Gov. Jack Markell, state legislators, and Red Clay School District staff members past and present gathered today to pay tribute to retired principal William "Buzzy" Cooke Jr. at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Hockessin school that will be named in his honor.
Cooke was joined by dozens of relatives and friends at the ceremony.
The new elementary school will be built at 2025 Graves Road, just off of Newport Gap Pike, near Grace Lutheran Church, and will have a capacity of 600 students in kindergarten to fifth grade.
Red Clay Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty welcomed everyone to the ceremony, and thanked everyone who helped make this new school possible.
Then he turned to the school's namesake.
"Buzzy, I didn't know you had 45 years in education – I thought it was more like 60," he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Daugherty said people who knew Cooke knew how much he cared about students.
"Whenever I ask someone to describe the qualities that made Buzzy Cooke such a good principal, they say, 'He loved his kids. He was an outstanding administrator. He loved his kids, and he loved his kids," Daugherty said. "Buzzy is also a man of integrity. If Buzzy says something, he means it. I've known him for 14 years, and I've never known him not to be a man of his word."
Red Clay Board of Education President Faith Newton said the accolades about Cooke are inspiring.
"There will be a tradition of excellence at this school before it opens," said Newton.
She recalled a school fundraiser, "Paw Pack Night," that Cooke hosted, back when Newton's twins – a boy and a girl – were in second grade at Brandywine Springs Elementary.
"You could always count on Buzzy doing anything he could to increase the take," Newton said.
But in the middle of the fundraiser, parents started getting calls on their cell phones about a house on fire in a nearby neighborhood – Newton's neighborhood.
"I rushed home as fast as I could, and fire trucks were there, and somehow in defiance of the laws of physics, there was Buzzy Cooke, already helping to make sure the family whose home had burned was OK, had a place to stay, had clothes and food and a nebulizer for their grandmom," Newton said. "Now I know he was still on the school stage at that fundraiser when I left, but there he was already helping the family. Buzzy always found a way to be there when it mattered, and nothing mattered more to him than his students."
A former student, Jessica Jenkot, spoke next because she started the petition to name the new school after Cooke.
Page 2 of 3 - She wanted to share her first memory of Cooke from her first day of kindergarten about 35 years ago.
"My parents had divorced, and my father had disappeared from my life," said Jenkot. "In my first day at Richey Elementary, after my mom dropped me off, I was wondering, 'Was she going to disappear, too?'"
She said Cooke calmed her fears.
"He spoke to me and told me I was safe, and I was going to learn my ABCs, meet new friends, and my mother was going to come back for me," she said. "He also said we could call him 'Cookie,' and to a kid, that was neat."
Jenkot said Cooke instilled courage in her, and his care and concern for children are genuine.
"He never asks for recognition, and that's what makes it so special that we're naming the new school for him," she said.
Cooke said he was "greatly humbled" to have the school named after him.
"As this school is built, the bricks, the mortar, and the other materials will form the shell, but what's inside becomes the most important thing, the students and the teachers and the staff," he said. "It is with great honor that I accept this because of what's going to be inside."
During his speech, he took out his first grade report card, and read how his teacher had written that his work was fair, but that he often didn't pay attention. Then she reported his work was improving, but he was talking too much and sometimes disturbing others.
Cooke went on to become principal at that elementary school, working with his former teacher.
"It was such an honor," Cooke said. "She taught me a lot."
He said there are so many students like himself who may have difficulty starting out, but with the proper guidance will go on to be successful citizens. He reminded teachers and administrators to focus on each student and to consider what may be the reasons behind a student's behavior.
"Students are why we exist. They're why we're here," Cooke said.
He also presented a Lego building block playset to Superintendent Daugherty, in honor of the school district's world record Lego tower constructed this summer. Cooke said the tower was symbolic of what has to happen in education – setting goals and then working as a team to achieve them.
Gov. Markell marveled at the heartwarming stories people told at the ceremony and the stories he had read about how Cooke had made students and teachers feel welcome, safe, important, inspired, and part of the community.
"What they said represents thousands of stories, thousands of students and families whose lives are better because of you," Markell said. "I don't think there's anything more important than building a high quality school, led by high quality educators. There's nothing better we could do to honor a life so well lived than to name that high quality school after you."
Page 3 of 3 - Cooke began his 45-year career in education in 1965, teaching fourth grade at Krebs Elementary. He first served as a principal at Richey Elementary School and he went on to work as an administrator at several Red Clay schools. In 2000, he was the principal who helped reopen Brandywine Springs School, and he remained at Brandywine Springs until his retirement in 2010.
After today's ceremony, Cooke's wife, Gloria, reflected on this tribute to her husband: "I'm really proud of him. This is very humbling, but well deserved. He always adored children – and parents and teachers – so it's appropriate to have a school named for him."