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John Warren Cooke, from the Post archives

Rosalind Helderman

As former House Speaker John Warren Cooke is laid to rest today in Gloucester, we were inspired to go back and read a few stories from the Washington Post archives about Cooke. There are only a few--the online archives contain stories published between 1977 and the present, a time frame that means most of Cooke's 38-year service, which concluded in 1980, is not available.

In perhaps a testament to Cooke's modest and reserved ways, here's how the Post marked his impending retirement after four decades in office and 12 years as head of the House of Delegates. Note what fact doesn't come up: Cooke's famous father, who served on the staff of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

A Warm Farewell;Legislators Praise House Speaker For His Service to Virginia By Karlyn Barker Washington Post Staff Writer

RICHMOND, March 3, 1979 -- Acknowledging what has been rumored for years, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews) today received an affectionate farewell from his legislative colleagues as he ended 38 years in the General Assembly.

Cooke, who has been House speaker since 1968 and one of the state's most powerful but littlenoticed officials, has never formally announced his legislative retirement. But the 64-year-old weekly newspaper publisher's efforts to avoid calling attention to his departure were thwarted when House members held their own ceremony for him on the assembly floor.

"The assembly will miss his friendly smile, immense patience and radiant spirit of good will." said House Majoritity Leader A. L. Philpott (D-Henry). Philpott interrupted the closing legislative session to praise Cooke's contributions to the state.

After noting that Cooke is the ninth generation of his family to serve in the Gereral Assembly, Philpott read a special House resolution citing the speaker's service and calling for Cooke's portrait to be painted and hung in the courthouse of his home county on Virginia's Middle Peninsula.

Philpott, a legislative power in his own right who is all but certain to assume Cooke's post next year, then jokingly referred to Cooke's unchallenged authority in the House, saying that no one would have "the nerve" to oppose the resolution honoring him.

Philpott's remarks and those of Del. Richard M. Bagley (D-Hampton) and DEL. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke) prompted three separate standing ovations by House members and onlookers in the gallery before a smiling Cooke gaveled them to halt.

Bagley called Cooke "the soul of fairness" and pointed out that under his leadership Republican and Independent House members were finally given assignments on major committees.

Much of Cooke's power over the assembly was derived from his unchallenged power to make committee assignments, a role that some legislators said gave him the ability to kill some bills before they were even introduced.

But it was Garland who had the last word on Cooke's retirement. "For all we know, you would like to stay with us for awhile, but the gentleman from Henry (Philpott) has arranged so many farewells for you that, perhaps, you feel you can't change your mind," said Garland in a humorous reference to Philpott's longheld ambition to be speaker.

Garland also urged the enigmatic Cooke to write his memoirs and "tell us frankly and boldly" of his opinions regarding the assembly.

Then, Garland said, "perhaps at long last we'll learn what you really thought of all this."

Cooke's Confederate father does come up in this letter to the editor submitted by former Del. Jim Dillard and Del. David Marsden last year. In it, they recount a recent visit with Cooke.

Letters To the Editor

Former Virginia Speaker
Is Link to Civil War

John Warren Cooke, former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, is alive and well at 93 and actively involved in the affairs of the commonwealth as publisher of the Gloucester-Matthews Gazette in Gloucester, Va.

He began serving in the House in 1942 and became speaker in 1968. Cooke was a Democrat. What is most notable about him is that he was the first speaker to allow Republicans to have committee assignments. Before Cooke, Republicans were seldom recognized on the House floor and committee assignments were out of the question. Because of his actions, Virginia entered the modern era of two-party government and bipartisanship.

He was a true gentleman, modest to a fault and as fair as one can be in such a difficult and powerful position. Cooke was speaker until 1980, when he returned to private life and his publishing business.

The two of us had an opportunity to visit with Cooke at his office in Gloucester, a small rural town in the Tidewater region. As we arrived at his office, Jim noted, "I hold 'Mr. Speaker' in the highest regard. It is the fair and gentlemanly character of speaker Cooke that inspired me and made him one of the three men that most influenced my life."

Cooke was extremely gracious, and the only evidence of his unusual position in U.S. history was a picture on his office wall. The picture was of Gen. Robert E. Lee surrounded by the officers who served on his general staff, including Maj. Giles B. Cooke, John Warren Cooke's father.

Cooke might be the last living American with a father who served in the Civil War. His father was a 26-year-old major on Lee's staff at Appomattox.

There are very few remaining Americans with a grandfather who fought in the Civil War, but it is astounding that someone alive today had a father who was an eyewitness to this era in our history.

In his usual unassuming way, when asked to recount his early days with his Confederate father, Cooke replied: "I probably met some people I should have remembered and threw away some things I should have kept."

Maj. Cooke died in 1936 at 98. What is amazing to us is the incredible amount of U.S. history that has occurred during the lives of this father and son, which began with Maj. Cooke's birth in 1838 and continues to today with his son. Look how far we have come from that terrible war and the social and scientific progress we have made since 1838, which marked the invention of the telegraph.

We think of the Civil War as something very far in our past, but perhaps it is not so far. Look what has occurred in just the life spans of these two remarkable Virginians. Share this with your children and let them know that the "olden days" are not as long ago as we might think.

Jim Dillard
Retired, Virginia House of Delegates
41st District

Dave Marsden
Member, Virginia House of Delegates
41st District

By Rosalind Helderman  |  December 1, 2009; 9:49 AM ET
Categories:  Rosalind Helderman  
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