(New York & New College 1964) (1942 - 27 May 2021)
Michael Blanchard Cook, 79, died peacefully at home in Falls Church Virginia on May 27, with his wife, children, and grandchildren by his side. He leaves an extraordinary legacy of public service, athletic accomplishments, and family.
Mike was born in 1942 to Gerhard Cook (an industrial chemist) and Lura Cook (teacher and community leader). They moved to a farm in Clarence, NY when he was in primary school. He worked long hours for a local farmer and actually started driving a tractor by the time he was 9. After graduating from high school in 1959 he matriculated at Swarthmore College, where he played football and was captain of the wrestling team, as well as serving in student government. After a graduate year at Princeton he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University’s New College. (The selection committee was particularly impressed that he knew how to milk a cow.) At Oxford he played rugby, learned how to conduct himself at a sherry party, and graduated with a B. Phil. Degree in 1966.
From early on, Mike felt a strong pull toward public service, inspired by his mother’s family and by President Kennedy. He joined the Foreign Service and arranged a detail to the counter-insurgency effort in Vietnam (1966-68). He subsequently served as a foreign service officer in Udorn, Thailand. Looking for a chance to have greater impact, he took a position with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1973, then a new organization with enormous responsibilities created by Congressional legislation. He was promoted to the Senior Executive Service in 1979 and went on to serve as the first director of the Superfund Program and then to implement and direct our nation’s vital federal programs in drinking water, wastewater treatment, and hazardous waste.
He received numerous awards during his 40+ years in the federal service, including Distinguished Federal Executive Award from President Reagan in 1987, and the Distinguished Career Service Award at the time of his retirement in 2006. But the most meaningful acknowledgment has come from scores of co-workers who have written to him in the last few months, telling of their admiration for his dedication and ability, and how much they had learned from him. He once said that much of his job as a manager was teaching. There was a range of lessons -- his political bosses needed to know the substance of environmental regulation, his subordinates needed to know how to write an effective memo.
While in Vietnam, Mike met and eventually married Le Thi Kim Oanh, an advisor hired by the U.S. government to improve the Vietnamese government’s social and refugee services. Kim Oanh was from a prominent Vietnamese family with a BA from the University of Tennessee. Mike likes to tell the story of the night he proposed to her. He was carrying a 357 magnum while driving on a deserted road made hazardous by landmines and Vietcong, but he is confident that she would have said yes if he had been unarmed. Her father was not pleased that she married a foreigner, but ultimately Mike was instrumental in helping him, his wife, and many of their nine children resettle and become successful professionals in Northern Virginia, California, North Carolina, Montreal and Ottawa. The marriage that began under such dicey circumstances became a great love story, lasting over 55 years.
Athletics were always an important part of Mike’s life. After joining EPA and settling in Falls Church in 1973, he got caught up in the new endurance-sports craze. He ran 38 marathons in all, some under 3 hours, and qualified for and ran in the Boston Marathon in 1986. Cross-training became necessary after a knee injury, and soon he was riding the 15 miles to the office and back every day. (He carried his dress shirt with him and had several suits at the office.) He taught himself long-distance swimming and ultimately became a serious contender in over 200 triathlons, qualifying and participating in the 2000 Ironman Triathlon World Champions in Kona, Hawaii. That year’s Ironman was hot with winds high enough to knock some racers off or their bikes, making the 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running especially challenging. He said his greatest accomplishment was that he did not need the services of the medical tent after finishing.
Following retirement, Mike continued to train and compete, and continued to serve. He and other community leaders were instrumental in helping Kim’s organization, the Vietnamese Resettlement Association, with grantwriting, fundraising, and teaching citizenship classes to help her clients prepare for naturalization exams. Another important volunteer opportunity was helping found and then chair a non-profit, the Green Infrastructure Center, that advises cities on mitigating the damages of climate change through appropriate plantings. And in recent years he worked with the EPA Alumni Association to mitigate the rollback of environmental regulation by the previous Presidential administration. But much of his free time was devoted to helping with his four grandchildren. He took great delight in their successes in the classroom and soccer field, and they in turn adored him.
Mike is survived by his wife of 53 years, Kim Cook; his son Arthur Van Cook and wife Rocio Cook, and their children Lura and Mikey; his son Benjamin Lê Cook and wife Madeline Fraser Cook, and their children Alex and Lily; brother Alan and his wife Bonny, their son Andrew and his wife Melissa, and their grandsons Matthew and Mason; brother Stephen and wife Linda, and their son Gordon and wife Golnaz, and son James and his partner Colin; brother Philip and wife Judith, their daughter Elizabeth Camden, and their son Brian and his wife Kim DeFeo, grandchildren Clara and Warren. Mike is also survived by six sisters-in-law and their families.
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Mike’s name to the Vietnamese Resettlement Association using the following link: https://gofund.me/50729ed7.