The Bill Cook not everyone knew
Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a two-part tribute to Bill Cook, who came to Ozark County in 1952 with his parents and sister and spent the rest of his life serving the public there through the extensive Theodosia Marina Resort his family developed during the next 71 years. He died Oct. 14.
While Bill Cook was active in his community and well-known throughout the area, there were things about him that many people may not have known.
For one thing, "He was a clothes horse," Nadine said, adding that Bill had three closets full of clothes, including more than a dozen suits. Gainesville resident Pat Funk, who served with Bill on the WRVEC board, said Bill would often attend meetings and events in a suit when other board members were dressed more casually.
And while most people would assume Bill's favorite sport was fishing on Bull Shoals Lake, given his life's work there, that wasn't the case most of the time because, when Bill was at TMR, he was too busy to fish.
But when the summer rush slowed down, he enjoyed fall and winter hunting and fishing trips afar with friends.
“The first time they let me go on a hunting trip, we were gone a month,” Nadine said. The grandmothers tended the kids. Most recently Bill and Nadine have hunted with their sons, daughters-in-law and other family members on land near Thornfield that Bill and Nadine bought several years ago.
“His favorite time of year was deer season,” Nadine said, “The last few years he never cared if he killed one or not.” He just enjoyed seeing the deer and turkey and being with his family.
Bill’s favorite getaway fishing trips were with Nadine, Pat Funk, Bret or other friends when they fished internationally – Puerto Rico, Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, and the wild waters of Brazil, Panama and Venezuela.
Pat Funk remembers once when they were fishing in a slough off a main river in the Brazilian jungle. “The deeper we got into the slough, the better the fishing. So we stayed way back there. Then the river went down and the water receded, and we couldn’t motor out of the slough,” Pat said. “We had to get out of the boat and wade in water that had piranha and crocodiles and snakes. It was quite an experience, and it was late at night when we finally got back to camp. But early the next morning, Bill was up and ready to go again.”
Pat and Bill played for several years with other hometown friends on a men’s pickup basketball team in Gainesville, occasionally competing in charity games against high school players.
Bill also farmed the Thornfield land, running 20 or so head of cattle and working in the hay. He and Nadine built a log home on the land and loved going home to it every night after the busy hubbub of the resort and grocery store. They especially enjoyed hosting family gatherings there for holidays and special times.
“He loved the farm,” Nadine said. “He always said the farm saved his life. Sometimes I never saw him all day. He would be painting fence or cutting trails for four-wheelers.” The Cooks’ friend Floyd Graham called Bill the “weekend farmer.” Nadine said another thing Bill liked to do at the farm was clean his tractor. “He loved that tractor,” she said.
Bill enjoyed all these things – but his “most wonderful thing to do,” Nadine said, was traveling with her and sometimes other friends. They traveled a lot. For 40 years, they took wintertime trips to Las Vegas and saw a wide range of top-tier entertainers there – including seeing Elvis Presley and Celine Dion twice. They also took driving trips – to Montana, Yellowstone, Canada, the Smoky Mountains and any other place in America they wanted to see. They also traveled to cities for business conferences. For their 60th anniversary four years ago, they took a Rhine River cruise through Europe.
“It’s been quite a life,” Nadine said.
There was sadness in that life, of course, especially when loved ones died. L. B. Cook died in 2002 at age 89, and Pauline died two weeks before her 90th birthday in 2003. Their daughter Becky and her husband divorced, and she moved back home in 2017. Tragically, she died unexpectedly due to an aneurysm in September 2021.
A hard-working next generation
Through the years, Bill and Nadine had worked at the resort alongside their family, and in the last several years they had gradually turned over more of the daily operation to them. They felt blessed to have two hard-working sons and two daughters-in-law who joined them in running the marina, motel, RV park, restaurant, grocery store and marine boat and motor repair shop. And now some of the grandchildren are involved in the business too.
When Bret was in high school, he worked with his dad at the marina. “He loved that marina,” he said. “Dad loved talking to everyone. I asked him one time, ‘How do you remember everybody’s name?’ And he said, ‘That’s how we were raised.’ That’s how he raised us too.”
