Read two essays Professor Cook wrote about holidays with his family:

"The Great Condescension"

" Thanksgiving"

You may contact Bill at: wcook001@rochester.rr.com

Bill Cook '66 with sons Paul, Angel, and Gualberto.

"Even at his worst times, Paul knew he had
someone he could call.
That's the one thing he wouldn't have had if I
hadn't adopted him.
And that may have
saved his life."

 

 


Magazine
Winter/Spring 2001

Through Thick and Thin


by Steve Charles

When Angel Quintero was kicked off his high school basketball team for drinking, Bill Cook '66 was fighting mad. That may have been the best thing that ever happened for Cook's relationship with his adopted son.

"It wasn't that Angel hadn't done anything wrong, but the penalty had no relationship to the crime," the State University of New York--Geneseo's Distinguished Teaching Professor and historian says. "I thought the school hadn't treated him very well, so I went to the principal, the athletic director, the school board--I really went to the wall, invested everything I had."

And he lost.

But he won a more important victory for Angel, who was 14 when Cook adopted him. Placed in foster care as a baby after his biological father threw his little brother against a wall and cracked his skull, Angel had endured one unsuccessful adoption and numerous foster parents. His previous adoptive mother, aware of his father's crimes, had driven by a prison one day and warned Angel: "You better watch out, 'cause your dad's probably in there, and you might end up in there, too." The same woman later "unadopted" Angel after he was involved in some petty vandalism.

So when Cook adopted him in 1987, Angel had little reason to believe he was entering a permanent relationship. Their first Christmas was the fourth in a row Angel had spent with a different family, and although he realized the move to Geneseo was good for him, he had no intentions of getting attached to the latest model of parent to come his way.

He must have been surprised when this father stood by him.

"I think that really turned a corner for us,” Cook says. "He knew what he'd done was against my rules and the school's rules, and we talked about that. But seeing me fight for him said 'Okay, this guy's sticking with me through thick and thin.'"

Cook has been through a similar "testing" process with each of his three adopted sons. "I told myself that, unless I felt I was in physical danger, I'm going to stick with these kids, because that's what they need,” he says. To provide for his sons' needs, Cook also hooked them into his network of colleagues, friend, and students at his church and at the university, where the boys found their own confidants and role models.

But sometimes their needs called for a longer trip. In 1988, Cook took Angel and Gualberto, Cook's second son, to Puerto Rico. Cook hoped to instill in 17-year-old Gualberto, New York-born and despising all things Puerto Rican, some pride in his heritage. For Angel, who grew up on the island, the trip was a return to the neighborhood of his grade school days, a place which carried with it some haunting memories. Angel and his three siblings had lived with a foster family for years in the neighborhood. When Angel was in the fourth grade, his foster mother found her husband sexually abusing Angel's oldest sister. The children were removed immediately, never having said good-bye to neighbors and friends, and flown to New York.

"We found the neighborhood, and Angel even found one of his old schoolmates, and they chatted for a while," Cook recalls.

The house where Angel had lived with this foster family was being refurbished when Cook and Angel found it, so they walked inside. Angel moved slowly from one room to the next, pausing in each, while Cook watched and followed.

"It was a kind of ritual exorcism, to come back and put to rest some very bad memories," Cook explains. "And it really did help. I could see this burden had been lifted from him; when we walked out he sighed and said, 'It's over now.'"

Meanwhile, Gualberto was getting his first look at the island his biological family had called home. No longer peering at the commonwealth through the lens of movies and TV shows he'd seen depicting Puerto Ricans as drug pushers and thieves, he gained a new appreciation of his own history. For his high school graduation party later that spring, he asked his father for a cake in the shape and colors of the Puerto Rican flag. Cook was happy to comply with his request.

 

Ask Cook, noted medievalist, CASE Professor of the Year
for New York, author of St. Francis in America and co-author of The Medieval World View, why he goes to such lengths for his kids and he quickly turns the question to why he became a father.

"I was 35 years old, I was a tenured professor, I had my own house, and I hadn't met anyone I wanted to marry, and the odds dwindle on that search after a while," Cook says. "I really liked kids, and I really wanted to have kids." It never occurred to him in 1982 that a single male could adopt a child until he saw a TV feature that introduced viewers to children available for adoption. He investigated and found that his becoming an adoptive parent was a possibility. Soon he was poring over "scrapbooks" filled with photographs and descriptions of children eligible for adoption.

"It's very much like an arranged marriage: you have to commit to someone that you've either never seen or have only spent a day with," Cook says. "I picked this kid out, blond-haired and blue-eyed and from Indiana, just like me--a 16-year-old kid. I flew out to Indiana and Paul and I spent the day together."

