Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim!

Bill Cook Story: Ready, Fire, Aim!

by Bob Hammel

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Bill Cook epitomizes the American success story. His business ventures in medical devices, pharmaceuticals, genetics, real estate, retail management, and travel services have made him a billionaire. Yet, Cook continues to lead a modest life, involving himself in a variety of philanthropic activities that have included historic preservation and even a marching band.

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Bill Cook epitomizes the American success story. His business ventures in medical devices, pharmaceuticals, genetics, real estate, retail management, and travel services have made him a billionaire. Yet, Cook continues to lead a modest life, involving himself in a variety of philanthropic activities that have included historic preservation and even a marching band. This riveting story is the first-ever biography of the entrepreneur who, working from the spare bedroom of his Bloomington, Indiana, apartment in 1963 with a $1,500 investment, began to construct the wire guides, needles, and catheters that would become the foundation of the global multi-billion-dollar Cook Group. Biographer Bob Hammel, with extraordinary access to Cook, his files, and his associates, has created a vivid portrait of this modern, multidimensional Horatio Alger—quirky humor, widely varied interests, and all. Informative and inspiring, this book celebrates an exceptional self-made individual.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Bill Cook Story is as exciting as any championship series. Told by a master storyteller, the narrative sweeps the reader through the personal and private lives of Bill and Gayle Cook." —Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 106, no. 4, December 2010

Philanthropy UK Newsletter
"... Given unlimited access to the subject and his wife, the author is able to paint a particularly intimate portrait... [Readers] will emerge with many insights into the mind of a generous, though probably atypical, American businessman." —Beth Breeze, Publications Editor, Philanthropy UK Newsletter, September 2008

— Beth Breeze, Publications Editor

Bloomington Herald Times

"Hammel's engaging book is a tribute to a remarkable man." —Bloomington Herald Times

Indiana Magazine of History

"The Bill cook Story is as exciting as any championship series. Told by a master storyteller, the narrative sweeps the reader through the personal and private lives of Bill and Gayle Cook." —Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 106, no. 4, December 2010

Angelo Pizzo

"Bill Cook is a great American success story.... Not only is Cook's journey from garage tinkerer to extraordinary wealth a great yarn, it reveals interesting lessons in how success is achieved and how it is defined.... I learned a lot from him." —Angelo Pizzo, writer and producer, Hoosiers

Michael Koryta

"Bill Cook's amazing life and career become both fascinating and inspirational in the hands of Bob Hammel. A must-read biography." —Michael Koryta, novelist

Robert Schmuhl

"Thanks to Hammel, Cook as inventor, entrepreneur, preservationist, and philanthropist truly comes to life—and readers come to know a fascinating Hoosier and American." —Robert Schmuhl, author of In So Many Words

Philanthropy UK Newsletter - Beth Breeze

"... Given unlimited access to the subject and his wife, the author is able to paint a particularly intimate portrait... [Readers] will emerge with many insights into the mind of a generous, though probably atypical, American businessman." —Beth Breeze, Publications Editor, Philanthropy UK Newsletter, September 2008

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Indiana University Press
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Read an Excerpt

The Bill Cook Story

Ready, Fire, Aim!

By Bob Hammel

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Bob Hammel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35254-5


Playing in Peoria

Billy Cook spent first grade in nine schools, in nine towns. He averaged entering a new town and a new school every month in and around his family's uprootings and moves.

That explains it all, of course. No wonder the William Alfred Cook who survived that year is so ...



Eternally curious?

Stubborn? Temperamental, even?


Is there room in there for ...


If that sputtering scholastic start really was what made Indiana businessman Bill Cook a billionaire, and the word got around, there'd be peripatetic parents botching up school enrollment patterns all over the country.

A Widow at Twenty-three

The Great Depression was tightening its chokehold on America when Cook was born in Mattoon, Illinois, on Tuesday, January 27, 1931, the first and only child of George and Cleo Cook. He arrived on what his mother remembered as an unusually warm day for January. She also remembered the sound of an Illinois Central Railroad train whistle blowing somewhere close at the very moment of her son's birth, 6:10 PM. His dad couldn't be there; he was in Wisconsin making rural sales calls on his $10-a-day Depression job.

