Cooke's Gone, Never Forgotten; 10 Years Haven't Faded Memories

Article excerpt

Byline: David Elfin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Even in its heyday, it wasn't an opulent venue. It was open to the elements. The food and drink were fine but forgettable.

And yet, the owner's box for a Redskins game at RFK Stadium was the place to be seen in Washington from 1979 to '96.

The man responsible for that atmosphere, Jack Kent Cooke, died 10 years ago today at 84. But in his time, the Redskins' owner presided over a box full of high-ranking government officials, corporate chieftains, magnates and renowned authors like a lord of the manor.

"He was kind of like P.T. Barnum," said longtime Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "People came to RFK to see the Redskins, but they would also look up to his box."

Mr. Cooke wasn't a run-of-the-mill NFL owner. He built the Forum in Los Angeles, Redskins Park and the stadium now called FedEx Field. He owned New York's Chrysler Building, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Lakers and the Kings in Los Angeles and a Kentucky horse farm. He won championships in football, basketball and baseball, gave Hall of Fame leaders Sparky Anderson and Joe Gibbs their first commands, and traded for superstars Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Mr. Cooke, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, would tell his rich pals that they should "buy a ballclub" because it was so much fun.

"Jack lived a good life," said Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who got to know Mr. Cooke while serving as Virginia's governor from 1990 to '94.

"He liked entertainment and being with friends. He loved being the owner of the Redskins. Jack didn't hide his personality at all. He was outgoing and outspoken. He would talk to people in a commanding voice. He would say, 'Listen to me carefully. This is what you're going to do.' "

Mr. Cooke even brought that approach to the dinner table, where he would confound diners and servers alike as he tried to order food for friends at restaurants, according to author Larry L. King.

"Cooke was quite a character," said the author of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," a man who knows a thing or two about characters. "After I had been to two games, Cooke said, 'You pass the test. If you're here two games and I still like you, you become a regular in the box.' I was there the next 14 years."

Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, coach Joe Gibbs and a team business executive were in Mr. Cooke's office once when he asked whether they knew who Ring Lardner was. When the other two college graduates couldn't place the legendary sportswriter, Mr. Beathard guessed that Mr. Lardner had founded the Ringling Bros. circus. Mr. Cooke sputtered: "My God. Look what I've surrounded myself with."

Mr. Cooke would call writers after interviews to tweak his quotes because he had thought of better adjectives.

"My dad was fun to be with," said John Kent Cooke, the Redskins' executive vice president during his father's tenure, in a rare interview with The Washington Times. "He had a fabulous sense of humor. He would say something totally outrageous, I would look at him, and he would squint those blue eyes of his and a big grin would go from ear to ear. He would put you on the spot, no question about that, but that was also part of his attraction. He would test you, but then he would embrace you with open arms."

Equally adept with a hockey stick and a saxophone as young man, Mr. Cooke found his true calling in business.

From a humble start selling encyclopedias, Mr. Cooke became a partner at 26 in what would become a media empire of publications, radio and television stations. He was named Minor League Executive of The Year by Sporting News soon after buying the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball's Class AAA International League in 1951.

That was a mere prelude for Mr. Cooke's high-octane life in the U.S.

He bought a 25 percent share of the Redskins soon after becoming an American citizen in 1960. …