A life well-lived . . . Bill Cook was 'a friend to everybody'
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part tribute to Bill Cook, a leader in the Theodosia community and head of the family that, for 71 years, has operated what is now Theodosia Marina Resort on Bull Shoals Lake.
Bill Cook was “just shy of 11 years old” in June 1952 when he and his dad, L. B. Cook, arrived in the family’s 1948 Dodge Desoto at what was becoming Bull Shoals Lake at Theodosia. The Cooks were moving from Joplin to Ozark County to develop a Corps of Engineers concession site – boat dock, restaurant and motel – at the northern tip of the lake that had begun filling a few months earlier behind the recently completed Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas.
From that first June night until early September, Bill and his dad, along with a hired carpenter they had brought with them from Joplin, slept “under the stars – literally, without a tent,” Bill said in a 2022 interview with the Times.
Although it was close, the water wasn’t visible from their campsite because of the weeds – “taller than my head” – that grew there in the riverside bottomland, Bill recalled.
Snaking through the tall weeds, young Bill would come to the water of the rising lake that would play center stage in his life for the next 71 years.
When Bill Cook died Saturday, Oct. 14, at age 82, some who knew him well might have imagined that he had lakewater in his veins.
‘He thought it was heaven’
A two-part Times feature, published March 9 and March 16, 2022, told the story of the Cook family’s 70 years in business around that site where Bill and his dad first slept under the stars in 1952. Bill helped his dad and the hired carpenter build the first boat dock – a small office and 10 stalls that would soon hold the dock’s 14-foot aluminum Lone Star boats with 5 or 10 horsepower motors.
When the boat dock’s office was under roof, L.B., Bill and the carpenter slept there until L.B. brought his wife Pauline and Bill’s older sister Barbara from Joplin that fall and they moved into a nearby rent house.
The Cooks – all four of them – worked hard, determined to fulfill their contract with the Corps despite tremendous losses and setbacks. In the 2022 Times story, Bill said the lake-dependent business – today known as Theodosia Marina Resort – “went dry, washed away, burned out and flooded” during their early years.
Still, Bill always recalled his family’s life in Theodosia as a wonderful thing. “For a young lad to come to the hills and live here, it was just unbelievable,” he said.
“He thought it was heaven,” his sister, now Barbara Wehrman, said recently. “And he told me he felt sorry for me because it wasn’t heaven for me.”
Barbara was heading into her sophomore year in high school when the Cooks arrived here. “It was hard to get acquainted. And there was no time to do anything but work. It was just the four of us the whole time back then, and we worked our tails off,” she said.
As the family began its first year of what seemed like back-to-back challenges on the lake, Barbara endured an hour-long ride on the school bus that, for a while, had to backtrack from the west bank of the lake, around through Thornfield and then south on Highway 5 to get to school in Gainesville. The long ride was necessary that year because the lake had risen enough to cover the old bridge at Theodosia, but the new bridge wasn’t finished yet.
Bill attended the one-room school at nearby Lutie before transferring to the two-room school at Isabella a little later when it was possible to cross the lake.
The other problem was that “we didn’t have any money,” Barbara said. “Not that we were wealthy in Joplin, but here, everything we had was put into getting the resort started.”
She remembers that a few months before her senior year started at GHS, “My class ring came to the post office. But it was $18 C.O.D. [cash on delivery]. When I went home and told Mother, she said we just didn’t have the money to get it yet,” Barbara said. “We had to get used to that kind of thing.”
High school romance
The fall after Barbara graduated in 1955 and headed off to college, Bill started high school in the old school building on what is now Elm Street in Gainesville. In the late Madge Parker’s English class, held in a small room at the foot of the old school’s wide staircase that opened onto the gym, Bill always had trouble focusing on the lesson. The problem was that he wasn’t all that interested in English lessons, and, from where he sat, he could see the girls’ PE class working out in the gym. One girl, in particular, caught his eye.
“He decided he liked me,” said the former Nadine Bushong, his GHS classmate.
The daughter of Doin and Ray Bushong, Nadine was born in Almartha shortly before the family moved to Gainesville. She thinks her first date with Bill was going to a show at Baxter Theater in Mountain Home, Arkansas, with Bill’s Theodosia friend Jarrett Robertson and his date, Ramona Stone. She and Bill were both 15.
Shortly after that, when Nadine turned 16, they dated in her car, with Nadine doing the driving. “Dad always made sure I had a car, and I’m three months older than Bill. So I could drive before he could,” she said.
They continued dating throughout high school. But Bill had to work at the marina, and one of his jobs was cleaning the rental boats – sometimes up to 100 of them – after fishermen came in off the lake. That meant Bill was often late picking up Nadine in Gainesville for their date at the movie theater in Mountain Home. The custom then was for theaters to show the film a first time starting around 7 p.m., and then immediately show it a second time for the “late show.”
Nadine got used to the routine. “Every movie we saw, we saw from the middle to the middle,” she said.
She and Bill dated until their senior year in high school. And then, on Oct. 30, 1958, a Thursday, they drove to Mountain Home and were married in the Methodist Church. Nadine wore the diamond ring they had picked out together. “Bill had saved his money from washing boats to pay for it,” she said. “It cost $125.” And she wore a dress she’d bought at Johnson’s Store in Gainesville. Their mothers were the only others in attendance at the brief, simple ceremony that took place 65 years ago this week.
