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A community celebrates Evelyn Cook Day ~ March 1, 2011

After high school graduation, most adults can, without a moment’s hesitation, name the teacher they credit with making a difference in their life; the one that helped them believe in themselves, that made them feel special in a sea of faces and personalities; the one that sparked a confidence in themselves that didn’t exist before that teacher’s influence.
It would be interesting to know the number of students who give that credit to Mrs. Evelyn Cook of Mountain City, Tennessee.
Mrs. Cook was born and reared in Shady Valley and following graduation from Johnson County High School, she earned her B.A. in English from Berea College in Kentucky, followed by her M.S. in Educational Administration at the University of Tennessee. She taught English at Johnson County High School from 1952 to 1957.
While at Berea, Mrs. Cook studied drama under Dr. Earl Blank, one of the founders of the National Thespian Society. She says she soon found that “students who had been Thespians in their high schools were ‘special.’ I vowed to start a troupe in my old high school if I had the opportunity. So, in 1952, with the help of Nancy Necessary of Dobbins Bennett, I organized Troupe 1441, which still exists at Johnson County High School.
“As a result of the Thespian Troupe and interest in drama, we were able to move away from the simple little farces which had been all our high school had produced and do such plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ten Little Indians, Charley’s Aunt, The Night of January 16th and Arsenic and Old Lace, to name a few.”
The move to more serious theater proved that Johnson County had an abundance of high quality talent. “The seed was planted for what we have today – an active performing arts center – Heritage Hall – and students K-12 who abound in talent and love the chance to perform. Our philosophy has always been that not every child is an athlete, and those who are not inclined toward athletics need an outlet for their interests and talents.”
Her husband, Ed, had his own teaching career and following her tenure at JCHS, he took a position as superintendent of the Department of Defense schools in France, England, Turkey and Germany. For twenty years, the couple lived abroad and Mrs. Cook taught English in the American high school in Ankara, Turkey for five of those years. “This was probably the most challenging and rewarding teaching of my career,” she says. “The students were bright, well-travelled and highly motivated.” Among them was Sylvia Nasar, who wrote A Beautiful Mind and served as an advisor during the filming of the movie.
“I soon realized that regular English classes were not nearly comprehensive or challenging enough, so I added a course called Continental Classics,” she says of her time in Turkey. “Each year, 15 students were enrolled. I lived dangerously, telling them that they had a ‘B’ upon enrolling. If they wanted an ‘A,’ they would have to earn it. Also, they were allowed to choose the books we would study, with the exception of the first six weeks. That would be devoted to Greek and Roman mythology. The results were incredible. The students chose books I had never taught: King Lear, Crime and Punishment, Dante’s Inferno. We all worked hard and loved the fact that we were exploring together. I discovered that students love a challenge, and rise to the occasion when they are given the chance.”
Cook also remembers her time in Germany where she had the privilege of working on a team headed by the Director of the North Central Accrediting Association for Secondary Schools and Colleges. Their purpose was to streamline a high school diploma program so that service personnel could obtain a real high school diploma instead of a G.E.D. The result was called P.R.E.P. (Pre-discharge Education Program). She served as principal, and later as deputy director of the European program.
“My favorite memory concerns caps and gowns,” says Cook. “The teachers in one of the small PREP schools insisted that the G.I.’s have a graduation ceremony with cap and gown. In spite of being discouraged by local authorities, who assured us that soldiers would think the whole thing silly, we went ahead. Those young men were overjoyed. They all wanted pictures made to send home to their mothers. As a result, we received a special commendation from the NATO commander for ‘morale building.’”
In 1976, Ed and Evelyn Cook returned to Johnson County to be with her mother who was terminally ill with cancer. Mrs. Cook once again delved into teaching at Johnson County High School in 1977. She taught junior and senior college-bound English classes and was the sponsor for the school’s newspaper, The Longhorn. “With the help of an outstanding staff of journalism students, I affiliated our school with the Quill and Scroll Society,” she says, “the goal being to raise our school paper to a more serious level of journalism.” The charter members affectionately named it the Evelyn Cook Chapter of Quill and Scroll.
After teaching for four years, she became the first woman to be assistant high school principal, and, later, the first secondary supervisor for the county. “I was fortunate to be in the county at the time when women were coming into their own professionally,” she reminisces. “Now, thirty years later, there are more women in supervisor and administrative positions in our county than there are men in similar positions.”
During this time at JCHS, she took the first-ever group of Johnson County students abroad – to England. Until 9/11 occurred, this became a tradition, with various teachers hosting the groups, and adding Scotland, Ireland and Paris to the itineraries.
Referring to Evelyn Cook’s career as that of an English teacher is a drastic understatement. She has been and is so much more to so many people. Her love of literature and the performing arts has defined her throughout her career and lifetime. And retirement from the teaching field has only allowed her the time to use her talents to the benefit of a more diverse group of recipients.
Without a doubt, Mrs. Cook says her favorite community project is Heritage Hall. In her own words, she conveys the story of the old high school theater and its transformation into the beautiful performing arts facility it is today.

“Although many, many people have contributed to Heritage Hall and continue to do so, I am generally given credit for originating the idea and pushing for it to become a reality. It happened this way…
“When we returned from Europe, I discovered to my horror that the new high school had no auditorium and the old high school auditorium had been turned into a storage facility for discarded school equipment. There was no adequate facility for community or high school drama or musical productions, no movie theater, and no place for visiting groups such as Barter Theatre.

“After much effort, an excellent group of interested people formed a working committee and the result was the renovation of the old high school auditorium and basement into a beautiful performing arts center complete with dressing rooms, a green room, and a large storage facility, so that the entire school system, community theater, and visiting groups all have an excellent place to perform.
“We now have a full calendar of events as we enter our sixth year of operations. We have a community theatre that is discovering new talent with each production. We have an incredible drama/choral teacher at the high school, whose latest production was Oklahoma! We have a new organization for K-12 students called Johnson County Young Artists, and because of our close working relationship with Barter Theatre, we were chosen as the first community to which Barter would bring workshops and classes for young people. This outreach program has been so successful here that Barter is planning to extend it to other communities as time and opportunity permit. None of this would have been possible without the vision and hard work of a small band of dedicated people who believed that our community would be enriched by a place which came to be called Heritage Hall.”
Mrs. Cook says she is blessed with a husband of over 63 years; a daughter, Stephanie, who lives in Japan where she teaches English, edits translated documents and is married to Dr. Masaru Okabe, a Japanese research scientist; a grandson, Kye, who is a junior electrical engineering major at UCLA; and “a host of friends who fill our lives which would otherwise be lonely with our little family so far away.”
Evelyn Cook Day will be celebrated at Town Hall this coming Tuesday, March 1st from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. with a reception prior to the monthly city council meeting. Anyone whose life has been touched in some way by Mrs. Cook and would like to honor her is welcome to attend.