We certainly have a core of regular writers dedicated to sharing their thoughts on The Union’s Ideas & Opinions pages, which means we regularly are able to present a wide array of viewpoints within our community with hopes of fostering a productive conversation on issues of local interest.
That said, I was shocked when one of our longtime contributors recently wrote an Other Voices column, essentially from his death bed. Don Cooks, whose opinion was regularly published on these pages over the past several decades, died Oct. 7 at the age of 90. But before passing away, Don wanted one last piece to be published by The Union.
It means the world to me, knowing it meant so much to him.
His final op-ed, “Racism is still alive: Subdued prejudices return to surface,” was printed two days after his death.
“The civil rights bill and election of a black president didn’t end racism; it just put it temporally in a closet,” he wrote, suggesting that some of the criticism that comes Barack Obama’s way just might be based on the color of his skin rather than the content of his character.
Growing up in the Great Depression and being a son of a labor organizer, Cooks saw firsthand the struggle of the working poor. A lifelong educator, he spent several years teaching in the Pittsburg area, where he worked with minorities and tutored pregnant teens after moving to California from Wisconsin in the late ’50s. He later taught in the Elk Grove schools, helping students learning English as a second language.
“He worked with kids in the projects and had a lot of interaction with a lot of ethnicity,” said Opal, his wife of 65 years. “He was himself half-Jewish, so he saw a lot of prejudice against Jews while growing up. He felt all of that personally.”
“I think that’s why he wanted to write about racism for his final one. He felt it,” said his daughter, Luanne Clague. “It was real interesting. It was the last day he was really cognizant. He actually edited that piece three days before he died. He picked out the exact words. Even though it was about Obama, he wanted it to be nonpartisan.”
“He was always a little radical,” Opal said with a slight giggle. “He wanted everyone to know exactly how he felt.”
Throughout his thoughts that were published in The Union over the years, there were occasions where he took to task both sides of the political aisle — as well as the journalists responsible for holding their members’ collective feet to the fire.
“I won’t go as far as to call Bush a moron,” he wrote in May of 2003, “but consider him an immature, wealthy mental midget who has never lived in the real world. I find Gore not too far behind him. The alarming thing is that since 9/11, Bush has been given dictatorial powers by the gullible public, the timid prostitutes in Congress and the seductive press. This is frightening!”
Although Opal said “we all knew he was liberal,” Don did often display an independent streak on the opinion pages.
“There are advantages of not belonging to a political party and not being locked into one way of thinking,” he wrote in January 2004. “I have voted for three different parties in the past, according to my preference of candidates, ignoring their party endorsement. It is also nice to be old enough to be oblivious to what others think of me.”
It’s refreshing to read opinions not based in the old back-and-forth right vs. left arguments we’ve grown so tired of having shouted at us on our TV and computer screens. Far too often these days, we are choosing our source of news based on our political preference. That’s not only contained to the cable TV channels we choose to view but also through Internet websites tailoring which news stories we see based upon which ones we’ve “liked” in the past. Hearing only one side of the debate isn’t likely to give the full scope of whatever the situation at hand and certainly makes it difficult to learn something new.
Of course, there are occasions that The Union itself is taken to task for publishing a particular viewpoint that some find disagreeable. But whether you agree or disagree with the viewpoint shared, a conversation can be furthered through a forum that encourages perspectives from all members of the community.
“Watching Fox News while reading The New York Times with an open mind could be a harrowing experience,” Don wrote in December 2004. “One might be forced to think under these conditions.”
The importance of thinking for yourself was a consistent message Don Cooks often shared, his family said.
“He was always teaching,” said Luanne, rolling her eyes in jest. “He told my daughter, ‘Angela, don’t let anybody do your thinking for you. Don’t overestimate other people and don’t underestimate them either.’ I’ll always remember him telling her that.”
His granddaughter took his advice and sometimes shared her very own thoughts on her grandfather’s blog (donoc. wordpress.com), “Iconoclastic Views Of The World That Will Irritate All Segments of Society,” where many of his posts can still be found.
Opal says her husband’s passion for the pen began with writing classes nearly 35 years ago and first came to fruition when he published his first story, “It’s Hell To Be Skinny,” for True Romance magazine.
“They changed it to be from a female perspective, and he got $50 for it,” his daughter, Jill Cooks-Hill, told The Union.
“To the end, he was dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’,” Opal said. “I believe it was his writing that kept him mentally sharp.”
And whether you agreed or disagreed with his opinion, no doubt the words Don Cooks shared on these pages for so many years likely made us all think a little bit more.
Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. His column is published Wednesdays. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4249.
“Watching Fox News while reading The New York Times with an open mind could be a harrowing experience. One might be forced to think under these conditions.”
— Don Cooks, December 2004