Remembering Harry Cook

Posted October 11th, 2017  |  News

by Greg Skwira

Harry Cook was on the MCHR Advisory Board, a former Detroit Free Press reporter and columnist and a lifelong advocate of social justice. Harry worked with Greg Skwira at the Free Press.

Harry Cook, my dear friend for almost 40 years, died this morning after a long and courageous battle with prostate cancer. I wanted to share some thoughts about him.

I met Harry Cook 100 years ago, back in 1979, on the rickety collection of metal desks, squeaky chairs and overflowing ashtrays crammed together on the third floor of 321 West Lafayette to make up the city desk of the Detroit Free Press. I was the new guy down from the business news department; Harry was the new guy in from the Episcopal church who wanted to be a newspaperman. I had been hectoring people for months to let me come down to the third floor to cover real news; Harry was doing a stretch as a general assignment reporter to ease him into the job for which he had been hired: religion writer. It was a term at which he bristled, because most people in the news business at the time thought of religion writers as the lumpish lot who covered church suppers, homilies, parish anniversaries and the like. Harry had different ideas about the job, but we’ll get to those.

The established reporters had their own desks, in a better neighborhood of that run-down newsroom. But newcomers like us sat among an eclectic and interesting collection of a few fellow neophytes; some grizzled veterans who had found their way back to The Desk through various byzantine routes that generally involved some combination of alcohol, burnout, bad attitude and age; and a couple of exalted old-time rewrite men – they still had those then, and, yes, they all were men – whose skills were the stuff of newspaper legend and whose biographies often included Shakespearean cycles of triumph, catastrophe, intrigue, disgrace and, occasionally, redemption. One of them, looking back on his checkered career as a foreign correspondent, recalled one angry cable prior to his firing from an Associated Press executive that said: “Your drinking has become a scandal on two continents.”

When the phone rang – and it was always ringing – we neophytes raced to answer it, hoping each call would provide the tip that led to the story that led to the Page One byline that led to a more exalted spot in the newsroom pecking order. We sat poised to be dispatched to the next headless torso or heart-rending feature story that piqued the interest of the editors.

Harry wasn’t entirely new to the news business. He had mixed his priestly duties since the early 1970s with writing and editing for the newspaper published by his Episcopal diocese. By 1979 the ink had gotten into his blood. His first marriage had recently ended, and he was feeling the need for change when he heard that the job of religion writer had opened up at the Free Press. Managing Editor Neal Shine, whom Harry had known for years, made it happen.

Harry and I hit it off right away. Both of us read books. Both of us were hot to report and write the news. Both of us got that electric jolt that newspaper people will understand when, at 7 p.m., we went deep into the sub-basement of the old Free Press building and heard those massive presses began to hum, roll and work their way up to a thunderous roar that would bring our immortal prose to the waiting masses. It was a friendship that would last almost 40 years.

After print newspapers had waned, Harry used to joke that he had hit the blacksmith trifecta because he had worked in three failed professions:, newspapers, railroading and organized religion. I never saw Harry in his role as a railroad man. But I saw him operate as both a newspaper man and as a minister, and he was anything but a failure.

His railroad days were during summers between college and graduate school terms in northern Michigan, where he spent much of his youth. He was a brakeman on the then-thriving line that looped from Traverse City through the Leelanau Peninsula and then back to Traverse City in time for dinner. The old-timers taught him telegraphy – with the dots and dashes – and invited him into the cabs of the steam-belching locomotives, and he would be hooked on railroads for life.

His transportation career also included one shift as a bartender. On his first-day as a fill-in waiter on the railroad-owned ferry between Ludington and Wisconsin, he noticed that the taciturn bartender was falling behind on drink orders. Upon investigation, that was because the man was stretched out on the floor behind the bar, out of sight and thoroughly dead. Harry’s superiors ordered him to help transport the expired barkeep to the walk-in cooler, then appointed him fill-in bartender. Also, because Harry was a divinity school student, the captain decided he should be the one to meet the widow at the dock to brief her on details of her husband’s final voyage.

