Former real estate mogul William A. Cooke was a man of vision. As a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 1924, Cooke passed his bar exam on his first try, and shortly thereafter formed his own practice in Louisa, fulfilling a childhood dream.
In the 1930’s, amidst economic turmoil, Cooke looked out on the empty fields of Louisa and saw value. Borrowing more than $1 million, Cooke invested in and eventually sold vast plots of land for a massive profit that made him one of Louisa’s wealthiest residents.
So, when Cooke started up the William A. Cooke Foundation in 1972, he likely had dreams of it becoming a driving force of generosity and assistance in the community.
Now, the foundation’s accomplishments may have even exceeded the lofty goals set by its idealistically-minded creator. Since Cooke’s passing in 2001, the foundation has given away more than $2.5 million, pouring funds into worthy causes throughout the community and charitable organizations nationwide.
“I don’t think I realized at the time how big this foundation would be,” Cooke’s longtime assistant Becky Cavanaugh said of her thoughts when the foundation was formed. “I knew Mr. Cooke was a wealthy man, but I didn’t envision [the foundation] going on like it is doing now.”
The foundation has come a long way since 1972 – when Cooke put down $500 to have it incorporated – thanks to an unparalleled work ethic Cooke developed during his youth, working in the tobacco fields on his family’s Bumpass farm from sunrise to sunset.
That ethic was further solidified during Cooke’s teenage years. Though sent to a convalescent home, stricken with tuberculosis, Cooke used the vast amounts of down time during his recovery to study textbooks of law. When he passed the bar exam, he was one of the youngest licensed lawyers in the state.
And it was Cooke’s real estate savvy that generated the bulk of Cooke’s fortune and subsequent ability to assist others. Opening his real estate firm, William A. Cook Inc. in 1950, he proceeded to buy more than 5,000 acres throughout the state. When companies came looking for land years later, Cooke reaped the benefits of the surging value of property in Louisa.
“There’s so much talk today of affordable housing,” Cooke’s longtime accountant and current William A. Cooke Foundation president Chuck Tingler said. “He furnished so many people with affordable housing before it was a popular thing to do.”
It was during that same time that Cooke began making large donations to charitable causes across the town, something that Tingler only became aware of due to his monitoring of Cooke’s finances.
“When I would do his tax returns, he would have all these lists of charities he had donated to,” Tingler said.
“Mr. Cooke was a behind -the-scenes person,” Cavanaugh added. “I was a little in awe, because he reached out to all walks of life.”
Take a walk through Louisa and one would be hard-pressed to avoid a building or organization not impacted by Cooke’s generosity. The Louisa Arts Center, Louisa Town Hall and Sargeant Museum are just three of countless recipients of financial assistance and leadership from Cooke throughout his life. Even national causes, such as the Shriners Hospitals for Children or the St. Labre Indian School, were also targets of Cooke’s generosity.
Since Cooke’s death 13 years ago, the foundation has maintained the steady pace of giving set off by its namesake. In 2013, the William A. Cooke Foundation donated $261,000 to 19 various associations and causes. On average, Tingler said the foundation contributes more than $200,000 annually.
To read the entire story, see the March 20 edition of The Central Virginian.