ROBERTSDALE, Ala. — There are few clues that this is the home town of Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the place where he said his “most improbable journey” began and where he forged the beliefs that today put him at the center of a national debate over privacy.
His name is not noted on the town’s welcome signs along the main drag, Route 59. There’s nothing in the local chamber’s brochures, and the local paper rarely has anything about him. His old high school keeps a glass case celebrating former NFL running back Joe Childress, Class of 1952, but not the leader of the world’s most valuable company, Class of 1978.
Walking around the town and talking with residents, it can feel as if Cook is a forgotten favorite son.
“I kinda wonder about that sometimes, I really do,” said Rick Ousley, a former classmate who recalls Cook fondly and now runs a computer repair shop in town.
Cook never sought out attention and many here are quietly proud of him, but Ousley suspects the lack of recognition is also tied to Cook’s prominent positions on sensitive social issues. Cook, who is gay, has advocated for gay rights. He once criticized Alabama for its lack of progress in a speech at the state capitol in Montgomery. He also helped fund a gay rights initiative in the Deep South.
“That was offensive to a lot of people down here,” Ousley said. One local pastor even vowed to stop using his iPad because of the Apple leader’s views.
Now, Cook, 55, has taken another risky stand, this time on privacy. He and Apple are fighting a federal court order demanding the Silicon Valley firm help the FBI crack the passcode-locked iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists. The FBI has accused Cook of only wanting to protect Apple’s brand. But Cook, in his soft Southern drawl, has repeatedly argued the FBI’s request is wrong in moral terms, calling it “bad for America.”
Cook’s experiences growing up in Robertsdale – detailed by him in public speeches and recalled by others — are key to understanding how a once-quiet tech executive became one of the world’s most outspoken corporate leaders. Apple has long emphasized the privacy of its products, but today Cook talks about privacy not as an attribute of a device, but as a right — a view colored by his own history.
For Cook, it was in this tiny town midway between Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., that a book-smart boy developed what he calls his “moral sense.”
On the surface easy-going and popular, according to former classmates, Cook seemed too aware of the injustices around him.
“I have to believe that growing up in Alabama, during the 1960s and witnessing what he did, especially as someone who is gay, he understood the dangers of remaining silent,” said Kerry Kennedy, a human-rights activist who has met Cook several times and whose father, Robert F. Kennedy, Cook considers one of his heroes.
“He’s not afraid to stand up when he sees something wrong,” she added.
Cook’s chance to stand up came early, when he was in just the sixth or seventh grade.
In the early 1970s, he was riding his new 10-speed bicycle at night along a rural road just outside Robertsdale when he spotted a burning cross. He pedaled closer.
He saw Klansmen in white hoods and robes. The cross was on the property of a family he knew was black. It was almost more than he could comprehend.
Without thinking, he shouted, “Stop!”
The group turned toward the boy. One of them raised his hood. Cook recognized the man as a local deacon at one of the dozen churches in town, but not the one attended by Cook’s family.
The man warned the boy to keep moving.
“This image was permanently imprinted in my brain and it would change my life forever,” Cook recalled in a speech in 2013, an incident that he also has recounted to friends.
A few years later, at age 16, Cook won an essay contest sponsored by a rural electric company and, as part of the prize, met Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the segregationist who resisted the federal government’s attempts to integrate the state’s public schools during the ’60s.
Cook shook Wallace’s hand that day, but described it as “a betrayal of my own beliefs,” he said in a speech last year. “It felt wrong. Like I was selling a piece of my soul.”
On the same trip, Cook met President Jimmy Carter at the White House. To Cook, the difference between the two men was impossible to miss — “one was right and one was wrong.”
Another student from southern Alabama on that same trip noted just how different her reaction had been: She was a teenager happy just to fly on a plane for the first time. She wasn’t thinking at all about what those two men represented.
But Cook did.
Timothy Donald Cook was born in 1960, the second of three sons to Donald and Geraldine Cook. His mom looked after the boys at home and sometimes worked at Lee’s Drug, a pharmacy in town. His dad worked at the shipyards in Mobile. They lived in a brick house on a dead-end street not far from a livestock auction house. Money was tight. When Cook wrote that award-winning essay at age 16, he had to do it by hand. His family couldn’t afford a new typewriter, almost $800 in today’s money.
Cook has always been private – he declined to comment for this story – and he rarely talks about his family in public.
Today, one brother works as a business analyst in North Carolina. The other lives in Daphne, 15 miles from Robertsdale. His father, 83, still lives here. His mother died last year at age 77. No obituary ran in the local paper, leaving some extended family in the dark. But many townspeople assumed it was because the Cooks worried about publicity.
The precocious nature of Cook’s interest in justice appears to be woven throughout his life.
One of his earliest memories is watching Robert F. Kennedy, who opposed Wallace’s segregationist policies, on a black and white television in early 1968. Cook recalled in a talk last December that he was most struck by the “unique accent that seemed very strange for a Southerner to hear.”
Later, Cook studied Kennedy’s writings and speeches, such as his “Ripple of Hope” speech about the necessity of standing up and doing the right thing.
Today, at his Apple office in Cupertino, Calif., Cook keeps two photos of Kennedy on his wall, plus a photo of Martin Luther King Jr.
Those are hardly the typical corporate suite choices.
But the lessons of Kennedy and King were not readily available to Cook in Alabama. He had to actively search out “what was right and true.”
