Story of the Day

"August 25"

Before me stood a tall man, about sixty years old.  He had a perfect crew cut, even though it was not the current style.  He had bright blue eyes and wore a wide smile.  He extended his right hand to mine, simultaneously reaching his left hand to my shoulder.  It had been the warmest greeting I'd received in over three years.  Then he handed me a business card that read "J. Richard Cook" on one side and "Happy Birthday to me Remember August 25" on the other.
I had been startled by his humility because I already knew who he was.  The inmates referred to him as their "guardian angel."  He was the counselor to the Project Workers at the Plummer Community Corrections Center, a work-release facility.
Project Workers are inmates who have a prison sentence but are permitted to serve their sentence at the Center instead of a traditional prison facility.  Project Workers are the cooks, maintenance people, groundskeepers, janitors, receptionists, switchboard operators and mail sorters.  Project Workers who have their GEDs or their high school diplomas also serve as peer tutors to help others earn theirs.  The Plummer Center Project Workers are also involved in community projects, from mowing lawns at churches to clearing snow from city streets and sidewalks.
The workers live in a converted house called the Mandatory Building.  Their bunk beds are in a crowded bedroom instead of a cell.  The building has a kitchen, dining room table, living room furniture and a TV.  When the workers' loved ones comes to visit, they may hug them and eat the food prepared especially for them.
One worker shared, "As Dr. Cook and I sat and talked, I realized that he knew more about me that I know about myself.  As we spoke about my crimes and my shortcomings, truth was the only option.  There was no room for excuses or blaming others.  He listened intently without judging or pitying me."
Dr. Cook would ask a worker, "Did you use your incarceration time wisely?"  Then he'd briefly review their various responsibilities and how they were responsible to be on-call twenty-four hours a day.  He'd say, "Your integrity must be beyond reproach.  Nothing less will be tolerated."
After Dr. Cook met with a worker, he'd stand up, shake their hand and say, "Doctor, nice talking with you."  He called people Doctor when he forgot their names.  In spite of that, he still left the workers feeling more positive about themselves.
Dr. Cook escorted the workers to funerals, weddings, hospitals to visit a family member or to a train station when it was time to go home.  I'd watch him take them through the prison gates.  He could have used a state-owned car, but I knew he didn't, because the license plate read "AUG 25."
Dr. Richard Cook not only gave of his car, but he gave of himself.  He was always there to guide the workers.  He was a mentor, friend and critic even if it hurt.  He was a man with a colorful sense of humor.  He had a basement full of treasures he stored for the inmates until their release and a phone bill lined with collect calls.
What did this man expect in return?  Birthday cards, no matter whether they were from a store, homemade or from a computer.  It didn't matter, but he only wanted one signature per card.  He was even known to buy a box of cards and hand them out.  He received cards from inmates released years before.  Many had moved to other states and new successful lives.  Dick Cook loved his birthday and everyone knew it.
On October 15, 1997, the Earth stood still.  Our most beloved Dr. J. Richard Cook passed away in the place he loved the Plummer Center's Mandatory Building surrounded by those he loved and those who loved him.
The Mandatory Building was renamed.  The Cook Building and a tree now stand there in his honor.  People still send birthday cards every year to our facility on August 25, even though they know Dr. Cook is no longer physically here.  His spirit is alive and well.  Thank you, Dr. Cook, and happy birthday.