Solar panels aren’t typical topics of conversation during the faculty procession at a Wabash Commencement, but this year, Bill Cook ’66 was in line.
Moments before the ceremony, Professor of Art Elizabeth Morton approached him.
“I knew about his work and the Bill Cook Foundation, so I told him about this amazing place in Zimbabwe, a mission station there that, despite the difficult conditions, is full of life and verve. They are nearly self-sufficient, but need solar panels.”
Cook listened as the brass quartet played on and a mist of rain began to fall.
“I told him the priests had asked me to create a film to bring attention to the place to raise funds.”
And as the students marched toward the Chapel in the unseasonable cold and the faculty prepared to step out, Morton had her answer.
“He told me that the foundation does fund solar projects, and in Zimbabwe, in fact. He said it’s education-related, he asked me for a proposal, and that’s what we’re working on now. I was fighting back tears as we marched.”
So this time next year a mission station and school in Zimbabwe may have solar panels, may be electrically self-sufficient, thanks to a conversation on the Wabash Mall.
That’s pretty much how Cook, and the foundation bearing his name, work.
He meets an Irish nun while on a trip to Myanmar to see the place where his father was stationed in World War II; she is caring for eight HIV-positive kids who are banned from school and need a tutor: The foundation funds it.
“You cannot say no to an Irish nun,” Cook insists.
He travels to a village in Cameroon and a school project co-founded by Jacob Moore ’12 that needs solar panels: The foundation funds it.
Teaching a Wabash immersion course in Nairobi, Cook meets several leaders of organizations caring for children and teens in the Kibera slum: The foundation funds them.
A Ugandan woman, whom Cook calls “a wonderful, fierce warrior on my sainthood list,” works in a refugee camp in South Sudan where a badly burned little girl needs surgery: The foundation is funding it this fall.
The foundation’s stated mission is “to help some of the world’s poorest children to get the best education possible.” That often includes removing the obstacles to learning.
Like the warm clothing it funds for Roma families in the mountains of Bosnia, where children walk long distances to school through frigid winters and parents won’t send them without coats, gloves, and hats to keep them warm.
In four years the foundation has backed dozens of projects in 23 countries, funding school construction, books and supplies, music and afterschool programs, educational fees, and other efforts. Almost all of those have been based on relationships that began with a face-to-face meeting and a single question: “What do you need?”
A different question got it all started.
Retiring from SUNY Geneseo after nearly 40 years of teaching medieval and renaissance history with a scholarly focus on St. Francis of Assisi, Cook asked himself, “Given who I am, my wealth and my education, how can I live more like him?”
About that same time, Cook was doing research in Ethiopia and encountered three boys in the street in Lalibela. They asked him to buy them a book. When Cook asked why, they replied, “We have a book. We’ve read it. We know everything in it. Now we want another book.” The book was about Europe, so Cook quizzed them, asking them to name the capital of each country, which they did.
“I was going to buy the book anyway, but I wanted to push them a little,” Cook recalls. So I asked, ‘What’s the capital of Moldova?’ They answered, ‘Chisinau.’ It was amazing!”
Cook found out that the boys had been living on the streets for nine years, going to school to learn English and shining shoes to buy food. Cook bought them a book about America, and about a year later they emailed him and asked him if he would pay their high- school fees. Cook mentioned the boys to a longtime friend who runs the Friends of Florence organization in Italy, voicing his concern that supporting them long term was beyond his means.
“She said, ‘You know a lot of wealthy people from your teaching, your work with me and others. Why don’t you form a charity?”
Soon after, the Bill Cook Foundation was born. The boys have since graduated high school and college, all with the Foundation’s assistance, and the projects have multiplied.
“My goal that first half-year was maybe $25,000 to $30,000. We raised $50,000. The next year, we raised $250,000. Then $300,000, and then $400,000.”
His expertise became intellectual capital—the money he makes from his work for Great Courses or giving lectures and tours for groups and for individuals goes straight to the Foundation. And the relationships established with wealthy and well-connected people on those trips often pay off even more.
The scholar of St. Francis has embraced a vocation of his subject: “begging” for money to help those in need.
“Turns out, I’m pretty good at this,” he says. Entering its fifth year, the Foundation is at a crossroads.
“We’re moving from our founding to our institutional phase” Cook says. “I’ve been vehement that we not spend money on our people, that it all goes to our projects. I pay for my own transportation and all that stuff. We’ve got volunteers, but we haven’t had any paid employees.
“Now we’re going to start by having three regional coordinators for the three parts of the world we serve.”
Those changes won’t affect the way Cook comes at what he calls “my last vocation.”
“We all have multiple vocations in life, but as I look back on my life, I can see elements of this one forming way back there. It really has come together in ways that are quite surprising to me.”
The columnist David Brooks writes in The Second Mountain that the United States needs “weavers” to mend the social fabric of the country, people who “share an ethos that puts relationship over self. We are born into relationships, and the measure of our life is in the quality of our relationships.”
Cook and his foundation weave on an international scale, and in the fabric of those relationships are gifts for many, and to himself.
“I’m 75 years old now, a triple-bypass survivor, and a Type 2 diabetic. Something’s going to go wrong in me some time, and there are all kinds of things that could slow me down. But I can’t imagine my attitude about this work changing.
“I want to spend time with my family, yes, but other than that, I’m committed to this, slumping over my computer until the last tick. This is how I want to live these days.”
“Today I saw Jesus, and he was teaching in a rural school on the outskirts of Nairobi,” Sam Glowinski ’12 wrote during his trip with Bill Cook’s History of Religion in Africa class in 2011. “I saw teachers who were not going to allow their kids to give up on their dreams.”
Now Glowinski is traveling with Cook again, this time as one of three regional coordinators for his foundation.
Wabash is connected to the foundation in all sorts of ways. Wabash alumni are major supporters, including John Lennes ’66 on the foundation’s Board of Directors, and Jake German ’11, Will Logan ’11, Richard Gunderman ’83, and Raymond Williams H’68 on the Board of Distinguished Advisors. The foundation supports Wabash too, funding health education programs in Peru for the College’s Global Health Initiative.