Pilot not passenger: William A. Cook 1931 - 2011

May 26, 2011

A man cannot be judged by numbers, but for Bill Cook, two numbers defined his life: No. 00151456, his AOPA membership number, and No. 1, the guiding principle for all he did. Cook died April 15 at the age of 80.

In 2010, Cook talked to AOPA President Craig Fuller about projects with the association, still showing enthusiasm for aviation and all it had brought him. He supported the principles embodied in the GA Serves America campaign that Fuller developed, acutely aware that the freedom to fly is a privilege that must not be eroded. Cook used general aviation aircraft as a vital tool to help grow his business.

Cook was born in Mattoon, Ill., on Jan. 27, 1931, growing up in Canton. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at Northwestern, he completed post-graduate work in physics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. As an Army service medic, he taught the physics of anesthesia. His business career commenced in 1955 with Martin Aircraft, and he later worked for American Hospital Supply Corp. His first company, MPL Inc., manufactured hypodermic needles, but he longed to be an entrepreneur and run his own business.

In 1963, seeing an opportunity in the medical device world, and with a $1,500 loan, he drove south to escape a Michigan snowstorm and didn’t stop until he reached snow-free Bloomington, Ind., where he founded Cook Group Inc. In their small apartment Cook fashioned products for new therapies and the only other employee, his wife Gayle, supported the business. Innovations included catheters and wires that allowed for minimally invasive therapies, later to include treating aortic aneurysms (see “ AOPA Pilot,” “ Fly Well : Avoiding cockpit explosions”) and a simpler method to fashion a tracheostomy.
Aircraft became vital tools for the success of the business that bore his name; sales representatives were provided with piston engine machines to service their territories. An aviation culture was evident at Cook Group.

Bob Harbstreit served as Cook’s pilot for 30 years, flying nearly every day and sharing cockpit duties with his boss, although Cook treated him more like a brother. He shared many of Cook’s exploits, recounting that he enjoyed his airplanes and always wanted to “do it right.”

He demanded a true moral compass, and Cook Group is known and respected as a company defined by integrity. The people he brought into leadership positions were not MBA graduates or financial gurus, rather men and women who had demonstrated leadership skills in diverse pursuits. He fostered and encouraged personal growth and effort, and taught that failure at a task was no problem as long as one had tried honestly, or as he would later title his autobiography, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” After 48 years, the Cook Group includes 42 companies and 10,000 employees.

The Cook family generously supported many good causes, including the renovation of architectural treasures such as the West Baden Spring and French Lick Springs hotels, which rejuvenated southern Indiana—a very worthwhile aviation destination. Cook was honored frequently, most recently by the Horatio Alger Society.

The fixed-base operator at Monroe County Airport in Bloomington that bears the Cook name has inexpensive fuel, but the attraction is the way one is treated—with warmth and kindness just as one would expect from anything that Cook had touched.

For the last 18 months of his life, Cook suffered from heart failure that required intensive medical therapy, but he bore the problem with dignity and grace. It is tragically ironic that the man who led so many paradigm shifts in cardiovascular health was afflicted by this disease.

With regard to being No. 1, Cook’s used the guiding principle to put everyone first, certainly his family, but his employees and colleagues, the doctors like he interacted with, and of most import, countless patients. He treated everyone with respect and made them feel special. It also became a unifying corporate principle, for as the portfolio of companies grew, Cook brought them together with one vision; One Cook. Kem Hawkins, president of Cook Group, said they observed a respectful moment of silence at the offices, and the silence was deafening. His wife, son Carl, a daughter-in-law, and granddaughter will obviously feel his loss most poignantly, but so will all who met Cook.

Cook was one of life’s pilots, never a passenger in all he did, steering a true course into the flight levels whether talking about his business principles, debating politics, or chatting about airplanes. The world is a poorer place now that he is gone, and he will be missed dearly.

Jonathan Sackier