Robert E. Cook, the alumnus whose generous gift of over $10 million helped found the Honors College that bears his name, has a life story that is the American dream come true. Bob Cook grew up in the Western Pennsylvania town of Altoona, where his father, a postal worker, urged him to leave his welding job and go to IUP to better himself, to gain the degree his father never gained, and to do relatively better in life than his father had done.
Once at IUP, Glen Olsen, a professor, took a personal interest in him and became his mentor, which was a turning point in Bob Cook’s life. “I got to know him and his family,” Bob said. “He encouraged me and made me believe in myself. Working class kids often tend to live up to other people’s too-low expectations rather than living up to their own potential.” Drawing from his personal experience, Bob Cook wanted to give something back to the region where he grew up that would give others the same opportunity to grow through their education as he had.
“The Honors College liberal arts curriculum has been proven,” Bob Cook said, “over hundreds of years, in the most renowned universities in the world. It works. You will learn how to think, analyze, and understand. No matter what problem or job you encounter, if you learn to think clearly and write clearly, concisely, convincingly, whether in business or academics, you’ll exceed everyone’s expectations, including your own.”
“The faculty at IUP challenges the Honors College student, the students challenge the faculty, and a good time is had by all. In fact, learning that learning can be fun, stimulating, and, ultimately, supremely productive is an integral part of what we hope to bestow on our young scholars. One faculty member said to me, ‘These kids learn at warp speed, and it is so much fun to teach them. It’s also a lot of work.’ I am grateful that they are willing to commit themselves to this effort,” Bob Cook said. “All of us know that it is more than worthwhile and that your reward will be to see these young people become more productive, more vital, and more involved in our society than would have been possible without this Honors College experience.”
“One of the things the Honors College can do,” Bob Cook said, “is help young people raise their sights, to aim higher, to achieve the very best that is in them. Our job is not to tell the student how to plan his or her life. Our job is to provide the tools to allow the students to transform the way they think, reason, and react to intellectual stimuli.
“Part of the Honors College learning experience is to extend your personal horizons beyond what you have known,” Bob Cook said. “We encourage our students to travel and study in other countries, and we try to arrange those opportunities for them. We arrange internship interviews for summer work in such challenging environments as interest-related companies, the NASDAQ stock market, and working in an inner-city learning environment—to test what is possible to achieve and to learn the problems associated with educating inner-city children. There are opportunities to do analysis of different situations that require presentation skills to achieve a desired end.”
Raising sights, aiming higher, and achieving the very best you can has been the story of Bob Cook’s life. After graduating from IUP and serving a tour in Vietnam, Bob worked in the computer industry. Striking out on his own, Bob formed VM Software and built the company into a multimillion dollar international corporation. He sold his company in 1993, when he retired from the software industry.
Today, Bob Cook and his wife, Paula Brooks, are active vintners in St. Helena, Calif. They planted and actively manage the Dancing Hares Winery, which produces an estate-bottled wine that is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot varieties of red wine grapes and was mentioned as “a cult wine to watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Bob Cook has published the first in his series of national security, special operations thrillers,
Cooch, short for Alex Cuchulain, his hero. Admiral James Loy, former commandant, U.S. Coast Guard and deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, says “Cooch is the new Jack Ryan! If you’ve ever worried about the intersection between the wealth of the drug cartels and the ambitions of the transnational terrorists, Bob Cook takes you directly to that place. Novel though it is,
Cooch provides dramatic believability as a depiction of high-stakes operations in the post 9/11 security environment we’re all still trying to understand.”
Even out of his busy schedule, Bob finds time to be active in supporting the Honors College. “I return to IUP in the fall of each year and participate in the learning experience at the Honors College and talk to the students. I am absolutely delighted with what I find. Smart kids are interacting with smart kids and learning almost as much from each other as from the faculty. Whitmyre Hall is alive with intellectual discourse—there is no idea too good to avoid analysis and no idea too wild to be discussed.”
“I’d like to see students plan for a wonderful job at twenty-six, not just a job at twenty-one,” Bob Cook said. “And that doesn’t mean life is just a struggle and hard work either. The game is, ultimately, to be happy and not, as Thoreau said, to lead a life of quiet desperation. One day, the true test of this education, beyond jobs, careers, even happiness is that some who graduate will look back on their lives, as I have, and see what happened here was of fundamental and worthwhile value. Hopefully, IUP will have been a turning point in their lives as it was in mine.”
A Candid Interview with Bob Cook