Afterward, the four of them returned together to Ozark County, and the newlyweds settled in with Nadine’s parents in Gainesville. They didn’t tell any of their friends for a while. Bill continued to work at the boat dock on weekends and school holidays, and they both continued their senior year in high school, where Bill played on the basketball team and Nadine was head cheerleader – until pregnancy-related illness forced her to the sidelines. She continued her studies until spring, when her increasing size became an obvious problem.
“I quit,” she said. “But [superintendent M.J. Luna] was saying, ‘No, no, no.’ He got me courses and stuff to work on, and I got my diploma.”
She officially graduated with the class of 1959, but her advanced pregnancy meant she didn’t get to march in the graduation ceremony with her husband and classmates. “I sat in the bleachers,” she said.
Their daughter Becky was born June 17, 1959.
‘Everything we had, we had to rent’
During those first years, phone service wasn’t available for the Cooks’ business in Theodosia. “Bill would have to go to the telephone office in Gainesville to get the calls,” Nadine said. “Then, for a while, they had the calls sent to Mom and Dad, and Bill would pick up the reservations there.”
That was fine with the Bushongs. “I used to say that my mom liked Bill more than she did me!” Nadine said.
Later that same year, 1959, L.B. and Pauline Cook bought a piece of property above the Theodosia campground from Armand Janian and built a house there. When they moved into it, Bill, Nadine and little Becky moved next to the boat dock into the houseboat where Bill had lived with his sister and parents for several years. Continuing that tradition, Bill and Nadine lived there with their own children, including Ben, born in 1962, and Bret in 1964.
The kids “wore life jackets all the time,” Nadine said. “And they all fell in.”
As the kids were growing up, Nadine said, “I never knew of Bill spanking anyone. Never. But he would tell them to go into the bedroom and wait. Then he’d go talk to them, and you never heard so much bawling.”
Bret said recently that his dad “was just one of those guys who made you respect him, one of those guys you just didn’t want to disappoint. That was the main thing.”
Later the Cooks built some cottages for the resort and a house for themselves. “We lived in our house until Bret graduated from high school. Then we moved into a mobile home and rented the house,” Nadine said. “Everything we had, we had to rent.”
Illustrating her point, Nadine recalled a time when they owned a pontoon boat and planned to take it out for a fun day on the lake before the kids had to go back to school. “I fried chicken and made potato salad and baked beans,” Nadine said. “And then, just before we were set to go, Cookie [L.B.] called up and said, ‘I rented it.’ So there was no picnic on the pontoon that day. That was our life. Everything we had, we had to make money with it.”
Bill and Nadine continued to work alongside L. B. and Pauline, constantly improving and expanding the business. In 1971, they tore down the second 10-unit motel (the first one had burned) and rebuilt a two-level 20-unit structure with more modern conveniences.
In 1973, after the lake rose, flooding most of the Corps of Engineers campground, they built Fort Cook, an RV park, now with 100 sites adjoining the motel and restaurant. Fort Cook also includes a large swimming pool and tennis courts available to all resort guests.
In the 1980s, L. B. Cook, then in his 70s, stepped back from operating the resort, and Bill and Nadine accepted more responsibilities. Their three children got married and moved away, but as the years passed, they all returned home.
In 1988, Bill and Nadine bought the grocery store in Theodosia, now Cash Saver Pantry, and in 1993, they bought the resort’s restaurant, which had been sub-leased by 10 different families since it opened in 1953. They named it Cookie’s, and Nadine took charge.
That was the same year Bill and his GHS classmate Bob Blackburn led the effort to officially rename the Theodosia Bridge in honor of his childhood friend, Maj. Gen. Jarrett Robertson, who had died in an accidental military helicopter crash in Germany.
Renaming the bridge “was my idea, but Bill took it and ran with it,” Bob said. The request required approval of government agencies, including the Corps of Engineers. “Bill was so influential in the area, about all you had to do was mention his name,” Bob said. “He sent me down to talk to the Corps, and I just said I was with Bill, and they pretty much did what he wanted.”
‘Anything for the community’
Bill had watched as his dad had developed social and professional connections that helped promote the business, and Bill continued those important relationships. He was a leader in the Ozarks Playgrounds Association and helped promote the area at national sports shows he and Nadine attended. Several times the resort hosted the Outdoor Writers Association that brought writers from throughout the region.
With the business now encompassing a marina, motel, restaurant, campground and RV park, the family changed its name to Theodosia Marina Resort. And while Bill continued to promote TMR throughout the Midwest, he focused his efforts closer to home, participating in whatever organization was promoting the Missouri side of Bull Shoals Lake and especially Theodosia.
He was a gifted storyteller and for several years wrote a weekly column for the Ozark County Times, continuing L.B. Cook’s column-writing legacy. “He was the oral newspaper, not just for Theodosia but all of Ozark County,” Rich Montgomery, husband of Nadine’s cousin, the former Betty Rennaker, said in a Facebook post. “But most of all, he was a friend to everybody.”
“Bill would do anything for the community,” Nadine said. He was a member of the Lions Clubs in both Theodosia (before it disbanded) and Gainesville. He served several years on the Lutie school board, and he was a strong supporter of what is now the Theodosia Area Chamber of Commerce, especially its July 4th fireworks display over the lake.
For 20 years, Bill also served on the board of the White River Valley Electric Cooperative, which held an annual Hooked on Education fundraiser fishing tournament at TMR for many years.
Next week: The Bill Cook not everyone knew.