Opportunity

Roxanne Cooke
6 min readNov 27, 2023

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A middle-aged white man in glasses, a light white jacket and black pants stands on a bridge overlooking a small marina
Gerald Cooke on Day Island Bridge in University Place, Washington

“Gerald Ralph Cooke, 49, of Tacoma, died August 5, 1990. He had resided here since 1956, moving from Spokane.”

The obituary was brief. Three paragraphs. Fewer than 100 words. No photo.

I expected as much. My family didn’t have much money and my dad’s death was sudden, unexpected — a car accident in Lake Cushman over the weekend.

Memories of this time are fuzzy, dreamlike.

My mom and 14-year-old sister, silent on the couch in our one-bedroom apartment.

The funeral. My grandmother’s gift of a Pound Puppy toy, which I fidgeted with during the service. Hard, wooden pews.

Returning home. Asking when my dad would be home. Getting yelled at by my mom.

Memories of my dad are even fainter. I’ve picked up bits and pieces over the years, whatever family happened to share.

My dad’s younger brother, Tom, offered to tell me more about him when I was entering adulthood. I finally took him up on that 18 years later — plus countless hours researching on my own.

It’s fitting that I should write an updated obituary for him to make up for the rushed one 33 years ago.

A young mom and infant sit on a plaid blanket in a backyard
Baby Jerry and mom Virginia, Spokane Valley, Wash.

Gerald, or Jerry, as friends and family called him, was born in 1941 in Spokane to parents Virginia and Ralph Cooke. They resided in the small town of Opportunity, east of Spokane and now part of Spokane Valley.

Two young boys in white shirts, dark pants and suspenders sit on either side of a see-saw
Jerry, left, and his younger brother Tom in Spokane Valley, Wash.

Jerry was the first of five children. Tom was next, and adored his older sibling.

“He was a good big brother and helped me a lot growing up,” Tom said. “He was smart and perceptive and had a special sense of humor. He had a special gift of being able to figure things out and understand them.”

A toddler boy sits in a stone bird bath, crying; another young boy stands next to him looking at the camera, unsmiling
Tom, sitting in the bird fountain, and Jerry, Spokane, Wash.

Before their mom Virginia passed away in 2016, she told me all about Jerry’s sense of humor and habit of carrying around newspaper clippings.

“Jerry was always … great for jokes. He had a good sense of humor. He used to [always] have a cartoon that he cut out or a joke to tell you or something. He always had something like that that tickled him.”

Tom tells me Jerry always had a good-natured prank up his sleeve, too. He invented a word: volb. He’d surreptitiously write it on chalkboards.

My dad must have felt empowered by this, because he later invented an entire candidate for student council — Neil Bowman. He made posters to convince the student body to vote for a peer who didn’t exist.

That school was the “Brown Castle,” Stadium High School.

Part of a yearbook page reading “Budding journalists kept busy writing” with a row of portraits underneath
Student newspaper staff, Stadium High School yearbook, 1958
Senior portrait of a young white boy. Text reads: “Gerald R. Cooke: Honor Roll, Shield Honor Society, World Staff Feature Editor, Red Cross Representative, German Club, Outside Employment, Entered from Harding High School, St. Paul, Minnesota.”

I found some of my dad’s yearbooks online and discovered he was on the newspaper staff as feature editor. Tom said Jerry wrote an extensive history of Stadium, and was a math prodigy.

My dad was a word person who also liked math and science? He challenged the stereotype.

He also worked as a page at the Pierce County Library branch in downtown Tacoma (which has long since moved). In an odd turn of events, Jerry left that job to become janitor for the branch. Tom said the pay was better. He would know: When my dad moved on, Tom took the janitor job. And after him, their younger brother Jim did the same.

After graduating from Stadium in 1958, Jerry studied at University of Chicago on a scholarship of $1,500 — a large sum, and rare, for the time. But he dropped out after only a year and returned home to Tacoma.

His next career pursuit was radio, and he moved to Umatilla, Oregon, to work as a DJ for a small station after he got his radio license.

“[Jerry] got a license as a first class radiotelephone operator,” Tom said. “It was a pretty big deal at that time, as a lot of people took that test and very very few passed it. His hustling name was Jay Cooke. The term ‘hustling’ is slang, and what I actually mean is the name Jay Cooke was his radio name.”

I appreciated the lesson in 1950s radio parlance.

My dad had been interested in electronics since childhood. Tom said when they were kids, he built simple radio sets and other electronics, including a device that would turn off TV sound during commercials.

Several months later, Jerry moved back to Tacoma and began working toward an engineering degree at University of Washington. But in the early 1960s, riding his scooter home from Seattle to Tacoma, he was in an accident on state Highway 99. It put him in a coma.

Young white man with glasses sits on a gas-powered scooter; his father stands next to him, hands on his hips
Jerry on his scooter with father Ralph in Tacoma, Wash.

His only sister, my aunt Sue, recalled getting the call about the accident. She was 11 at the time, visiting family in Spokane with their mother.

“It was awful and very scary,” she said. “They kept saying 50–50 chance. My parents would not let us go see him for a long time because he looked so bad. I’m not sure just how long he was in that hospital, but it was many many weeks, probably months. It certainly was a life-changing ordeal for our family.”

The brain damage caused personality changes. Jerry struggled socially and couldn’t hold a regular job. He joined the Air Force for a couple years, but was given a general discharge for failure to adjust.

Young mom and dad hold infant baby girl while posing for the camera
Paulette and Jerry with baby Cindy, 1969

At some point later he met my mom, Paulette, and they married in the late ’60s. Their first and second children, Cindy and Scott, sadly passed away very young. My sister Rose was born in the mid-1970s, and I followed nine years later.

I was only 5 when my dad died.

The dad I knew fed our cats breakfast from his plate. He smoked sometimes. He let me sit on his lap, but kept my curious hands away from the cigarettes and lighter in his shirt pocket. He drove a pale yellow Ford Galaxy. He yelled at me when I ran across the street without looking both ways first. He and my sister were thick as thieves and bonded over his bulky Commodore color computer they’d hook up to the TV.

I don’t remember much else. But seeing him in newspapers, yearbooks and other people’s memories will have to do.

Driving around Tacoma this summer, I willed myself to be transported back to the 1960s, to feel my dad’s presence on the same streets I inhabit today.

I wish I had known him. I wish I could smile knowingly when I hear about his sense of humor. I wish I could have seen him and my sister talk computer programming. I wish he could have met his grandson, now in the fourth grade.

“Certainly his life deserved better than was written,” Tom wrote me after I shared the obit. “You can be proud of your dad.”

My fourth birthday

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Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne is a storyteller, writer, editor and photographer based in Tacoma, WA.