"He would have come home with me if I'd had horns," Cook says, "partly because he wanted out of where he was living, this almost Dickensian workhouse, and partly because of unrealistic expectations: one of his friends had assured him that there'd be a brand new car waiting for him in my driveway!"

Paul wasn't the only one with confused expectations. "I think my friends had convinced me that, no matter what this kid's been through, he's going to arrive in this wonderful neighborhood, this loving family, a good support system, and he'll be so grateful that he comes around instantly. Of course, those things don't happen. It's hard to imagine how much emotional baggage a kid can bring--I certainly didn't imagine it. And we sort of struggled through it."

After a year and a half with Cook, Paul ran away, committed criminal trespass, and Cook had to bail him out of jail. Other crimes and disappearances followed.

"For two years, I had no idea where he was," Cook recalls. "I found out later he'd been homeless, sleeping under bridges. He finally called up, desperate, and he's been around on and off ever since."

Cook's response to his shattered expectations was to adopt Gualberto. "I don't know why I did it," Cook says. "I don't know if I was thinking, by God, I'm gonna get this right sooner or later; I don't know what it was."

But he learned through Paul that sometimes all you can do is to make your love known, and to hope.

"Even at his worst times, Paul knew he had someone he could call. That's the one thing he wouldn't have had if I hadn't adopted him. And that may have saved his life."

The experience made Cook painfully aware of how hard it is to be a single father.

"The hardest part of being a single parent is living in a house where you're the only adult. There's no one to talk things over with, and you've got to talk with someone. In my case it was my priest and friends. They did a lot of listening the first years I had kids. And remember--the child in a single-parent house has no one else to turn to, either."

So Cook relied on neighbors and friends to act as arbitrators.

"That's where having a network of friends and colleagues really matters. My sons met people they trusted to be objective—people who knew our situation and wanted our family to succeed. They let my son know where he was wrong. They let me know where I was wrong, too. You've got to give a little here, give a little there."

"It really does take a village to raise a kid,” Cook adds, and you can see the legacy of that network of friends in the lives of the professor's sons. Paul is working Georgia.

"Life will always be a struggle for him—he's got some burdens that he's just never going to get rid of," Cook says. "But he's doing okay, taking some college courses, and returns home occasionally for holidays.

Gualberto arrived at Geneseo "a tough Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx who was also very scared." He abhorred affection, and didn't like anyone to give him a pat on the back, much less a hug. Today, he's 33 and "the most affectionate kid in the world," with a hug for everyone.

Angel, 28, graduated from SUNY-Geneseo and is the community relations director for Children Awaiting Parents (CAP), a group that helps special-needs children get adopted. Cook adopted Angel through a CAP program, and today Angel appears on Spanish-language TV nationally for the group. He is married to a high school teacher and the couple are expecting their first child.

"On my most recent trip to Italy, I was running around like a crazy person buying little things for this unborn bambino," the expectant grandpa says. "We know he's a boy. His name is Gabriel."

 

Christmas at Bill Cook's house brings together 35 people and more diverse cuisine than you'd find at a United Nations conference. First there's Mass at 6 p.m., followed by a dinner that includes everyone's favorite foods. Angel and Gualberto eat Puerto Rican pasteles and sip cold bottles of malta. The Asian kids Cook helped raise favor special Korean candy and drink coconut, soybean, and pennywort sodas. Another child scoops up kiwi ice cream. And everyone loves the lasagne.

Then it's time for a movie of Bill's choosing. Past fare has included Irma la Duce, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Ozzie and Harriett reruns. The ritual includes obligatory groans from teens who'd rather watch Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jennifer Lopez, but everyone goes along. After all, dad's given them their favorite foods; the least they can do is sit through his dumb movies.

"I feel the presence of everyone and hear their distinctive laughs," Cook says. "That time of just being together may be my most pleasurable two hours of the year."

Christmas to Bill Cook is "the great feast of condescension." He's quick to erase the word's modern-day negative connotations. "Literally, it means something like 'coming down to be with,' and for Christians, that's what God did in a stable in Bethlehem--came to be one of us, to throw his lot in with us." Or, as Cook might say, "to stick with us through thick and thin." That devotion is a simple idea to state, but difficult to practice. Bill Cook and all his children gathered around the TV watching this year's Christmas movie--the Marx Brothers' slapstick classic Animal Crackers--can tell you that. It's a struggle that's sometimes painful, sometimes healing, but at Bill Cook's home this Christmas Eve, it's nothing but a belly laugh.

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