Our Favorite Cook

For twenty-six years, Wayne Cook has been the linchpin of our programs staff. Everywhere we go, everyone knows Wayne. His cheerful grin and contagious enthusiasm have brightened many a convening, from staff meeting to national conference. His unique gifts have contributed mightily to the California Arts Council’s success. He seemed to love his job so much, we hoped he’d never retire. But alas, all good things must come to an end, and Wayne’s tenure has been a very, very good thing.

At the end of 2015, we are losing our favorite Cook.

PITTSBURGHER TO GO

Wayne grew up in Pittsburgh, a bright and charismatic lad who was both a voracious reader and an outstanding athlete. He was a football star in high school—so much a star that his 12th grade English class wrote a poem about Wayne’s skills as a running back.

One other experience in that English class stands out in his memory: The teacher’s assignment to prepare a verbal book report. Wayne memorized and delivered the Macbeth monologue that begins, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” It made an impression on the teacher and the class. More importantly, it made an impression on Wayne. Just … not right away.

Wayne received a football scholarship to Kent State. He figured if his athletic career didn’t pan out, he’d become a psychiatrist. His future seemed to be taking shape quite nicely—and then, as often happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men, his life was abruptly derailed. During the summer before he was to start college, Wayne was in a car accident. A bad one.

The accident disabled Wayne both physically and mentally—temporarily, as it fortunately turned out, but at the time it was devastating. He says today he will never know how much he lost; he may have been a genius before the accident! But that summer he lost the ability to read, and had to start all over again with “Dick and Jane.” He lost his football scholarship. And while still under a doctor’s care, he was drafted.

CHIPPED BEEF ON TOAST

In those dark days of the Vietnam war, if you joined the Army and agreed to serve an extra year, you were given some choice over your assignment. Wayne joined, and went to social work school (remember that idea he had about becoming a psychiatrist?). He found himself stationed at a military hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, one of six guys waiting for the social work school to start. While waiting, they took other psych classes—eight hours a day for a year. Out in the civilian world, that’s enough class time to earn a degree.

At the end of that year, he passed a test and was assigned to a psychiatry unit at the Second General Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he got to sit in on sessions with a renowned child psychologist. Thus was Wayne Cook introduced to play therapy…and anyone who knows him can guess how quickly his natural calling began to emerge.

Wayne Cook, then as now, was great working with kids. And did he excel at play therapy? You betcha.

One day he was assigned to work with a six year-old who would not speak. Wayne tried everything. He crawled on the floor, played with every toy in the room, tried to engage the child every which way. The kid refused to respond. For an hour Wayne played—or tried to play—with this boy who would not speak. Since he wouldn’t speak, Wayne tried the old, “Bet you can’t touch your nose!” trick. Repeatedly. The kid wouldn’t touch his nose, either.

At the end of the session, Wayne was exhausted and discouraged. He stood glumly in the playroom doorway, watching the kid leave, out the main door at the end of the hall. And then, just as his mom was holding the door for him, the child turned around—looked at Wayne—and touched his nose.

A SLICE OF HAM

One day Wayne was approached by another clinic worker. Wayne really didn’t know him, but the guy saw Wayne walking down the hall and asked, “Hey, have you ever been in a play?”

Turned out the coworker was a playwright. He was casting Finally Gray, a 2-person piece he’d written for a black actor and a white actress. Wayne had not, in fact, ever been in a play—but he remembered how much he’d enjoyed performing that Macbeth monologue for his English class. So he agreed to try it, and joined the Borderline Players (so called because everyone involved worked in psychiatry in one way or another).

Wayne has been acting ever since.

When he returned to Pittsburgh after his military service, he studied theater at Point Park College—having received a scholarship working with inner-city kids through the Model Cities program. As a student, he performed at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and received his Equity card his freshman year. How? By getting cast as one of the muleteers in Man of La Mancha. It was a small part, but you know the old adage: There are no small parts, only small actors. In rehearsal, it was discovered that the small actor who was supposed to lift Aldonza in the dramatic “Little Bird” sequence, couldn’t lift her. Wayne lifted her easily, but the union would only allow a union actor to perform that maneuver…so Wayne received that coveted union card!

Wayne_MrRogers
Wayne with Mister Rogers

But the biggest break during this part of his life was getting cast as “the black Mister Rogers” in an award-winning kids’ TV show on WICC-TV called “Cater Cousins.” (Wayne can still sing the song. Just ask him.) Billed as “a program that encourages kids to recognize their talents,” this role was right up Wayne’s alley. While starring in Cater Cousins, Wayne could not walk down the street or take public transportation in Pittsburgh; little kids recognized him everywhere he went. And some of them were visibly confused to see him outside the TV box.

Eventually Wayne faced the choice all actors of that day faced: New York or Los Angeles? Those were the only two cities in America where an actor could realistically (or semi-realistically) expect to build a career. Wayne was an east coast guy, but his biggest success was in television. So he headed for Los Angeles.

SURF AND TURF

Instead of television, Wayne landed at the Performing Tree in Los Angeles— an Artists in Schools grantee of the California Arts Council. Through Performing Tree, he led drama workshops for many years, and was often asked for written instructions so that his work could be duplicated after he moved on to the next workshop site. “So,” says Wayne, “I wrote down everything I’ve ever done with a group of kids.” This eventually became Center Stage: A Curriculum for the Performing Arts, published in 1993 by Dale Seymour Publications. Once it was picked up by the Texas Board of Education, schools from coast to coast ordered it. To date, Wayne’s teaching techniques have reached at least 86,000 American teachers.

He left Los Angeles for the Sacramento region when an intriguing opportunity presented itself: leading theater workshops for inmates at Folsom State Prison. Wayne’s outstanding work as an Artist Facilitator at Folsom brought him to the attention of Governor George Deukmejian—Wayne still isn’t sure exactly how—and the governor offered him an appointment as Special Assistant to the Director of the California Arts Council. So Wayne left prison (ahem) and in 1990 joined the staff of the CAC.

Governor Deukmejian was on his way out at that point, and generally a governor’s appointees walk out the door when he does. We had to jump through a few hoops to keep Wayne. But we managed to scoot him over from his appointed position to a civil service position on the programs staff—and have hung onto him ever since.

ALL YOU CAN EAT

Wayne’s unique life experiences made him invaluable to the California Arts Council. For over a quarter of a century he has been a leader in three of the most important services we offer this state: arts education, arts in corrections, and making arts accessible to all Californians, regardless of their ability or disability.

All that, and collegiality too…just the Halloween costumes the man came up with, year after year, have raised the bar to a height that may prove impossible for the rest of us to reach.

annie

So this Thanksgiving, we give thanks for Wayne Cook. And to Wayne Cook.

Thank you, Wayne, for 26 years of outstanding service to this agency and this state. We know we will move forward, and grow, and change, and achieve many things—but we will never see your like again. Live long, Cookie, and prosper.

 

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