Bret’s wife, Melanie (“Mel” to friends and family) got the same lesson when she joined the family. “I was 15 when I met Bill,” she said. “I came over for Christmas, and he had bought me a pink sweater.”
Mel, now 59, daughter of the late Milton and Anita Eacret, was 17 when she married Bret and went to work at the resort. From the beginning, she said, “Bill and I just really got along. He was my teacher and mentor, but he was also like a father to me because I moved here when I was so young.”
Mel began her resort career at the marina, where Bill taught her “how to communicate with people, how to care for customers,” she said. “He taught me to write up the [boat rental] tickets and told me, ‘The main thing is to memorize their name.’ I watched this man work, and I learned so much. He was the most honest man I ever met. He never cheated anyone.”
Bill told her when people are upset, the customer is always right, and she should treat everyone with respect – unless they’re drinking. Then, he said, “if there’s trouble, call me.”
Trouble was rare, and Mel said she never saw Bill “lose his cool” – except maybe that one time when she was pregnant and was working at the marina. It was a windy day, and some people had parked their boat on the side of the marina while they went to the restaurant to eat. Mel had warned them that there was no boat-bumper on that side of the dock and the wind might damage the boat. Sure enough, when they came back, the waves had knocked the boat against the dock and damaged the permit numbers on its side.
“The guy was mad. He said, ‘Your dock scratched my numbers!’ He called me a lying b____ and said, ‘You’re paying for new numbers!’” Mel said.
Bill was in the marina’s store that day and heard the angry boat owner yelling at Mel. “He jumped the counter... and told the guy, ‘If you ever speak to my daughter like that again, you will never be welcome back here.’ He was protecting me.” Mel said. Then she explained with a laugh, “Bill always called me his daughter. He never called me his daughter-in-law.”
Bill was “always very professional” as the TMR owner, and “everyone loved him,” Mel said. He also enjoyed a good laugh. Thirty-two years ago, when she hosted a surprise 50th birthday party for Bill on the marina, “400 people showed up, and the dock almost sank,” she said.
One of the guests was crazy friend Sam Kennedy, who arrived wearing striptease-dancer adornments on his chest. “Here he came, swinging those tassels,” Mel said. “Bill loved it.”
When the Cooks took over the restaurant after it had been sub-leased by others since opening in 1953, they re-named it Cookie’s, and Bill and Nadine worked together there. Bill especially enjoyed running the cash register, greeting guests and visiting with friends.
Nadine baked the pies and ran the kitchen – until they bought the grocery store. Then she moved up there to take charge, and Melanie stepped in to manage Cookie’s, continuing to learn from Bill as he interacted with customers and staff there.
Bill helped create an efficient but pleasant workplace, indicated by the fact that some of the waitresses, including Joyce Noah, Leah Zeller, Sis Green and Melisa Myers, worked at Cookie’s for decades.
“We had a blast with that man,” Mel said. As a result, she said, “The days went by fast, and the years flew by.”
Because they worked together so long, Mel misses Bill not only at family gatherings but also throughout the workday. “When you work together so many years, I could look at him, and he would look at me, and we would both know what the other was thinking. We could read each other’s mind. I don’t have anyone like that now,” she said.
The Cooks’ other daughter-in-law, Ben’s wife Vikki, first met Bill and Nadine in May 1999 – after working for them a year at Cash Saver Pantry. She’d seen them before that, of course, “but they seemed like just regular people. I didn’t realize they owned this and that,” she said.
When she started dating Ben and he took her to the farm to officially meet them, the Cooks’ African gray parrot Ricky, who roamed the house freely, found Vikki irresistible. “We were all sitting there, and Ricky kept running across the floor and attacking me,” she said. “Ben said, ‘Be still. He won’t hurt you.’ But he kept getting on me and biting my lip.”
