met an Italian Countess in Florence who had an organization called Friends of Florence registered as a 501(c)(3) charity in the United States. “So, I’m with her in Florence and I’m telling her stories,” Cook said. “And finally, she looked at me one day and said, ‘Look, you’ve been to these places and you know a lot of rich people […], so start a foundation and do something.” That is how the Bill Cook Foundation got started, and it now operates in 30 countries, providing access to education – ranging from accommodations for children with disabilities to funding college expenses. Cook has found that the funds he receives through gifts go a longer way abroad than in the US: “I live in this little town in western New York,” Cook said. “The cost per pupil at our K-12 school is $22,000. […] [At the same time,] I can send a kid in Uganda to Elementary School for a year for $125, and that includes the uniform.”
Cook has been in education for 63 years, as a college student and as a professor, which is why he decided to focus on education. He leveraged his liberal arts experiences to create these opportunities in order to educate leaders for the communities they come from and use that as a foundation for future development there. “We need educated people who also are comfortable living in civil society in countries that don’t have much education or even a civil society,” Cook said. “And if those countries are going to grow, not just economically, but if they’re going to be places that are fair, places that participate in the world economy, places that offer opportunity, they’re going to need education and citizenship skills. The governments don’t want citizens. […] That’s exactly what dictators don’t want, in Africa, in South-East Asia, they’re full of dictators. But we’re not causing a revolution, what we’re doing is planting seeds that, long after I’m dead, I hope will lead to real change.”