After a few weeks on the Free Press city desk Harry moved to the religion beat, but he had no interest in being editor of the church-supper calendar. Religion – or, as he viewed it more broadly, humankind’s struggle over the ages to grasp the meaning of life, death and ethics in a world vast beyond its understanding – went far beyond the traditional list of shalts, shalt-nots and dogma. His studies had exposed him to the great thinkers of history, who made it clear that life’s great questions eclipsed narrow bounds of time or culture. The questions that Buddhists grappled with a thousand years ago are similar, at their core, to the questions faced by a thoughtful Christian in Michigan today.

He understood the power of myth – not as defined in the current shallow sense, as falsehoods to be exploded (i.e. the “myth-busting” Internet stories on 10 myths about whole grains) but as those powerful explanatory stories – true at a level so intrinsic to human nature that their truth trumps mere fact – that have endured through time as humankind’s efforts to explain its place in the cosmos. He saw that the creation story in Native American mythology relates to the Christian creation story; that the mythology found in many world cultures of a spiritual leader dying and offering up his life and sometimes even his physical body to nurture the people resonated with the Christian story of the Eucharist.

He had little time for those who used religion as a simplistic two-sided crutch: one side to provide easy answers and comfort with pie-in-the-sky promises of post-mortem bliss to compensate for an unsatisfying or, at best, fleeting existence on earth; the other side to use as a cudgel against enemies. If my God is the One True God and your god is a fake, then I can invade your countries and take your life, or fly planes into your skyscrapers. I can own you as a slave or kill you without remorse as a not-fully-human enemy. Or, on a smaller scale, I can look down on you as something flawed, misguided or unworthy. (Working as a volunteer at Crossroads, a Detroit social service agency that helps the needy and works for social justice, Harry was asked on occasion to mentor apple-cheeked seminarians. He recounted, in a tone of bemused indignation, how some of the smug rookies, on the basis of their 20 minutes of theological training and their narrow points of view, would suggest not very subtly that he was a lesser and not-quite-legitimate priest than they would become because he was Episcopalian and they were Catholic.)

To Harry, religion was inseparable from social justice. As a student in the 1960s he was one of the northern whites who traveled south to become foot soldiers in the civil rights movement. He got an early and powerful lesson in courage, and in the power of nonviolent protest, when a Southern sheriff pulled him and several other participants in a desegregation march out of ranks for interrogation. He recalled how the sheriff slapped the face of one of the marchers, Martin Luther King Jr., and how King silently, literally, turned the other cheek. Other powerful lessons came in 1967, when Harry awoke “to see an Army tank in the street in front of the house and towers of billowing smoke on the northwestern horizon of a city under siege,” he recalled in an unpublished memoir he shared with me a few years ago. “It was the riot of 1967.”

As he probed the root causes of the uprising, he became more and more convinced that anyone in the religion business was a hypocrite if he or she wasn’t also working for social justice. The years after the uprising “transformed my vision of what organized religion could be and do as a part of society,” Harry wrote in his memoir, adding that he soon left his assistant rector’s job at that parish, Christ Church Episcopal near downtown, for his own parish after Christ Church’s rector had opposed open housing legislation in Detroit “on the grounds that, as he put it, ‘There is open housing in heaven.’ ”

Politics was part of Harry’s view of the religion beat, too. He was among the first to spot and write about, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rise of right-wing television evangelists who exploited fear, fomented division and, in the process, racked up impressive fortunes and fleets of private jets that whisked them to fundraisers billed as religious events. He saw that cable TV had replaced the old-time tent revival the way the car had replaced the horse and buggy.

Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker became part of his beat. He recalled in his memoir one interview with Bakker, not long before the fraud and conspiracy convictions and the waterfall of adulterous tears, in which he entered Bakker’s posh Washington hotel suite to find Bakker “lounging in an easy chair as two more sycophants gently rubbed his bare feet” – not exactly the same vibe as the New Testament story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Harry’s social activism, and the relationship of that social activism to politics, connected him with Detroit’s most forward-thinking leaders of all faiths. His message, and theirs: We’re all in this together.

