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Small-town lawyer, passionate politician dies at age 83
by: file photo, Vern Cook

Vern Cook, 83, a small town lawyer and passionate politician who served 24 years in Salem - two terms in the House and then in the Senate - died Saturday, Dec. 6.


A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, at Eastrose Fellowship Unitarian Church, 1133 N.E. 181st Ave.

An indefatigable campaigner, he ran for office many times, taking a stab at races ranging from the U.S. Senate to Oregon Supreme Court Justice. He last ran for office in 2004 for the Democratic nomination in Senate District 25, competing with Rod Park and Laurie Monnes Anderson.

'I persevere,' he said then. 'I don't give up just because things gets a little bit rough.'

He said then that his greatest accomplishments during his political tenure were helping to increase state funding for schools, changing election law to make registering to vote easier, working against passage of a sales tax and supporting land use legislation. Cook often riled editors, publishers and fellow lawmakers during his long career. But he loved the process.

'He delighted in the law, and he loved politics,' said Attorney Janet Kreft, who worked for three years with Cook in his Fourth Street law office. 'I once found him sitting in his office reading the new notary statutes,' she said laughing. 'His law library was the best around.'

Cook served in the Oregon House beginning in 1956 and then in the Senate from 1960 to 1980.

His office is such a classic example of a small town law office that it was used in the filming of the 1990s Melissa Gilbert/Rosanna Arquette film, 'Mistaken Identity.'

'Vern loved old stuff, he liked it old and worn out,' said Cheryl von Arx, who worked in his office for 18 years. She described him as a small town lawyer, meticulous in his organization, but that law was his secondary career because his passion was politics.

'He was a solid Democrat. I'm a Republican,' von Arx said, 'so we didn't talk politics too much.'

Cook, who served a stint as president of the Gresham Historical Society, wrote an autobiography that was included in the book, 'Gresham, Stories of our Past,' in which he said a politician had to have 'a willingness to endure complicated, frustrating work.'

At his birth he was named Robert Vernon Cook, but in later years he preferred going simply by Vern.

He came by his frugality and his work habits growing up poor.

He was born Oct. 14, 1925, in St. Francis, Kan., to Verl and Helen (Giles) Cook. Forced out of Kansas in the Depression, the family went to Colorado to try ranching, then arrived in Gresham in 1937 during strawberry season.

Three of the family's four homes in Gresham were within 300 feet of the Multnomah County Fairgrounds and Cook, who sold newspapers, Fuller brushes and magazines to scrape up money, eventually became a 'carnie,' working a concession in carnivals, a job that sustained him until he passed the bar in 1952. His account of those years appears in 'Gresham, Stories of our Past.'

Cook attended West Gresham Grade School and graduated from Gresham High School in 1943, where he first became fascinated with history and politics. He contracted polio shortly after graduation, a disease that prevented him from serving in the military.

He attended Reed College. The son of hardworking, but uneducated parents, he wrote in his autobiography that at Reed he met people way out of his social class as well as his first black and Jewish students. Graduating in 1948, and weary of the carnival business and 'sleeping on the floors of joints,' he applied to the University of Oregon law school, championed by his Gresham doctor, Corrinne Trullinger.

Shortly after passing the bar, he launched his Gresham law office and then his political career.

He married Beryl Kirkwood on June 5, 1955. She is one of Oregon's early nurse practitioners.

They moved to their home in the Sandy River Canyon near Troutdale in 1962.

He served on the Mt. Hood Community College Board of Directors for two years, was a Gresham city judge and Troutdale city attorney, and was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1964.

His son, Robert Vernon Cook Jr., remembered traveling with his father to Klamath Falls for a state Democratic convention.

'When we got there, they were short a delegate so my dad said there was nothing in the rule books about age and said I would be a delegate. I was 13 or 14,' the younger Cook said.

Cook's most recent interests, von Arx said, were in immigration. He was a board member of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, as well as a member of the Gresham and Troutdale historical societies, Gresham Grange, Gresham Elks and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

His brother, Lyle Cook, preceded him in death.

He is survived by his wife of Troutdale as well as sons, Robert Cook Jr. of Portland, Randal Cook of Reedley, Calif., David Cook of Troutdale and Marc Cook of San Martin, Guatemala; daughter, Patricia Calcagno of Canby; and 14 grandchildren.

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