Memories of Cooke Tinged With Respect, Exasperation
By R.H. Melton
So there's Marion down at One Judiciary Square. And Willie Don, first in Baltimore and then in Annapolis. And Doug making history in old Virginia.
Jack Kent Cooke was different. Washingtonians always uttered the whole mouthful when talking about the Redskins owner, who died Sunday of heart disease. And therein lies the story of the region's complicated and exasperating relationship with irascible Jack Kent Cooke.
"Yes, he was difficult at times, but people around here knew he was committed to the team, the sport, the pageantry," said Gerard E. Evans, Cooke's longtime and long-suffering lobbyist on the deal that finally led to construction of the new Redskins stadium in suburban Maryland.
They have a certain swagger, a jut to the jaw, these very public politicians, including D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (D) and former governors William Donald Schaefer (D) of Maryland and L. Douglas Wilder (D) of Virginia. Even without a political stage to stand on only the awesome power of the purse Cooke was every bit as much the showman.
Season after season, on Sunday afternoons at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Cooke was the impresario of his own grand and glorious spectacle, which for the briefest of moments sent crime rates dipping and made hometown fans of people from Richmond all the way to pre-Ravens Baltimore.
"Washington, D.C., being the showcase that it is, he maximized it to the fullest," Wilder said yesterday.
"He was flamboyant, and the public is fascinated with that," added Wilder, a frequent guest to the owner's box at RFK. "What Cooke represented was flair, success and feel for people. Cooke was as comfortable joshing with Bill Cosby as he was eating at a state dinner with Prince Charles."
Some Washingtonians saw through the show, viewing Cooke simply as a businessman who made more money than almost anyone and bought sports teams on both coasts.
And they are leery about the false hopes of professional sport and the hollow promise that it can heal a city or region deeply divided by race and class.
"The effect of a football team on a city is exaggerated immensely," said former Army secretary Clifford L. Alexander, whom then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly (D) brought in to try to keep the new stadium in the city.
"It does not bring white and black together. It does not end unemployment. It does not bring peace and harmony to a fractured community," said Alexander, a District resident since 1963. "But the exaggeration was not Jack Kent Cooke. The exaggeration was the wishful thinkers who think a sports franchise will pave potholes and educate children."
Still, Alexander expressed grudging respect for Cooke's boundless success at The Show: "Diversions entertain us. He himself was an entertainer and a good one."
Kelly, who once denounced Cooke as a "billionaire bully," demurred yesterday, saying she was now out of the public eye. "I kind of stay out of it and certainly want to stay out of that," she said.
The private Cooke was just as competitive as the one on display at RFK.
William D. Miller II saw the inimitable Cooke style as chief stadium negotiator for Prince George's County during several bargaining sessions in the county, in Middleburg and at Cooke's home in Washington. It was Cooke going solo against Miller and his boss, County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D).
After one session, "I recall telling Wayne that Mr. Cooke's business game was better than any Redskin game I'd ever seen," Miller said. "I told Wayne, 'Where's the popcorn and peanuts?' because that's all we needed. He was that good at the table."
Although horror stories about Cooke's rudeness abound one acquaintance recalled yesterday the time he threw a hot dog at someone because it didn't have enough mustard Cooke kept in touch with the community in small, charitable ways.
Debbie Teske, 40, a lifelong Prince George's resident, recalled writing to Cooke months before the final RFK game in December on the off chance that he would sell her a couple of tickets to the history-making finale.
"I'm just a regular person. There are no season tickets in my family," said Teske, 40, a telephone company service representative.
Cooke called Teske and told her he had none to sell. (Though in true salesman form, he tried to talk her into buying club seating at the new Landover stadium.) Teske persevered, "sucking up, big-time," and Cooke finally came through with two seats in a field box where Teske ended up rubbing elbows with such greats as John Riggins and Art Monk.
"It was just a real special thing," Teske said. "He gave it out of his heart."
Others, including Charlie Brown, sipping coffee yesterday at the 29 Tastee Diner in Fairfax City, said they viewed Cooke as a self-interested owner who should have done more for youth in the region.
"He was an eccentric old [guy] who didn't have time for the common man," said Brown, 55. "When I was growing up, you had idols and heroes, and you could go talk to them. You can't do that now."
Though hardly a heroic figure Cooke was often in the public spotlight for the messy, soap-opera episodes of his personal life he seemed often to bask in the reflected glory of his on-field heroes.
"There is an intangible element in sports of heart, of how much a player pours into the game," Evans said. "He did that, too. You put people like Cooke in a category all unto themselves. It's an icon."