In not just Mattoon but all across the globe, January 27 was a newsy day involving historic figures. The front page of the New York Herald- Tribune that morning had items on FDR (not yet a president), Winston Churchill (a supplanted national leader at his political nadir, booed in the House of Commons that very day), Mahatma Gandhi (after a victory by hunger strike), Pierre Laval (on the day he went into office as premier of France, which fourteen years later hanged him as a Nazi collaborator), Haile Selassie, Calvin Coolidge, and even a Hoosier—author Booth Tarkington (he had cataract surgery that day). It was an impressive alignment of historic figures involved in newsworthy things on that one January day, and Cleo Cook kept that paper around as a treasure, the kind of things mothers have tended to do since at least as far back as Luke 2:19 ("Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart").

On that day in 1931, there surely was no happier new mother anywhere on the globe than baby Bill's. Cleophus Javay DeLong Orndorff Cook was 38, a strikingly attractive woman for whom life had taken a devastating turn almost two decades earlier. She was born to Charles and Ada South DeLong on August 9, 1892, at Neoga, Illinois. At 21, she married a young man from a prosperous Mattoon family who was already on the rise in his own career as an employee in the thriving railroad business. "I understand he was a very nice guy," Bill Cook says. Just two years after the marriage, Harry Orndorff collapsed at work and died of what today probably would be called a congenital heart condition. At 23 Cleo Orndorff was a widow, her apparently settled world and promisingly comfortable financial future abruptly altered.

"She was very young, and he was from a family with more money than hers—they owned properties and businesses," Gayle Cook says. "But he died, and there she was. She had a lot of gumption."

Her decision: "She went to secretarial school to acquire a skill so she could work," Bill said. "Then she went to Chicago by herself to find a job, and she lived in an Eleanor Club. They were residential clubs, founded in 1898, to provide safe residence for genteel young working women. They were protected at night, and there was camaraderie—she had friends there she kept in touch with all her life. Those clubs existed until 2001. One that she lived in was next-door to what now is the Playboy Mansion."

She did well as a secretary, working her way to a job in the brand-new, glistening white Wrigley Building downtown, where she worked directly for chewing gum magnate William Wrigley (not yet involved with the Cubs, hence his name not yet on the landmark ballpark that still bears it).

Cleo DeLong Orndorff didn't rush into a second marriage. "It took me a long time to get over Harry," she told Gayle Cook.

"She often said to me she was glad she hadn't had a child," Bill Cook said. "It would have been difficult for her to earn a living in Mattoon. She said it was far better that she went to Chicago and made a life for herself."

George Cook—George Alfred Cook, son of Alfred Cook, the one who brought the family name to the United States from England (his own first name perpetuated as middle names of not just son George but also grandson William and great-grandson Carl)—was born March 13, 1894, in New York State, but he grew up in Peoria.

One day, young George was clinging to a wire on the back of a trolley when he fell off and broke both wrists. "From then on, his wrists were locked," Bill said. It didn't cost him any strength. "It was unreal how hard he could throw a bowling ball. And it never really bothered him in doing his job. My dad was strong-willed, a very good-looking guy."

George Cook served in the army for two and a half years during World War I. One letter he sent home to his mother was published in the Peoria Star because of his candid humor. He was Corporal George Cook then, of Company D, Second Balloon Squadron, and he wrote of his sports experiences in the army:

The village we are billeted in is full of French soldiers and we have great times together. One night we played duck on a rock and we were all right except for a few broken fingers. We have to play their games as they are positively no good at our game, baseball. They just can't seem to learn.

"Dad played baseball in the good Peoria leagues when he was growing up," Bill said. "In those years, before World War I, Peoria had terrific baseball."

George Cook was a sergeant when he was in an artillery battalion commanded by First Lieutenant Everett Dirksen. It was a relationship George cherished through the years as Dirksen ascended in national government and Republican politics—an eight-term Illinois congressman, then four-term senator and ten-year Senate minority leader, renowned for balance, leadership, good humor, and one undying quip about governmental life: "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."

"I never met Dirksen, but they were friends," Bill said. "He was born and raised in Pekin (just south of Peoria), and that group of men he commanded was out of Peoria.

"One of the last things Dad did in his life was go to Akron, Ohio, for a reunion of his battalion. When he came back, he said he had met with Dirksen. I'll never forget that. Dad was so content that he got to see him and all the buddies he had been in the war with. It was the first time I ever saw my Dad really proud of doing something that very few people did.

"Dad got hurt very badly in the war. He was gassed, and he also had a head wound. There was some question in his mind whether they ever put a plate in his head. He said, 'Sometimes I can feel something up there, but I don't know if they put a plate in or not.'"

