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Robert Vernon Cook ’48

A picture of Robert Cook

Robert Vernon Cook ’48, December 6, 2008, in Portland. An iconoclastic politician, historian, and small-town lawyer who served more than two decades in the Oregon legislature, Vern's remarkable achievements came despite a background of hardship. In 1930, when he was five years old, the Depression forced his family to abandon their Kansas farm and move to a cattle ranch in Colorado, where he attended a one-room school. The family settled in Gresham when he was 12; Vern sold magazines, Fuller brushes, and worked as a carnie at the Multnomah County Fairgrounds to raise money when he was not in school. He contracted polio after graduating from high school, which sidelined him from military service. After the war, he enrolled at Reed, earning a BA in political science—he later wrote that Reed gave him valuable exposure to types and classes of people he had never met in his hardscrabble rural youth. Vern then went to law school at the University of Oregon and opened a law practice in Gresham in 1952. Vern's longstanding interest in politics soon led him to run for office; a staunch Democrat, he served as Oregon state representative from 1957 to 1961, and as state senator from 1961 to 1981, by which time he was a veritable icon of local politics. During his tenure in the senate, he chaired the judiciary committee, and was a strong opponent of a sales tax. He also served as municipal judge for Gresham, city attorney for Troutdale, and director on the board of Mt. Hood Community College. During his long electoral career, he experienced many ups and downs, but always maintained his enthusiasm. “I persevere,” he told the Gresham Outlook in 2004. “I don't give up just because things get a little bit rough.” Vern's free time went to home improvement projects, botanical identification, and fishing; he belonged to the ACLU, Portland City Club, Unitarian Church, and Northwest Steelheaders. Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Beryl Kirkwood Cook; a daughter and four sons; and 14 grandchildren.

Appeared in Reed magazine: May 2009

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