Recipient Biography

John E. Cook


John E. Cook (1936- ) received the Pugsley Medal in 1994 “in recognition of over 30 years in significant leadership roles in the National Park Service.” During his 43 years in the NPS, Cook roamed the Southwest, the halls of Washington, the vastness of Alaska, and the foreign assignments with the enthusiasm and tact of a born diplomat and the tenacity of a mule skinner. As a third generation NPS employee, Cook had great respect for NPS traditions, but he had a maverick bent which resulted in an ability to work against the grain and act as an agent of change in order to improve the NPS's capacity to reach its goals.

Both his father, John E. Cook, and his grandfather, John E. Cook, worked for the NPS in the Southwest. His daughter, Kayce Cook, is a park superintendent in the NPS and is the first fourth generation NPS employee. Cook was born in Williams, Arizona, and his first home was in his father's tent at the Grand Canyon. He attended elementary school in Grand Canyon and high school at Camp Verde, Arizona. Cook began his NPS career in 1953 as a seasonal packer (mule skinner) in what is now Saguaro National Park, where his father was later superintendent with his own NPS tent. He graduated from Northern Arizona University, where he was student body vice-president, with a B.S. degree in business administration and education in 1957.In 1993, Northern Arizona conferred upon him an honorary doctorate degree in recognition of his “exemplary contribution to the university and the greater scholarly community.”

Cook's maternal heritage is Oklahoma Cherokee, and both his father-in-law and grandfather-in-law were early Navajo Indian Traders. Thus, throughout his life, Cook has been active in American Indian issues, ranging from education and employment to human rights. He has been in the forefront of issues involving the sensitive treatment and repatriation of American Indian human remains and burial objects. He has also played a leadership role in involving Native American entities in historic/cultural preservation grants. During his career he helped teach two-day courses for NPS staff on “American Indians, who are not 'just another' special-interest group but have a unique relationship to both the land and the federal government.”

Cook worked seasonally for the NPS as a laborer, fire fighter and ranger at Saguaro, Walnut Canyon, and Navajo National Monuments and at Yosemite National Park, before moving to his first permanent assignment as administrative officer at Chaco Canyon National Monument, New Mexico in 1957. He moved across occupational fields with ease early in his career and his progress through the NPS ranks was rapid. In1960, he became supervisory park ranger at Chaco Canyon, moving to similar positions at Navajo National Monument in 1961andYellowstone in 1963.

In a highly unusual move, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall personally plucked young Cook from his job as a supervisory park ranger at Yellowstone in 1963 and appointed him assistant superintendent at Canyon de Chelly National Monument and in 1966, he became the park’s superintendent. In those days, Udall later recalled, the NPS was “what we call ‘lily white.’ We needed someone who spoke Navajo.” Cook spoke Navajo and spent the new few years as superintendent in parks around the Navajo Nation, which resulted in the Navajo tribe recognizing his contribution in 1972 with the Outstanding Service to the Navajo People Award. During this period, he convincingly argued for, and was asked to develop, a support office to help several small, understaffed, mostly archeological areas associated with the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and New Mexico. The idea worked so well that a second support office in southern Arizona was soon created.

His successes in founding the group concept without additional funding, while boosting morale and putting professionals closer to the parks, quickly catapulted him to the position of associate director in Washington DC a year later. Thus, Cook was a superintendent at age 30, a deputy regional director at 36, and associate director – the highest nonappointed job in the service, at 37. His rise through the NPS ranks may have stemmed from an understanding of its culture, acquired by living it since childhood, or from emulating some of the park service’s brave and creative early southwest leaders like the fabled, but unorthodox, Boss Pinkley, who Cook admired. Probably his ascendance was from a combination of those factors, along with a native ability to make things happen and an appetite for learning everything there was to know about the agency and its people.

The associate director position was the highest nonappointed job in the NPS, and Cook held it at a time when a political appointee with no government experience was in the director's chair. Cook left his fingerprints, without fanfare, on countless meaningful, and often courageous, actions in virtually every unit of the system, while reinvigorating the operational areas of resource management, interpretation, visitor services, and concessions, overseeing the creation of two NPS regions, and helping the service and the nation prepare for and celebrate the Bicentennial.

After four years in Washington DC, Cook was eager to return to the field and was named southwest regional director in 1977. However, his time in “the land of red rocks and blue skies” lasted only two years before be was asked to be director of the NPS Alaskan region. It was perhaps his biggest challenge and greatest triumph.