After a few years as religion writer, Harry was asked to become an assistant city editor. For six months he was in charge of the city desk at night – six months of pure adrenaline, high pressure and lots of fun, he said. But he and wife Sue Chevalier (she gets a proper introduction a few paragraphs hence) had a new baby at home, and the night hours were tough on family life, as so many journalists have learned the hard way. So from the city desk he moved in the winter of 1985 to the Tower of Erudition: the ethereal office of the editorial page, run by Joe Stroud. Harry wrote editorials, pointing with pride and viewing with alarm. There he worked with the incomparable Barbara Stanton, one of Detroit’s most elegant writers; and with skilled copy editor Pat Foley, whose grammatical crusades won her the nickname (of which she heartily approved) Conan the Grammarian.

But eventually the priesthood called him back. Even during his newspaper days Harry had done occasional fill-in work at local parishes. “The church was not ever really out of my orbit, nor I out of its,” he wrote in his memoir. “Then out of the blue I was asked to be the guest preacher at a good friend’s Ann Arbor parish. I went, and I preached and as I did I discovered that those eight-plus years of writing and reporting had brought out skills that had not theretofore been apparent. I realized that maybe the newspaper work had been pretext to greater, or at the least better, work yet to be done as a priest.”

In December 1987 he became rector of St. Andrew’s in Clawson, opening a new and fulfilling chapter in Harry’s life of parish ministry and scriptural scholarship. He would publish nine books, the first of them coming about a decade after he returned to parish life.

Harry’s publishing career would be a mixed blessing among his flock. Although the congregation liked the idea of being led by a published author and a scriptural scholar of some repute, not everyone agreed with his brand of liberal and humanist theology. For those comfy in their presuppositions about who God was, who just wanted to put in their weekly hour and bask in the assurance that their lives were moral and their eternal happiness in the next world was assured, Harry was a bitter pill. He eventually would describe himself as an atheist: not one who believed or didn’t believe in a God as traditionally defined by conventional Christian dogma, but an a-theist (just as one who is amoral is not immoral or moral) who was voting in the undecided column.
His unconventional take on theology (he would say in his memoir that “among my Anglican peers I am considered along a spectrum from ‘dangerous’ to ‘eccentric’ to ‘just plain nuts’ ”) won him both admirers and critics. At one time, in fact, one particularly piqued critic attempted to get Harry declared a heretic by the Episcopal church. Harry wished the man success, noting that the trial (or whatever procedure it is that gets these things decided) would do wonders for the sale of his books. And he joked that if he was to be burned at the stake, he preferred medium rare.
Although his scriptural studies and his parish work were deeply satisfying, the journalist in Harry missed a connection to a more general audience. In 2005 he began a weekly e-mailed essay, guided by his wife and editor Sue Chevalier, that wrestled with the moral issues of the day, talked a little politics and allowed him to stretch his writing muscles. And this is where Sue gets her proper introduction.

Harry first saw her in 1977, when he was editing the Episcopal newspaper and looking for a low-priced student assistant from Wayne State University’s journalism department. Here’s how Harry described their meeting in his memoir:

“One day I took a call from a woman who said she wanted the proofreading position. I checked her out with people in the department, and each gave her high praise. So without ever interviewing her, I hired Susan. I saw her for the first time as she stepped off the elevator and into the composing room of the job printer where our paper was produced. I learned later that at our first meeting she was just a few days short of her 22nd birthday, married for more than a year to a man she knew from her high school days.

