Dr. Olin Cook ~ A Teacher and a Gentleman ~

Story by Jeannie Stone

Dr. Olin Cook only thought he was going to retire, and then former Governor Dale Bumpers called to ask for help.

“I was shocked,” Cook said humbly. Well, what was I going to do? I was honored. Of course, I said I would help.”

So, Cook accepted the appointment to the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the governing arm of the department he directed for an unprecedented 10-year run.

Education was the key to escape a hard life for Cook who was the eldest of three boys growing up on a farm in Preston, Miss. His father died suddenly when he was 9 years old.

“Thank God, we lived in a community with other family members. We farmed with another family until I was in junior high. When my brothers and I were old enough, my mother went to work. Our extended family made all the difference for us, but it was hard work.

“My wife and I both worked our way through college, so we know if anybody truly wants to go to school, they can,” Cook said.

Cook graduated with a bachelor of science in Education from Millsaps College in 1957 and a masters of education from Emory University in 1960. He obtained his doctorate in education from Auburn University in 1963 but he never truly left the classroom.

Once he moved to Atlanta, Ga., to pursue his post graduate education, Cook accepted a position as a high school math teacher.

“There is nothing I’ve enjoyed more in my life than those four years,” he said. “I loved the challenge of forging relationships,” Cook said, “and teaching is all about relationships. The right teacher can reach any child.”

Cook discussed the traits that make up a good teacher. One is to remain open-minded.

“Personality does get so much into teaching,” he said. “I remember, during my second year of teaching, an older teacher was talking in the lounge about this horrible student she had. It dawned on me that she was talking about one of my students, and I was so surprised because I didn’t have a bit of trouble from him. Obviously, there was a personality clash going on there.”

Cook shared another pearl of wisdom concerning teaching. “If they respect you, they will perform for you,” he said.

Colleges could certainly do more to prepare the new teachers for their actual assignments, according to Cook.

“Some things can’t really be taught, but we can strive to raise awareness of student’s special needs and, really, how to relate to students in the first place,” he said. “Schools need to be organized and offer pragmatic skills.

One of the methods of teaching he always favored was relating the studies to the students’ interests and hobbies.

“When I taught math, I had my students do projects. They loved it. Getting the kids to love learning is half the battle. The whole point was to carry over what they had learned and apply the concepts in a real way,” he said. “It’s preferable to just having the students memorize facts.”

“I remember a physics teacher in the high school where I taught. She was so frustrated because she was having trouble with her class understanding the lesson. She asked me to observe her teaching and make suggestions. Well, she was up in front of the class teaching like crazy, and the kids weren’t paying attention.

“I don’t know why she had trouble relating to the kids. She was bright as she could be. It was too bad. She didn’t last in teaching.”

Cook is concerned with the state of education. He sees a shortage and lack of support for good teachers, students who are not mentored or motivated, and parents who aren’t shouldering more of the responsibility of encouraging their children to continue schooling.

“It is harder and harder to get people into teaching,” Cook admitted. “Teachers spend a lot of time dealing with paperwork and not actually teaching.

“The salaries have increased, but there are so many other higher paying positions a teachers can enter which don’t have the headaches teaching presents.”

Don’t underestimate Cook‘s dedication. The benefits of teaching far outweighed the hardships, and in his southern drawl, he articulated what he loves about the profession.

In addition to the relational aspects and the bond teachers build with their students, Cook relished the opportunities to influence the coming generations.

Foremost on his mind, however, is the surprising lack of support teachers have these days.

“The first year is really hard for most teachers,” he said. “Normally, first-year teachers are assigned the hardest classes. I know when I was new, I taught six class periods in a row — half of the students had already failed math and were retaking the class. That’s not right.”

Cook contends that overloading a new teacher with problem students is a sure way to run off a teacher.

“Listen, being a teacher is a hard job.”

Cook asked, “How do we bring education to all students using the same standards? As an administrator, that is the question we asked over and over. We’ve done a lot of improvement in Arkansas and, I think, in the whole country towards providing good education. A lot is left undone.”