After the war, he became a buyer of men's apparel at Marshall Field's in Chicago. He was working for Western Electric when he met Cleo, and on June 29, 1923, in the Warren Avenue Congregational Church in Chicago, the chaplain of the Eleanor Club where Cleo was living officiated at their wedding.

Baby Makes Three

Almost eight years after the marriage, son Bill was born.

"He was their only child, born when his mother was pretty close to 39," Gayle Cook said. "She was wrapped up in that child. That figures."

"I was a mother's boy," Bill said. "My father was a disciplinarian—he was very proud of me as I grew up, being an athlete, my grades, just in general how I behaved."

His mother was the bigger influence on what the son became. "My mother taught me religion and to try to be a good person. My dad was a very good person as well, hard to get to know, in some respects. He was somewhat reserved, had a temper. He was a big man, very strong. I was afraid of him, because of his size. He could take a 100-pound bag of seed and throw it twenty feet—it was just incredible what his bulk could do.

"He weighed about 265 pounds, and it was good weight. He could hit golf balls farther than you could believe. He was an excellent bowler. In golf he would shill people now and then. He'd hit a few duffer shots and then say to a person, 'Would you like to play for ten bucks?' Dad had a good sense of humor, but he really hated phony people. If guys just struck him the wrong way, he took 'em. I saw him do it."

Young Bill's first years were in the Great Depression. George paid the family bills with the job that forced all those first-grade moves. He went farm to farm, knocking on doors, meeting farmers and convincing them the product he had was worth the hard-earned dollars they had to pay him.

Radio station WLS—50,000 watts, clear channel—boomed out of Chicago as the hub to a wide area of farmers in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. That was the place most of them got their vital farm information, on grain prices and other rural economic necessities—including weather. When tornadoes or storms approached, during emergencies and catastrophic events, WLS was the place farmers went. That's why it was governmentally designated as a clear-channel station, no one else allowed to operate on its dial number.

The station also published a magazine for farmers, Prairie Farmer. Dozens of times a day its announcers used the on-air identification: "This is WLS, the Prairie Farmer station." A subscription to the magazine, its information as vital for farmers as the radio station's, was what George Cook sold—that, and a related insurance policy against a rampant threat of the day, rural theft, covering homes, crops, and outbuildings. Coverage came with membership in the Prairie Farmers Protective Association.

Bill Cook keeps in his office one of the association's membership placards that his father gave to his customers. "You put it on your barn door, or you put it on your car, and for $10 a year, if somebody stole something—up to $1,000—you were covered by insurance. Plus, the 'protective' part was they would send somebody out to see if they could track down the bad guys."

Even in the Depression, George Cook found a market for what he was selling. But what he was selling covered a full year, and it didn't take him long to go through a new area. He'd work a territory, then move on, taking his wife and son with him. "He'd set up in a community, go out and sell the community, and have to move on," Bill Cook remembers. That's why, in the academic year of 1937-38, son Bill was a first-grader in

Plymouth, Indiana
Logansport, Indiana
LaSalle, Illinois
Peru, Illinois
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
Cassville, Wisconsin
Hazel Green, Wisconsin
Princeton, Illinois, and
Metamora, Illinois

Hazel Green—so green, so small, so pretty—lives on in Bill's memory as his favorite, a town with a population barely over 1,000 just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border and within ten miles of Iowa. "That was such a nice place. I loved it. Leaving there was kind of traumatic because I really enjoyed the town and the kids there."

They lived mostly in the cheapest hotels they could find, in one room. There was not a lot to pack up when moving time came, no lease to break.

"Those were tough times. My dad and mother were big people, and it was hot. I don't know why they didn't get a cot or put me on the floor. We slept three in a bed."

A twinkle, a start of a smile:

"That's probably why I don't have any brothers or sisters."

In each of those nine towns, he entered a new teaching system and made new acquaintances. "I'd meet these friends, and they wouldn't be friends very long. Pretty soon we'd be taking off."

One more move with Prairie Farmer took the Cooks to Peoria, Illinois, where the vagabonding ended. Peoria, Bill remembers, is where "Mom finally said, 'George, that's enough! We can't do this anymore.'"

The family of three moved back into the Peoria home of George Cook's parents, who several years earlier had taken George and Cleo in for a while when Chicago proved too expensive for them during the worst days of the Great Depression.

