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JOHN WARREN COOKE, 94

John Warren Cooke, 94; influential speaker of Virginia House

John Warren Cooke was the Democratic majority leader in Virginia's House of Delegates for 12 years before becoming speaker in 1968. He was well liked by colleagues, who called him
John Warren Cooke was the Democratic majority leader in Virginia's House of Delegates for 12 years before becoming speaker in 1968. He was well liked by colleagues, who called him "the soul of fairness." (1968 File Photo/associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

John Warren Cooke, 94, who served 12 years as the quietly influential speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, died Nov. 28 at his home in the Mathews County town of Gloucester. The cause of death could not be learned.

Mr. Cooke, the last member of the Virginia legislature who was the son of a Confederate veteran, was the Democratic majority leader in the House of Delegates for 12 years before becoming speaker in 1968. He exercised his authority with a courtly demeanor and a gentle hand but was, as described in a 1979 Washington Post article, "one of the state's most powerful but little-noticed officials."

He served in the House of Delegates from 1942 to 1980, when Virginia was struggling with integration and changing from its Democratic, rural roots to a more urban and Republican-leaning state. Among other achievements, Mr. Cooke helped bring a new bipartisan spirit to Richmond by appointing Republicans to key committees for the first time in the legislature's history.

Until 1969, Virginia's legislators had no offices and conducted their business from their desks and briefcases. As speaker, Mr. Cooke had absolute authority to appoint the 100 members of the House to committees as he saw fit. His committee choices, usually based on seniority, could affect the direction and tone of legislation and whether it reached the full House for a vote.

Mr. Cooke, known as "John Warren," was well liked and was praised by his colleagues as "the soul of fairness."

A 1970 Post story said Mr. Cooke's "geniality" and "quick dry wit" served him well in politics: "He guides smoothly and skillfully, he is courteous, he is a gentleman down to his toes -- and he is very, very popular."

Mr. Cooke was considered a possible gubernatorial candidate in 1969 and 1973, but he bowed out of the races to remain in the House, representing a Tidewater district north of Williamsburg.

In 1972, as the Democratic speaker, he helped arrange a compromise between contentious factions of the Democratic-controlled legislature and Republican governor Linwood Holton to institute a sweeping reorganization of the state government.

John Warren Cooke was born Feb. 28, 1915, in Mathews, Va. His father, who was 76 when his son was born, was an Episcopal priest who had served on Gen. Robert E. Lee's staff during the Civil War.

Mr. Cooke attended the Virginia Military Institute and returned to his home town to work for the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal. He was publisher of the weekly newspaper from 1954 until March of this year and was president of the old Tidewater Baseball League.

Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Anne Brown Rawn Cooke of Mathews; and two children, Giles Buckner Cooke III of Williamsburg and Elsa VanNess Verbyla of Mathews.


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