Student Leaders: A “shy country boy” takes charge

September 5, 2013
By Bill Krueger

J. Robert Cooke was following in some big footsteps when he became NC State’s student body president in 1960. Eddie Knox, who would go on to serve as mayor of Charlotte, had been student body president the year before, and Jim Hunt, who would go on to become a four-term governor of North Carolina, had held the position for the two years before that.

That could have been overwhelming for a self-proclaimed “shy country boy” from Huntersville, N.C.

jamescookeBut Cooke had been president of the student body in high school, where he learned a valuable skill in a vocational agriculture course. Cooke learned parliamentary procedure, giving him the tools he needed to be able to conduct an effective meeting.

“It’s something you can learn in about a day that has been useful to me throughout my life,” Cooke said years later in an interview recorded by NCSU Libraries as part of its Student Leadership Initiative, an effort to chronicle the experiences of campus leaders. “I cannot imagine not having had that tool at my disposal.”

Cooke received three engineering degrees from NC State before embarking on a long career as a professor at Cornell University. He initially ended up at NC State because it was far more affordable than Davidson College, where he was also accepted. He initially lived in Bagwell Hall, where he found that a lot of other students had chosen to study at NC State. Too many, even.

“NC State’s admission policy is still to try to give access to people around the state, and they were at that point admitting large numbers of students with the full expectation they would be gone by Christmas,” he recalled.

So Cooke had a two roommates in a room designed for two people. “It was pretty miserable,” he said. “In engineering, triangles are very stable structures. But in human relations, triangles are not good. We got along okay, but it was not one of the best things to do.”

Cooke later lived in Turlington Hall, where his roommate became a lifelong friend. He was also one of the first students to live in Bragaw Hall when it opened.

Hunt helped Cooke when he decided, first, to run for student body vice president. “That was a big boost to my ego to have him,” Cooke said. The future governor bought Cooke some campaign buttons that Cooke was able to use again the next year, when he ran for president, by simply striking through the word “vice” with a marker.

As president, Cooke pushed for a more effective faculty advising system, a more elaborate library collection and for the establishment of on-campus housing for female students, according to the Student Leadership Initiative. He also worked with the Student Senate to encourage the university to invite the federal government to use NC State has a training school for President Kennedy’s new Peace Corps.

“I just enjoyed the give-and-take and the strategy and how to get things done,” Cooke said, “so it was good entertainment.”

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