The proposal to establish a health clinic providing contraceptives in Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School had prompted a torrent of telephone calls and letters to School Board Chairman Lou Cook. Some hailed the idea as the only solution to the problem of teen-age pregnancy in the city; others assailed Cook's morals for considering such an idea.
At a School Board meeting April 9, Cook dispatched the controversial issue in one swift, pragmatic stroke:
"I think that this is not the school system's business. We have no room, we have no money and we have no plans" to start such a clinic, she said. End of discussion.
It was classic Cook style, according to board members and other officials, some of whom have watched for nearly a decade as Cook has tackled such sticky issues as school closings and sex education with a fierce sense of purpose and a candid wit.
"One could always count on her, if the board got off the track, to bring us back to where we were supposed to be," said board member Timothy S. Elliott.
This June will end Cook's ninth and final year on the board, a pursuit begun in 1977 when she served on school committees, watched the School Board in action and "just decided one day that I could do that, too."
Now, Cook said, it is time to do something else. "Nine years is long enough. I just feel you get stale. It's not that I've run out of ideas or run out of steam. But you need to get a new look at it. When you stay too long, you start [feeling]: 'Well, this has never been done.' "
Cook, 51, joined the nine-member board with plans to do things that had not been done.
She wanted to examine the city's middle-school curriculum. She believed there should be a sex education program for even the youngest children. She wanted to eliminate "social" promotion of students whose academics were not up to par.
"Most people who run have this idea they're going to change certain things and make a difference," she said. "You have to be the kind of person who thinks an individual can make a difference."
In the late 1970s, enrollments in Alexandria public schools were declining. The school population fell from 17,224 in 1970 to 11,099 by 1979. Between 1977 and 1980, the School Board closed five schools and eliminated 80 teaching jobs.
Reality set in quickly, Cook recalled. "The first thing I learned is you've got to have someone to second your motions. I also learned how to lobby and how to count votes: You only need five. It's nice to have nine, but you only need five . . . . It takes about three years for you to figure out that it will take another 23 to get done everything you want to accomplish."
During that first term, Cook's supporters on issues numbered fewer than five so often that board member Michael Mulroney once presented her with three fish in a glass jar -- the "guppy" award for "swimming upstream while everyone else was swimming down," Cook said.
"There were any number of things where I just seemed to be totally out of sync. That did bother me . . . . I am not a true zealot. I would occasionally come home and sit late at night and wonder what was wrong with me that I was always on the losing side of issues."
It was a delicate blend of stubbornness, principle and humor that kept her going, said Cook.
"A lot of times you have to do something that is not popular, but you just have to hope . . . you are right, and sometimes you find out you are right. And sometimes maybe you never find out," she said.
In recent years, the last two as chairman earning $2,300 a year, Cook has carried the School Board through such sticky issues as the adoption of a C-average requirement for athletes, the establishment of a sex education curriculum for elementary students and the high school health clinic proposal.
Many in the school system praise her approach to such battles -- a style they say pairs an incisive eye with a witty tongue.
"Lou can see through attempts to accomplish something maybe for other reasons. She can see through veiled efforts to . . . obscure the issue," said Superintendent Robert Peebles. "She also has a kind of intuitive sense that if you let an obstreperous person talk more than he wants to, that person reveals himself to be what he is."
Board members and others noted Cook's knack for rescuing a floundering discussion with one of her characteristic zingers.
Last year, after the board adopted a new way of calculating class rank, Cook said: "I hope this clears up a very confusing mess, but since I didn't understand it from the start, I don't know if we have."
Some board members say that, while Cook never intentionally uses her humor to hurt people, her style can be intimidating.
"I suppose sometimes her wit gets her in trouble, but I would rather have that than not have it at all," said Peebles.
Cook is the first to acknowledge that her quips may fly off course, and said she has tried to curb her comments since taking the chairman's seat.
"As a School Board member, I played devil's advocate a lot. There is a fine line between devil's advocate and being a pain. I may have stepped over the line several times . . . . There is also a fine line between being witty and being a smart mouth. I'm sure I've crossed over that one, too."
"I really think Lou makes a better chairman than an individual board member," said Peebles. "She's a leader and enjoys being a leader. She enjoys being in the center of the action."
Cook said she would like to continue her leadership role by running for City Council -- except for Virginia's conflict-of-interest law. Her husband, A. George Cook, a Republican and former council member, is president of Colonial Parking Inc., which operates more than 100 garages in the area. Virginia law would prevent Cook from voting on issues that could involve Colonial Parking, including items involving any of the dozens of developers who do business with her husband.
Cook, who has four adult children, said she rides five miles a day on an exercise bicycle in anticipation of a summer bike tour of France. She later hopes to sell some humor articles. "I don't have any particular plans other than giving a whack at this free-lance writing thing."
Board members say they will miss her pointed humor, her experience and her ability to keep everyone informed.
"Lou really looks out for the new School Board members," said Lynnwood G. Campbell Jr., a board member. "You feel you're always part of the process when Lou's around."
"She manages to run the majority of meetings so that everyone feels something has been accomplished," said board member Judy Seltz.
Pam Walkup, president of the Education Association of Alexandria, said, "Probably her strongest asset has been her ability to keep in touch not only with board members but with other groups like the advisory committees."
The task has grown more time-consuming and difficult over the years, Cook said.
"It takes more and more and more time. I think the demands are beginning to discourage people I would like to see run . . . . I think what's happening is a lot of people are burning out. I'm sort of an anomaly after nine years." She pauses and drags on a cigarette. "I would have gotten off at six [years], but there were some things I hadn't finished yet."