Acknowledging what has been rumored for years, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews) today received an affectionate farewell from his legislative colleagues as he ended 38 years in the General Assembly.
Cooke, who has been House speaker since 1968 and one of the state's most powerful but littlenoticed officials, has never formally announced his legislative retirement. But the 64-year-old weekly newspaper publisher's efforts to avoid calling attention to his departure were thwarted when House members held their own ceremony for him on the assembly floor.
"The assembly will miss his friendly smile, immense patience and radiant spirit of good will." said House Majoritity Leader A. L. Philpott (D-Henry). Philpott interrupted the closing legislative session to praise Cooke's contributions to the state.
After noting that Cooke is the ninth generation of his family to serve in the Gereral Assembly, Philpott read a special House resolution citing the speaker's service and calling for Cooke's portrait to be painted and hung in the courthouse of his home county on Virginia's Middle Peninsula.
Philpott, a legislative power in his own right who is all but certain to assume Cooke's post next year, then jokingly referred to Cooke's unchallenged authority in the House, saying that no one would have "the nerve" to oppose the resolution honoring him.
Philpott's remarks and those of Del. Richard M. Bagley (D-Hampton) and DEL. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke) prompted three separate standing ovations by House members and onlookers in the gallery before a smiling Cooke gaveled them to halt.
Bagley called Cooke "the soul of fairness" and pointed out that under his leadership Republican and Independent House members were finally given assignments on major committees.
Much of Cooke's power over the assembly was derived from his unchallenged power to make committee assignments, a role that some legislators said gave him the ability to kill some bills before they were even introduced.
But it was Garland who had the last word on Cooke's retirement. "For all we know, you would like to stay with us for awhile, but the gentleman from Henry (Philpott) has arranged so many farewells for you that, perhaps, you feel you can't change your mind," said Garland in a humorous reference to Philpott's longheld ambition to be speaker.
Garland also urged the enigmatic Cooke to write his memoirs and "tell us frankly and boldly" of his opinions regarding the assembly.
Then, Garland said, "perhaps at long last we'll learn what you really thought of all this."