“She took the galleys and page proofs in hand and, with one of those wonderful old copy pencils that have been since replaced on copydesks by computers, began to make corrections as if she had been doing the work for years. She caught errors and problems with articles that I should have caught well before press day. She asked remarkably penetrating questions in such a genuinely pleasant way that my considerable ego went unbruised. She had then as now an award-winning smile and a laugh that, as I have so often observed, sounds like bells pealing out good tidings. I made certain that she would return for the next month and later ended up offering her a full semester’s position which she accepted.”

And here, as they say, the plot thickens.

Harry’s marriage, unbeknownst to Sue, was crumbling and near its end. Sue’s marriage, unbeknownst to Harry, was in equally bad shape. Work continues. Feelings grow and are suppressed. Angst ensues.

In Harry’s words, from the memoir: “I could see her moving closer to confiding in me and seeking my counsel. It was, of course, inappropriate to enter into that kind of relationship when I knew I was in love with her – something I could not certainly then confess. So I listened in a non-committal way to some of the sad story as a friend would listen.”

Time passes. The phone rings, and it’s Sue’s mother, asking that Harry please, please, offer his listening and pastoral skills to help her daughter through the difficult days of a collapsed marriage. Then comes the pivotal phone call, the moment straight from the movies. Harry again:

“The conversation must have gone on for an hour or more, I backing and filling and trying to work up the courage to tell her how I felt. Finally, it tumbled out. Her response was, ‘Finally.’ The rest came quickly, and . . . we committed to one another for life. (At this writing [in 2008] we are approaching our 30th wedding anniversary.)”

Now that we’ve been properly introduced to Sue, we return to 2005 and Harry’s weekly e-mail newsletter. Although Harry, a self-confessed Luddite, might have been able to send his weekly essays with the dots and dashes he learned in his railroad telegraphy days, he could as easily have launched a rocket to the moon as published a column on the Internet. For the talented Sue, it was a piece of cake.

A small mailing list grew, by word of mouth and shared e-mails, to a national and then multinational undertaking. Each week more than 1,200 people received Harry’s weekly take on politics, culture and morals, and many of them forwarded those e-mails to friends. In his last essay, to be published Friday, Harry wrote: “Readers whom I did not know before the series began and have never yet met in person have become friends. They live in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa, France, across Canada and in most of the United States. Their company I shall miss very much.”

Some of the most entertaining columns – these were more frequent in later years – looked backward to his boyhood up north and gave us insights on the people and events that had shaped his character and thinking.

I will miss those Friday essays.

When Harry’s health deteriorated, a confluence of events shaped the final months of Harry’s life. Harry and Sue’s daughter, Sarah Yates, and her husband, Robbie Yates, were living in the Washington, D.C., area and held jobs that allowed them to work in their home. Since their home could be anywhere, they decided it should be with Harry and Sue.

In October 2016, well into Harry’s battle with cancer, Harry and Sue sold their Royal Oak home and moved in with Sarah, Robbie and granddaughter Evelyn in Troy. The kindness of Sarah and Robbie provided Harry and Sue with loving, supportive surroundings for Harry’s final months. Plus, to sweeten the deal, there was a 24-7 granddaughter!

Harry – as previously mentioned, no great friend of technology – would not quarrel if I told you that he was an analog guy struggling to make peace with a digital world. (This may seem like a non sequitur, but bear with me.) Watching him do battle with an iPhone was like watching someone trying to fill out an online form with a fountain pen, another 19th-century century contrivance of which he was enamored. I mention this as a lead-in to an anecdote that reflects upon the quality of his final months with Sue, Sarah, Robbie and Evelyn.

