Good sportsmanship is appropriately the key selection criteria for the James Cook Memorial Scholarship, established this year in memory of a longtime Wilkes County businessman and supporter of athletes and athletics. (Details about the first two recipients of the scholarship are in a story on page 5.)
People who knew James Cook best remember his selflessness, his emphasis on relationships and his unheralded generosity. Cook, who died on Dec. 22, 2018, was a smart retailer who understood the importance of giving back to the community, nurturing customer loyalty and having a long-term view.
Cook’s expanded as a sporting goods store as popularity of community team sports in Wilkes grew, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s with Little League baseball and Wilkes YMCA youth (“Mite” and “Midget”) basketball and more recently with Wings of Wilkes soccer and “travel” youth baseball, softball and basketball.
Through the decades, Cook’s has kept local and area athletes equipped with some of the latest and best sports gear and apparel. The team side of the business grew to serve over 200 schools, colleges, recreation departments and youth travel teams in North Carolina.
Wilkes County Schools Athletic Director Chris Skabo remembers Cook as a champion for athletics in Wilkes and elsewhere.
“He loved being able to work in an industry where he could provide equipment and support for the 3-year-old soccer player all the way up to the college athlete.”
Skabo and others said Cook, an athlete at Wilkes Central, had a passion for high school sports and was an ardent supporter and follower of athletics at all of the Wilkes high schools. As an adult, he and a few buddies often traveled to highly-touted high school matchups.
“He always told me that if there was ever a student in need of some equipment to always ask him. I did this on many occasions and he always took care of what was needed. However, he didn’t want it known where the equipment came from. He did not want the recognition. He just wanted the boy or girl to have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
Skabo added, “Wilkes County is a better place because of James Cook.”
Vaughn Hayes of North Wilkesboro, a retired Lowe’s Companies Inc. executive, said the early years of his close friendship with Cook included when they coached Mite League basketball teams at the Wilkes YMCA and were members of the Wilkes Y’s Men’s Club over 40 years ago.
Hayes said Cook greatly limited playing time of his best players when they faced Hayes’ team, which hadn’t won a game so far that season. “That night, my guys were so excited to still be in the game at the halftime,” said Hayes.
Hayes described Cook as a “quiet guy who would always be there and deliver if anybody needed anything.” He added, “James was a kind person. Not many people knew he would give sports equipment to the kids who otherwise could not afford to participate.”
Cook and Attorney Gary Vannoy of North Wilkesboro were friends since high school and shared coaching duties on the same Y team. Both went to Mars Hill College when it was a two-year junior college, with Cook transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vannoy to Wake Forest University.
Vannoy noted that Cook served on the local hospital and other boards. He was an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro.
He said Cook also provided many young people with valuable opportunities over the years by hiring them for summer jobs and at other times on a part-time basis at Cook’s.
“And Beverly (his wife) was right there with him. James had a lot of respect for her opinions” on business and other matters. James and Beverly Beshears Cook were married for 54 years.
Vannoy added, “And if a kid came in and was a member of a team and couldn’t afford a helmet or a glove, James would see that they got one.”
Cook’s father, Flake Cook, and Bob Kite began what now is Cook’s Inc. as Carolina Home and Auto Supply in downtown North Wilkesboro in 1946. James Cook began working there part-time when he was 12 and fulltime after graduating from UNC-CH with a business degree in 1964. The Cooks bought out Kite’s interest and changed the name to Cook’s Inc. in the late-1960s. Cook’s moved to West Park and increased its emphasis on sporting goods in 1974.
Mark Cook, a 1991 graduate of Guilford College with business and accounting degree, later joined his father and grandfather at Cook’s after a five-year stint at Lowe’s that included working as an assistant store manager.
Mark Cook attributes the longevity of the business to adapting and changing with the times, having an outstanding sales staff and a supportive community and an emphasis relationships.
He said that after the scholarship was created, he learned that his father had talked to Skabo about establishing a scholarship recognizing sportsmanship in the fall before he died.