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  Horse Country Neighbors Bid Cooke a Respectfully Nonchalant Farewell

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 1997

UPPERVILLE, Va., April 10 — People in this genteel part of Virginia horse country are not exactly gawkers when it comes to celebrity. One casually talks of the time Jackie Onassis took a spill on a horse; another tells of an occasional encounter with television weatherman Willard Scott, who owns a house a few miles off.

"You see all kinds of people constantly, and you respect people's privacy," said Heidi Conde, owner of the Olde Towne Hall antique store here. "I've seen movie stars come in here, and you just don't pay attention. You don't want to make somebody feel uncomfortable."

So it was with a mixture of detached curiosity and respectful nonchalance that residents of this tiny town greeted the memorial service today for Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, their neighbor eight miles east in Middleburg.

Despite a small army of television cameramen and reporters who were quarantined in the parking lot across from Trinity Episcopal Church, life largely maintained a semblance of normalcy. A handful of residents peeked over the stone fence surrounding the church, and a few curiosity-seekers mixed in with the media to watch the parade of luminaries from the worlds of sports, politics and commerce.

But aside from the last-minute relocation of the Upperville Garden Club's annual daffodil show, planned for the church grounds on the very day of Cooke's funeral, there was no major disruption or traffic jam.

Virginia State Police and Fauquier County sheriff's deputies made sure that guests arriving in Rolls-Royces and other luxury cars were dropped off with little hassle from the media, while detouring other motorists around the village.

The only lapse in decorum came after the service, when reporters spilled out into Route 50 to interview former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and other dignitaries who gathered for today's service.

Trinity Episcopal Church, a sandstone structure modeled after French country churches of the 12th century, is the centerpiece of this picturesque village that makes Middleburg seem like a bustling metropolis. Aside from three antique stores, a post office and a country store, there isn't much here besides some beautiful old houses where residents say about 250 people live.

Outside town are fabulously large horse farms and estates, owned by some of the biggest names in business, including the Mellons and the Firestones. Philanthropist Paul Mellon provided the money for the church, which opened in 1960, the third church building on the site since 1842.

There's a day-care center at the church, which also runs a popular tour of area stables every May.

Community newspaper publisher Arthur W. Arundel, a guest at the memorial service, said Cooke's service was the biggest news for the town "since the church was built."

"The church is the biggest industry in Upperville," added Fred Zimmer, 74, a retired Ohio State University professor who lives with his wife in the house next door. "The church has grown tremendously in the past few years. It attracts a lot of people. Every Sunday, the parking lot is full." Zimmer said he found the media fascination with Cooke and professional sports to be a bit "overwhelming," though he said he has read the news accounts of Cooke's life with close attention. Noting Cooke's interest in music and language, he added, "He was a much more interesting person than I would have imagined."

For all their occasional encounters with Cooke, residents said that his presence in death was probably more palpable than in life. "Mr. Cooke had a lot of money, and he did what he wanted," said Regina Syrjala, who works at the Golden Horse Shoe antique store near the church. "He wasn't very visible in Upperville. We didn't really know him."

She did note, though, that Cooke always permitted his farm to be on an annual stable tour for the benefit of the church, "which was a nice thing to do."

At least one person expressed some disappointment that residents were not invited to the memorial service. Karl T. Gebhard said that locals often attend funerals and other activities at the church, which he said functions as a kind of community center for Upperville.

"It's a quiet town, and people keep to their own business," he said. "They're not snobbish. They just felt left out."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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