Ruth Cooke – Louisburg College’s basketball coach, women’s athletic director, health professor and teacher of tennis and square dancing and ping pong, among many sports – was the college’s heart for more than 40 years.
“Mother Superior,” then-President Allen Norris called her.
From 1949, when she arrived on campus as a 23-year-old to teach and coach, until long after she retired in 1988, Cooke mentored students, supported her colleagues and enjoyed being part of the college community.
Cooke, 91, died May 8. Her memorial service Thursday at Benson Chapel on Louisburg College’s campus brought together relatives, friends and former students, who told of her welcoming spirit, her love for teaching, and her enjoyment of the outdoors, whether by the grill or in her garden or walking the neighborhood.
Residents of Louisburg likely remember Cooke and her longtime friend and housemate, Sarah Foster, the college’s music teacher, walking their dogs, stopping to chat with neighbors and inviting them for a meal. Laughter always seemed to surround them.
When her former students learned of her death, the stories flowed in emails and on Facebook.
“I had her for health and P.E.,” one wrote. “I remember her asking me if I had ever played tennis. I said no. She said, ‘You do now. You’re on the intramural team.’ I told her I knew nothing about the game. She said, ‘That's why you're here: to learn. Now suck it up.’”
Others recalled Cooke’s patience with those who weren’t athletic. “I always hated P.E.,” one former student said, “but she made it enjoyable.”
President Mark La Branche dug through archives to find Dr. Norris’ tribute to Cooke in the mid-1980s for her years of service to the college. He called her a “teacher of students, coach of coaches, friend to all.”
Longtime baseball coach Russ Frazier recalled that Cooke was usually in the stands at sporting events, even flying to the College World Series when Louisburg College was playing. “She was always there for me,” he said.
David Vaughan, who graduated in 1976, became friends with Foster and Cooke and stayed in touch with the two as they aged. Cooke, he said, was “probably the most authentic person I’ve ever known. She was completely comfortable being who she was.” Always present with an inimitable smile and twinkle in her eye, Cooke was thoughtful and caring, he said. She delighted in mentoring students.
“She consciously chose happiness over desolation.”
Roger Taylor, a basketball standout and 1968 graduate, recalled his first day in her class. “Just because you’re a hotshot basketball player doesn’t mean anything to me,” she told him. Taylor later became her financial adviser. Cooke, he said, cared deeply about Louisburg College and the community, but not about how much money she had. In fact, Dr. La Branche reported, between 1959 and 1968, she gave more to the college than she made.
In 2007, Cooke’s family gave money to create the Ruth Cooke Gardens at the entrance to the Roger G. Taylor Athletic Center at Louisburg College. Cooke was so pleased with the tribute. Taylor recalled her response: “If anything is better than gardening, I don’t know what it is.”
In memory of Cooke, donations can be made to Louisburg College 501 N. Main Street Louisburg, N.C. 27549.