Despite that unusual first meeting, Vikki married Ben, joined the family and, like Mel, became an important part of the business operation. She has worked at the grocery store for 25 years – eight years in the deli and then the last 17 years in the office alongside Nadine as manager. She said she “saw Bill mostly at family gatherings at the Thornfield farm. That’s what Ben and I cherish most,” she said, “when the family would get together and listen to Bill’s stories. Owning businesses, it’s so hard to get away and spend time with family, and that makes it even more precious. Bill loved having everyone together, whether it was to go hunting or at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or just whenever we could manage it.”
‘That’s between God and me’
About three years ago, as they were closing in on age 80, Bill and Nadine stepped back from their TMR and Cash Saver duties as Bill’s health became an issue. “We knew something was wrong,” Nadine said, “and then lymphoma showed up.”
They turned over the day-to-day resort and grocery store operation to their sons and daughters-in-law but still checked in every day – when they could.
Bill went through a rough year of chemotherapy. Then other health problems seemed to pile on. He developed a lung condition. He suffered a ruptured esophagus and had to be flown to Columbia. His weight dropped drastically, and it became obvious he couldn’t last much longer.
“Bill wasn’t a bitter person, but he was a little bitter at first when all this started,” Nadine said. But that feeling passed, and although his body weakened, Bill’s trademark spark of contented confidence seemed to grow stronger.
“The last couple of years, we saw a change in him,” Vikki said. “He was quieter, more at ease. He never wanted to talk about God, but if somebody asked, he’d say, ‘That’s between God and me.’”
Bill wasn’t a church-going man. “Growing up, his family always worked on Sundays,” Nadine said. But his family sensed he was secretly a man of faith.
Mel insists, “You’ll never meet a more religious, straightlaced man than Bill Cook.”
One day Bill surprised Vikki by asking, “Do you know who my best friend is?”
Vikki could have made several guesses, but she said no.
“It’s Dale Roberts,” Bill said, naming a Gainesville man who has spent decades of his life preaching the Gospel. “He’s been my best friend since I was a child.”
Vikki might have been surprised, but Nadine wasn’t. “He and Bill met when the Cooks first came down,” she said. Most recently, Dale, being a pastor, “worried about Bill being baptized,” she said. “But I told him, “Bill just doesn’t think like the average bear. He has no worries about death. None whatsoever.”
“We went to school together at Isabella,” Dale said when he was told what Bill had said. “We grew up together, and we’ve always been friends.”
Dale remembered a time, back in grade school, when he thought he was the fastest runner anywhere. “But then one day Bill caught me, and I just sat down and bawled and bawled,” he said laughing. “We graduated grade school and then high school together. We knew each other a long, long time.”
Dale said Bill had been on his heart a few months ago, and he drove over to Thornfield “trying to find him.” Dale found what he thought was their house, but it looked like no one was home, so he didn’t stop.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, he was making his regular pastoral trip to visit friends and other residents at the Gainesville Health Care Center. “I was walking through there and I looked down one of the hallways and thought, ‘Why don’t you go down that hall? You never go there,’ and when I did, the first door I saw had the name ‘William Bill Cook.’ I hadn’t known he was there,” Dale said.
“I went in and talked to him a bit. I was interested in how he felt spiritually,” Dale said. “He couldn’t walk, couldn’t do nothing. He just lay there, and we talked.”
Nadine and their family stayed near Bill during those difficult days. His sister Barbara visited too.
Bill reassured them, telling them he had no regrets. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said again and again. And they told him they felt the same about the life they’d all lived together.
“Right up to the end, Ben told his dad he loved him, and we know Bill heard him,” Vikki said.
After Dale Roberts saw Bill on Wednesday, Oct. 11, he went back again the next day. “I wanted to make sure Bill was at peace with God. That’s all I was worried about,” he said. “I asked him, and he assured me he was.”
Bill also told Dale, “I hope to get out of here and go home by Sunday.”
“At the time, I figured he was talking about his home with Nadine and the family,” Dale said. “And he did go home by Sunday. He died Saturday morning. And in my mind, he went to heaven. That’s his home now.”
Then he added, “I miss him, but I’m at rest, knowing that.”
Editor’s note: Bill Cook told his family he didn’t want a funeral. Instead he asked to be cremated and then buried alongside his parents and daughter in Lutie Cemetery with only family members present. That private service is planned.