When Samuel DuBois Cook was trying to convince his future father-in-law that he was worthy of his daughter, he would often show up at their home with a fresh melon.
That was part of Cook’s southern and gentlemanly charm. A brilliant scholar, who after becoming the first black tenured professor at any Southern college went on to lead Dillard University, Cook understood that food was good for the soul.
“Sam and (his wife Sylvia) used to always call us over to the house and cook fish,” said one of Cook’s best friends, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. “They both knew that we were in love with seafood, so they would cook us fish. That is all they cooked, fish.”
"Dr. Cook loved the Lord and he loved all people unconditionally," said his daughter, Karen Cook. "He told us to remember God is no respecter of persons and we should love and respect all people no matter their station in life."
His funeral was June 6 on his beloved campus in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. Robert Franklin, the former president of Morehouse College, will deliver the eulogy.
It will be a fitting sendoff.
Cook graduated from Morehouse in 1948, with Martin Luther King Jr.
The two friends – who had met each other in the tobacco fields of Connecticut, where there Baptist preacher fathers had sent them the summer before to earn school money -- had arrived on the Morehouse campus in 1944 as precocious 15-year-olds. It was part of an early-admissions program designed to help fill the classrooms that were ravaged when most of the upper classmen were drafted to fight in World War II.
Born in Griffin on Nov. 21, 1928 to the Rev. Marcus Emanuel (M.E.) Cook and Mary Cook, Cook became Morehouse’s student body president and founded the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
After graduating from Morehouse, and a brief stint in the army during the Korean War, Cook began his career as an academician.
In 1955 he taught political science at Southern University in Baton Rouge, before moving to Atlanta a year later to chair the political science department at Atlanta University.
“My wife, Carolyn, said he was the best teacher she ever had,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. “She got sick once and missed a lot of class, so she had to go to his office every day, where he gave her a series of private lectures until she caught up. Every lecture was just like the ones he had delivered in class. He was a wise, generous, efficient and loving professor, who tried to practice everything he was preaching.”
It was also at Atlanta University where Cook met Spelman College junior Sylvia Fields in 1957.
“He would be considered a nerd today, because he only talked about books. Early on, he missed a great portion of his social life because he was in school,” she said. “He was very shy, but very down to earth and friendly.”
But Fields’ father wasn’t completely convinced. So while courting Fields, Cook made sure he brought a farm fresh melon on his visits. On March 18, 1960, Cook and Fields got married.
In 1966, the couple moved to Durham and Duke University when Cook became the first African-American to hold a tenure- track appointment at a major Southern white university.
Between 1981 and 1993, Cook was on the Duke board of trustees. In 1997, the Samuel DuBois Cook Society was founded in his honor to promote the development of black studies at the school and in 2015, Duke created the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.
“(Cook) was the bearer of the vision of the beloved community and, throughout his life, worked for a society based on inclusion, reconciliation, and mutual respect for all," said Duke University President Richard Brodhead.
In 1974, Cook was named the fourth president of Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. He strengthened the curriculum, increased the percentage of faculty members with doctorates, increased student enrollment by 50 percent and started the first Japanese language studies program at an HBCU. In 1989 he created the Dillard University National Conference on Black-Jewish Relations. Later President Bill Clinton appointed him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
In 1993, Dillard named its new fine arts and communication center after him. He remained the school’s president until he retired in 1997 as president emeritus.
Aaron, who was trying to break into the big leagues at an age when he would have been in college, said Cook gave him a bit of the college experience by allowing him to walk across the stage at a Dillard commencement, when Aaron’s daughter graduated.
He said his background in sports and Cook’s in academics, meshed perfectly.
“He knew baseball as well as anybody,” Aaron said. “He was a student of the game, but we talked about much more than home runs and RBIs. We talked about civil rights. We talked about the role that baseball played in civil rights. He was a brilliant man.”
Aaron was the last man to play Major League Baseball who had also played in the Negro Leagues. And while a statue of him was being unveiled at the new SunTrust Field, the Billye Suber Aaron Pavilion was opening at the Morehouse School of Medicine funded by a $3 million donation that Aaron and his wife made to the school.
It was also at Dillard that the Cooks met Daisy Fuller Young, a former elementary school teacher and graduate of Straight College, which later merged with New Orleans University to become Dillard University. She was also the mother of Andrew Young.
“Sam was like a brother to me and Sylvia is like a sister,” Young said. “During the years that he was the president of Dillard, my mother and father adopted his family. They were constantly at my parent’s house and Sylvia learned all of my mother’s old Creole recipes.”
When Mrs. Young died, that old house that the Cook’s frequented so much, cooking and eating Creole food, was donated to Dillard.
Along with his wife and daughter, Samuel DuBois Cook is survived by a son, Samuel DuBois Cook Jr.; two grandchildren, Alexandra Renee Cook and Samuel DuBois Cook III; and his daughter-in-law Nicole Cook.