The presidential proclamations of 1978, which reserved 47 million acres of public lands in Alaska for national parks entangled the NPS's greatest expansion with intense controversy and political crossfire. Finding a leader to bring the Alaska parks on line was a daunting task. The enormity and complexity of administering 47 million acres and establishing controls in areas previously hunted and fished without restraint required extreme political sensitivity, as well as a thorough command of state and federal laws. Cook emerged from a spirited search that went all the way to the White House and rumbled through the halls of Congress. He was bright, young, energetic, respected, and blessed with political savvy developed through his experience in the Navajo country and in Washington DC. The NPS director at the time prophetically said of his appointment, “The actions we take and do not take in Alaska now, will set the tone for our work there for decades to come. John Cook is a pioneer, sensitive to the needs and challenges of the task before him.” Alaska, in 1979, was a good place to wreck a sterling career, but “Big John” accepted the challenge and the results were epochal.

Jimmy Carter's Alaska proclamations more than doubled the size of the national park system, but it was unclear how secure these additions to the NPS would be because the president had used the Antiquities Act, bypassing Congress to create new park units and additions to three others. Cook's role put him in the line of fire – literally. Gunshots were fired through his window. Cook became a roving ambassador among a hostile populace who objected strenuously to what was viewed as a federal takeover. Against this staunch opposition from Alaskans who refused to recognize the proclamations, Cook carefully put the NPS imprint on the 47 million Alaskan acres using what one aide described as “a fine sense of NPS tradition, and a willingness to break with it.”

One of the most memorable incidents in this effort was the time he opened a tense public meeting in Eagle, Alaska, by placing an open bottle of Jim Beam whiskey on the table next to the maps that outlined the new national park areas. Cook had earlier been burned in effigy, along with President Carter and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, at a local courthouse. Cook recalled, “But by the end of the week, we were being invited into homes for dinner.” That bottle of Jim Beam started the public discourse on national parks in Alaska.

In 1983, James Watt, the anti-conservation Interior Secretary in the Reagan Administration, responded to Cook’s critics by firing him. One of Cook’s peers recalls, “One of John Cook’s best badges of honor is that Jim Watt tried to unload him because he was doing the right thing in Alaska for creatures, great and small. It was one of the great moments in NPS lore.”

Before he left, after four years in the position, Eskimo men were exercising traditional subsistence hunting rights in the national parks, Eskimo women were wearing NPS uniforms, and Alaska’s people and newspapers began to support Cook and the NPS mission. Most importantly, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act had been signed into law December 2, 1980, securing perhaps the greatest action for land conservation of the century. Thanks to the stability that Cook brought to the contentious environment, a window of opportunity that was to close in less than a month, when a new administration came into power was not squandered.

Cook quickly bounced back, accepting a job superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a stint which he enjoyed immensely, before moving back to be regional director of the Southwest region in 1986 until 1995. At the time of his latter move, he commented, “I was born with red sand in my veins, and it will be great to be back home.”

In 1995, Cook was chosen to head his third region – the Rock Mountain region. This was soon folded into the Southwest and parts of the Western region to form the Intermountain region, which oversaw 87 park units in eight western states. He headed the executive task force that was given the unpleasant task of downsizing and revamping the National Park Service. The plan that emerged required difficult adjustments, but it had the ingredients needed to keep the service “on mission.” At a time when some agencies were gutted or disappeared altogether, the NPS held on to its funding, its pride and its purpose.

Among Cook's most farsighted achievements were his actions in the area of human rights, where his maverick qualities most often surfaced and where he was truly an “agent of change.” When people's lives depended on subsistence hunting in Alaska, Cook wasn't shy about letting them shoot caribou. And when Native Americans called for repatriation of Indian remains and burial objects, Cook led the charge to make it happen. From the early days of his career, Cook sought to establish programs and initiatives, and even parks that would preserve or interpret the Spanish and Indian heritages of the Southwest.

During his career he hired more minorities and women into management positions than anyone else. He appointed the first female deputy regional director when women weren’t yet accepted as superintendents. And there was a time more than half the women superintendents in the service were his hires.

Former NPS director, George Hartzog, commented, “Cook was one of those guys who fulfilled the pledge - You do this for the good of the service – whether that meant moving to a place which wasn't your first preference or working overtime when it wasn't convenient.” At the time of his retirement, this 6'4" tall, robust man with a cherubic face and infectious sense of humor admonished his colleagues:

Respect the elders. Teach the young. Cooperate with the pack. Play when you can. Hunt when you must. Rest in between. Share your affections. Voice your feelings. Leave your mark.

Minicler,Kit. (1999, Aug.8). Vision of retiring park service's regional director hailed. Denver Post, p.48.
Moffett, Ben & Belous, Bob. (1999). One Stetson above the rest: Serving the National Park Service, the career of John E. Cook. Unpublished manuscript.