No Bullying Problem

George Cook remained with Prairie Farmer for two more years. "I went to second and third grade in Peoria," Bill remembers.

Somehow all those moves didn't take an expectable educational toll. Cleo Cook was meticulous in preserving pictures, clippings, and other memorabilia from Bill's childhood. Included is a note she got early in their first school year in Peoria, from his second-grade teacher:

Mrs. Cook,

I've been thinking about placing Billy in ending-second. He seems more advanced than his class and I believe he would get along in the work very well. In a reading test that I gave him today, he showed 3rd grade reading ability. He seems so eager to work and finished everything so quickly that perhaps he would be more satisfied in the ending-second class. You can let me know what you think about doing this. I haven't said anything about it to Billy, yet.

Cleo and George Cook said no, thank you, preferring to keep him with his classmates, though they must have been happy and almost relieved that all the moving if anything might have actually helped in their son's education. "It wasn't inhibiting, obviously," Cook says. "But a lot of other people caught me later." There wasn't a social toll, either. "I was somewhat outgoing. I wanted to have friendships. One way of doing it was just by being friendly. I never had any problem with anybody bullying me, because I was usually bigger than most kids in the class."

The summer after his third-grade year was epochal for both Bill and his parents. His mother would give him eight cents every Saturday to ride a trolley downtown to the YMCA and back. There he learned to swim and, in the process, how to respond to pressure. He was just plain bigger than most boys in the swimming class, but he also carried extra weight. "My friends teased me about being fat. I was embarrassed." On the last day of the class, the "final exam" was to swim the full length of the pool. He wasn't first up. "Four or five of my friends tried and failed to make it. Nothing was going to stop me." He swam the length of the pool and was the first to get his certificate signifying course completion. Eventually, everyone made it, "but I was the first. And my friends stopped teasing me."

That was the summer George Cook left Prairie Farmer and went into business for himself. "My dad had a friendship with a banker in Trivoli, Illinois [between Peoria and Canton]. In 1939 Dad got a $2,500 loan from him so he could buy three grain elevators." Almost immediately, George had to tear down one of the three, keeping a 30,000-bushel elevator at Norris and a 40,000-bushel elevator at Fiatt—each about five miles from Canton. The family moved twenty-five miles southwest from Peoria to Canton almost as soon as the deal for the grain elevators went through. That business sustained the Cooks for the rest of young Bill's educational years, up through high school at Canton—population under 15,000 and the community Bill Cook has always cherished as his real home town.

It was an introductory time for George Cook with Depression-pinched Canton area farmers. "Dad was very careful with his money. And I always admired him as a businessman—always very fair with everything he did. He played the market [the grain market, by radio, WLS]. He'd try to sell at exactly the right time—by phone, with the Chicago Board of Trade. He'd deal with a broker. Whenever Dad had a good day, we'd go out and eat."

Nine-year-old Bill had his own self-introducing to do. In the fall of 1940, he had a whole new group of classmates to meet and get to know at Central Elementary School in Canton.

"Bill was a very good student," remembers Gloria Saurbaugh—Gloria Pschirrer now but still "Glo" to friends, as she was from childhood. "He more or less took over the class. There was some resentment—'the new kid on the block.' But that didn't bother Bill. He wasn't bashful." Didn't bother Gloria, either. "In fact, I was pretty impressed."

There was no Little League baseball then, but young Bill found plenty of playground competition in Canton—neighborhood things: touch football, softball, basketball. And there were new impressions to make.

Confidence from his swimming conquest in Peoria helped. In fourth-grade gym class the challenge was to climb a rope from the gym floor to a beam high overhead. "It must have been forty feet up. Same thing—several guys went ahead of me and failed. Couldn't make it." Halfway up, his own arms aching and breath short, "I thought about giving up and coming down." Instead, he held his place for a few breath-catching seconds, then started to climb again and made it all the way up. Same result as Peoria: newfound respect. "My acquaintances became friends—lifelong friends I still see frequently, guys who have been a part of my life since way back then in childhood."


Excerpted from The Bill Cook Story by Bob Hammel. Copyright © 2008 Bob Hammel. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bob Hammel served as a sports editor and columnist on Indiana newspapers for 50 years. For 30 of those years he was sports editor and columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times. The recipient of many honors and awards for sports writing, he is the author of eight books, including Beyond the Brink with Indiana (IUP, 1987) and A Banner Year (IUP, 1993). With Bob Knight, he co-authored Knight: My Story. Hammel lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

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