“I drew on the moral sense that I’d learned from my parents, and in church, and in my own heart, and that led me on my own journey of discovery,” he recalled in one speech.
He made frequent visits to the small Robertsdale library, where he found a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” – published only a few years earlier — and devoured the story of a trial exposing the dangers of racism in a fictional Alabama town.
When author Harper Lee died last month, Cook tweeted a quote from the book: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Robertsdale today is a two water-tower town of about 5,200 residents. It’s doubled in size since Cook grew up here, with houses spreading across former farm fields. The town got its first Walmart Supercenter two years ago.
Back in 1977, the new store in town was a Piggly Wiggly. There was no movie theater. No bowling alley. The fall county fair was the big deal. Teens hung out on the town’s tennis courts or outside Hammond’s Supermarket, where they knew the owner.
“There was nothing to do,” said Teresa Prochaska Huntsman, another Class of ’78 alum.
School was the center of their lives. And Cook excelled there. He was in the National Honor Society and racked up academic honors. So did Huntsman, who managed to edge out Cook for the title of class valedictorian.
The pair were so driven that they worried they were not learning enough in a senior chemistry class. The teacher was a football coach who told students to just read a book or play cards, Huntsman recalled.
“We were concerned that if we went to college we wouldn’t be prepared,” she said.
They talked to a school counselor, who told them not to worry.
Cook — with a quick smile and the bushy hairdo popular at the time — was well-liked by his classmates.
“He just seemed like a happy guy,” Huntsman said.
“He probably considered himself to be a bit nerdy, but he didn’t come off that way,” recalled Harold Richardson, another former classmate.
And the topic of whether Cook — or any other student — was gay wasn’t even on the radar.
“In the ’70s, in high school, no one thought about that, especially in Alabama,” Richardson said.
It was like it wasn’t even possible.
Growing up gay in small-town Alabama a generation ago meant knowing the value of privacy, recalled Paul Hard, 57, who was raised in tiny Demopolis, Ala. He doesn’t know Cook, but imagines what he went through, because he went through it himself.
“You kept your cards close to your chest,” he said.
Cook first publicly acknowledged he was gay in a 2014 opinion piece. He wrote that he doesn’t consider himself an activist, yet felt a responsibility to help others.
It was an event that made headlines around the world. Today, Cook is still the only openly gay leader of a Fortune 500 company.
“I don’t think it’s been fully realized how big a deal it is,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign.
But Cook’s admission was not universally celebrated, illustrating the potential risk Cook faced throughout his career.
In the early 1990s, Cook worked at computer reseller Intelligent Electronics, where his boss was Mark Briggs, who today hails Cook as “an operational genius.”
But Briggs also objects to Cook’s view on homosexuality.
“The very fact of homosexuality is abhorrent to God,” Briggs said. He described it a behavior that can be controlled — “exactly the same thing as alcoholism.”
Briggs said he never knew Cook was gay when they worked together and insists it would not have mattered.
“He knows I don’t approve of homosexuality,” Briggs said. “He knew it then. He knows it now. No big deal.”
For years, Cook hid his desire to speak out.
That started to change when he arrived at Apple in 1998. Hired as a senior vice president to fix Apple’s problematic supply chains, Cook believed that if he wanted to change the world, he had to do it on his own time. Not at work.
“Steve didn’t see it that way,” Cook recalled of his predecessor Jobs. “He was an idealist. And in that way he reminded me of how I felt as a teenager.”
Jobs insisted they could change the world by working hard and making great products, that “there is opportunity to do work that is infused with moral purpose.”
Cook pushed this point even further when he took over Apple in 2011. He advocated for gay rights and to change laws in states such as Alabama, where employees can be fired for being gay. He criticized states with “religious freedom” laws that seemed to him to sanction some forms of discrimination.
Last December, shortly before the fate of a terrorist’s iPhone would explode onto the national scene, he accepted the Ripple of Hope award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
In his speech, Cook talked about learning to “take a stand for what is right, for what is just.”
And when the terrorist’s iPhone case erupted last month, Cook returned to that “moral sense” he learned back in Robertsdale.
Apple’s first response was a “Letter to Our Customers,” authored by Cook. He wrote that “it would be wrong” for Apple to be forced to create a backdoor to its security system.
“We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government,” Cook wrote.
Tech companies such as Google and Facebook have supported Apple. Law enforcement groups and some family members of the 14 people killed in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack have lined up behind the FBI.
The Justice Department has accused Apple of focusing on “a perceived negative impact on its reputation.”
Cook, however, has framed it as a difficult moral choice.
“Some things are hard, and some things are right, and some things are both,” he said last month in an ABC News interview. “This is one of those things.”
Cook still calls himself “a proud son of the South.”
He returns to Alabama when he can, usually around the holidays in Robertsdale or at least down to Auburn, three hours away, where he loves to watch his alma mater play football.
Residents have been following Cook and the privacy dispute.
“I don’t want the government looking at my iPhone,” former classmate Diane Middleton-Vogel said.
And many of them take pride in how far Cook has gone.
“We just have a lot of respect for him,” said Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy.
Cook and Apple, he said, “have changed history.”
At the local high school, there is one sign that appears to connect Robertsdale with Cook. Every student there has a MacBook laptop. The familiar Apple logo is visible throughout the halls.
The laptops were bought a few years ago by the county school system. But last month the school board voted to move in a new direction. This fall, every student will be assigned a Lenovo Chromebook instead.
It’s nothing personal. The Chromebooks were just cheaper.