It was not unusual, after a phone conversation with Harry, for my phone to ring again a few minutes later with his name showing up on the Caller ID. No conversation, only background noise – the telltale symptoms of a “butt-dial.” I remember one such call, late in Harry’s life, in which the background noise consisted of the delighted giggles of a little girl and the exultant responses of her doting grandfather. I listened for several minutes, thinking how fortunate Harry was to be the beneficiary of the Sarah and Rob’s generosity. As cancer was making its way into the inner corridors of Harry’s life, sapping his strength and testing his endurance, their gift allowed him to fight the disease safely sheltered in their home, surrounded by his loving wife, his daughter, her husband and – the star of the show – little Evelyn. The silver lining of the dark cloud of cancer was that it produced the opportunity to spend large portions of every day watching his youngest granddaughter grow up and participating in the process. Harry dearly loved all of his five grandchildren, but it seemed that Evelyn’s arrival late in his life, at a time when he understood that the days ahead were fewer than the days behind, brought it home to him how blessed with family his life had been. He spent his final months spending large portions of each day with her, watching her grow and doing all the silly but important things that grandfathers do. It was one of his greatest joys during his last difficult months.

Although disease roiled his body and sapped his strength during those last months, Harry continued to read, study and write. He struggled to understand the ancient texts that chronicled man’s effort to grapple with the most profound questions of existence. In one of my last conversations with him, he was excited to have come across an arresting verb form in an obscure ancient text.

While it was common to find words about Yahweh issuing the breath of life into the world and its inhabitants, this unusual verb suggested an inhale rather than an exhale. The implication was that creation was a two-way street, that mankind had, and has, an active role in the process of creation. Harry was animated, planning his strategy for further research, savoring the knowledge that he, and all of us, are part of creation.

The final section of this perhaps overlong essay, or whatever it is, I have saved for last because it will be the hardest to write. This breaks a cardinal rule of journalism, that the most important stuff should go at the top. The problem: How to say goodbye to dear friend of almost 40 years? How can I sum up in any cogent way what it has meant to have had Harry as a friend, co-worker, counselor, confidant, conspirator?

The easy things first. Our shared love of language and writing, combined with a love-hate relationship with Detroit’s newspapers (what they were vs. what they had become), led to a steady stream of e-mails and texts opining, as old farts tend to do, about the misadventures of those who have taken their place. For example, when I see a headline, as I saw in a Detroit paper recently, that says:

Muslims, Jews gather in Metro Detroit to forge bonds

to whom will I e-mail the observation that, if the experiment is a success, I suppose they’ll try their hand at checks, stock certificates, passports, etc.?

In our regular phone calls, visits and dinners over the years we were commentators at large on the world and its mysteries. We did not solve the world’s problems, but we defined them, pretty much figured out who was to blame and suggested some initial steps for repair.

Through portions of five decades we shared our successes and setbacks, our fears, dreams and innermost thoughts. He was a sounding board for ideas, personal and professional, and always a touchstone and moral compass for the significant events and decisions of my life. Conversations about important topics could be carried out in a kind of shorthand because we knew all the context, knew all the things that didn’t have to be said.

Harry was a good man, and a wise man, and always a prod in the direction of excellence and intellectual honesty. To be worthy of Harry’s friendship, you sought to live by the same high standards of kindness, compassion, honesty and intellectual rigor that he did.

And it was fun. Even, for a time, when I was his editor and thus forced to commit on a regular basis the most heinous act that can be perpetrated against a writer: changing his copy.

We talked on occasion about death, in a general sense. It was not something he feared, he said, even though he made no bones about hating to leave the things that he treasured – his family, by far, first among those – and the memories and pleasures that had fortified his life. He saw his life not in terms of merely something that began and ended but as an enduring part of an evolving and never-ending cosmic dance.

Harry will continue to dance in our lives. He lived well, if not long enough, and his contributions to all of us and to the world in which we continue to live will remain.

Of all the feelings that bombard me as a result of Harry’s death, the most powerful – even more powerful than the deep sorrow I feel at losing the companionship of a friend, a brother, a kindred spirit – is a feeling of intense gratitude. To have known a man like Harry and to have been his friend is a gift not to be taken lightly.

I wanted more time with him. We all did. But in light of the disease that ravished his body and attacked his considerable powers – a disease beyond my control, or Harry’s, or the excellent staff at Karmanos Cancer Institute or even the grand design of the universe – my wish for more of his time is a selfish one.

Farewell, my great friend. Well done.

# # #