The “No Child Left Behind” initiative has also concerned Cook.

“You know, you get to a point where you have too much testing and not enough teaching,” he said. “If I gave a math test, and half the class failed, I knew that I failed in teaching that component of our curriculum. We’d go back and redo. Teachers need to be able to do the same thing I did. It only makes sense. Teachers also need help in reading those test results or else it’s all meaningless.”

Another source of concern, for Cook, is the atrocious rate of students not completing their college education. One cause, he suspects, is the inability to transfer credits from one college to another with ease. In fact, for his dissertation he explored the reasons people transfer from one major to another.

“Once students get to college, they come face to face with the requirements of their chosen field of study. Oftentimes, they had not been exposed to that profession before and were unprepared for the specific rigors necessary to work in that field,” he said.

Cook has long been concerned with the student retention rates in college. For the 15 years he was associated with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (five of those years he served as Assistant Director) and the 16 years he was employed at Arkansas Tech University (12 years as Executive Vice President and four years as Vice President for Academic Affairs), he has discussed the challenges of maintaining student retention with colleagues.

He is convinced a few simple steps would serve students well.

“Kids need a lot of mentoring, especially in how to use their time wisely,” he said.”They have other temptations in college, even in high school, and they grossly mismanage their time.”

Cook is quick to point out that working on a farm did a lot to motivate him towards college. “And, all kids are not college material,” he said.

“We are, each of us, unique, and I think that‘s the way the Lord intended, but I think an immature kid might be a better student later if they worked for a year. Even if they never went to college, they can enjoy a good life by working hard. You know, being happy is more important than making the big bucks.”

One of the main stumbling blocks students have to maneuver to stay enrolled is the cost of rising tuition.

“College costs have increased faster than any other cost of living expense. That includes groceries, utilities; I’ve seen the statistics, and it’s true. If you look at the books alone; I can’t even fathom how one book can cost $100, but that’s how much our young people are paying just for the privilege of going to school.”

Cook continued, “The state offers millions of dollars’ worth of scholarships every year, but parents need to understand that college is expensive, and they need to start saving money. Parents want their child to have a free ride, but that is pretty rare. Millicent (his wife) and I started a college account when our kids were young. When she went back to work as an English teacher and then as a high school counselor, we saved her salary and invested it in our children’s futures.”

Cooksuggeststhatsomeparentshave forgotten how to save for college, and what an important lesson that teaches their children when they do manage to set a little money aside here and there for the purposes of education.

“We want more than we need,” he said.

COMMUNITY CONTRIBUTOR

Cook has greatly influenced the River Valley through his volunteer work. He has been a lifelong member of the Russellville Rotary Club, serving as club president and, on a statewide level, serving as both District Governor and director of the Rotary Student Exchange.  Likewise, through his membership at Russellville First United Methodist Church, he has served as a Sunday school teacher, choir member and committee member as well as providing leadership for the Arkansas Methodist Church and serving as the Chairman of the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry.

A self-professed lover of colorful art, he lent his leadership to the River Valley Arts Center, serving on the board, as well as serving on the boards of the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce, Friendship Community Care and the River Valley Shelter for Battered Women and Children.

“Through my work in office and serving in statewide capacities through Rotary International and the methodist church, I literally knew people in every county or our state,” he said.

Cook relished his role as legislator nearly as much as teaching — but not quite. The relationships he built during his seven years in the House of Representatives are what he considers to be the highlights of that time in office.

He admired many of his colleagues for their hard work but counts his early relationship with former senator Dale Bumpers as his most treasured. “He was a gentleman, a jewel, and he was so smart.”

Bumpers returned the compliment.

“Olin Cook remains one of the finest men I have ever had the privilege if knowing. He has the utmost integrity and a great intellect that can’t be underestimated.

“I still owe him a great debt of gratitude for the magnificent job he did for me and the state of Arkansas when I was governor. He was my first choice to lead the Department of Higher Education, and he never disappointed me or the people of Arkansas.”

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