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  In His Way, The Squire Was a Prince

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 7, 1997; Page C1

The Washington Redskins' three silver Super Bowl trophies rested in a glass case at Duke Zeibert's joint on Connecticut Avenue, polished and gleaming for the world to see. Every week or so Jack Kent Cooke would come in to see them — after all they were his. Duke would seat The Squire of Middleburg at the round table in the middle of the room, so he could see everybody walking in. And everybody could see him. If ever there was a man who enjoyed the limelight it was The Squire. It's true that not everybody liked Jack Kent Cooke. But Jack Kent Cooke sure liked being Jack Kent Cooke.

Folks came by and paid their respects to The Squire as if curtsying to royalty, which, in a way, he was, given the things that America respects most — money and power. They hoped for a handshake or wave. A loud, boisterous hello was best of all, and The Squire was so skilled at that, at conferring his pleasure with a hearty clap on the back, and an invitation to sit for a second and schmooze at the absolute filament of the light.

The Squire knew all the important people in town. But more importantly, they knew him. You would see them with him in the owner's box on Sunday afternoons at RFK. Cabinet members. U.S. Senators. Justices. Ambassadors — folks who might not have opened their doors to him years ago when he was poor, selling encyclopedias door-to-door across his native Canada. But they were there on Sundays, attracted by the light, lined up like toy soldiers in a rich man's den.

Things changed far too quickly.

Duke's closed.

The Redskins left RFK.

And today The Squire is gone. You tell me who's gonna walk Coco now?

I liked Jack Kent Cooke very much. I knew all his bad points. He was rough and imperious. He was cantankerous and obstinate. He could be a bully. Isn't that what our brief and failed former mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, called him, "a billionaire bully"? He was all that.

And he was so much FUN!

Damn, he was fun. Riding in that white stretch limo; marrying and then unmarrying and then remarrying the same woman; blithely predicting winning records and Super Bowls and "imminent" trips to the playoffs; standing small in height, but larger than life. I can't say he was beloved, but it says here he was beliked.

I close my eyes and I can see him in that box at RFK, wearing those wraparound bat shades, that tweed hat on his head, a scarf thrown jauntily around his neck. And he's standing up to get a better look at his beloved Redskins, bellowing with delight at a first down, accepting congratulations on a touchdown, enjoying every moment "every bloody moment, my dear boy," as he liked to say. I never saw a man more alive than Jack Kent Cooke in the owner's box. What good is being rich and powerful if you can't enjoy it? In that box Jack Kent Cooke threw his head back like Secretariat and snorted at the field.

I was lucky. He liked me. Jack had a soft spot for newspapers and newspapermen. He owned a newspaper, the L.A. Daily News. He rejoiced in words, and he loved the way newspapermen used them. (Morrie Siegel was one of his favorites. I remember how years ago Jack informed Mo he had no intentions of dying, and Mo told me, "The thing of it is, he's not kidding." Now both he and Mo are gone.) The Squire had a great sense of humor about what I wrote. He loved when I called him The Squire, and when I made wise cracks about his dog, Coco. He'd call and tell me how much he laughed, and then talk about laughter as if it was a gift from God. I don't know that he gave me any extra information, but he always took my calls. It was small talk mainly. A few months ago I told him I was thinking of buying a specific new model car. Two days later he Fed-Exed me magazine stories and print ads about the car. The next time we talked he asked me if I'd bought it. I said I had. And he said, "Now make sure you come over and give me a ride in it, and we'll compare it to my BMW." I was waiting for warm weather. I guess I waited too long.

There are millions of stories about how mean and ornery Jack Kent Cooke was. You can read them elsewhere. He may have been the roughest bastard in the world to negotiate with. But one thing he never did was threaten to move the Redskins out of Washington, even when every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Sharon) slammed the door in his face when he tried to build a stadium in their town. It amazed me. Here you've got schmoes all over the country getting new stadiums for free, and here's Jack Kent Cooke willing to put up his own money — and people treated him like he was contagious. Yet for all the trouble he had finding a place to build, Jack never mentioned Memphis or Jacksonville or East Beesville. He wanted a stadium here. He loved this area maybe more than some people in this area deserved.

Jack Kent Cooke was as fine an owner as a sports team ever had. In an era where all these aforementioned schmoes are hands-on, Cooke was hands-off. For all his money, for all his obvious infatuation with stardom (he loved stars; he gloried in having Wilt, West and Baylor in L.A. when he owned the Lakers, and Riggo, Theismann and Monk here), Cooke didn't interfere with the day-to-day operation. He hired coaches and general managers, and for the most part he stuck with them. Before the salary cap he opened his wallet as wide as the Mississippi, and he would have done it again without hesitation. He wanted only one thing from his team — excellence. And he was willing to put his money up, and keep his mouth shut, for it. Those three silver Super Bowl trophies speak to the wisdom of his method.

I was in my car driving to the Beltway to the Capitals game when I heard on the radio that The Squire had died. A gentle rain was falling, so the oncoming cars had their headlights on, and for a brief moment I thought I was part of a funeral procession that engulfed the entire Washington area.

As fate would have it, in a couple of minutes I drove past the spot where The Squire's new football stadium is being built — you can see it clear as a bell from the road, rising like a flying saucer. Just a couple of days ago a mutual friend had told me how he had gone with The Squire to the site, how he'd watched The Squire take in the panoramic breadth of the stadium, revel in it. "He stood there awed. It's the only time I ever saw him speechless."

It is true that Jack Kent Cooke died too soon to see his stadium open. But he lived to see it rise. It seems only fitting that the stadium he fought so long and so fiercely to build be named after him.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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