Pioneering legislator Ruth Cook, 81

Staff WriterApril 1, 2011 

Ruth Ellen Cook, the first woman to represent Wake County in the General Assembly, died Monday of lung cancer. She was 81.

Cook was not the typical Southern politician in the legislature in the 1970s.

She was a Jewish immigrant, who had escaped Nazi Germany, had two months of college and moved to North Carolina in 1957.

"Yet, she was an insider who knew how to get things done," said her son, Roger Cook of Durham.

And she was direct. If she thought the lieutenant governor needed to take action on something, she called him up and said so, he said.

"My mom was not afraid to speak truth to power," he said. "She was an incredibly intrepid person."

Cook was known for her work as a champion for the underprivileged, children and the mentally ill and had a sense of "moral outrage" when she saw the less fortunate treated unfairly, said her daughter, Judy Greenberg.

Cook was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1929. When the Nazis came to power, Cook's mother was able to leave for Cuba. But she couldn't take Ruth, her only child, who was 10.

Her mother arranged for relatives to take Ruth, but they were captured by the Nazis, leaving Ruth all alone.

She was rescued in the historic 1939 Kindertransport, in which concerned English citizens rescued Jewish children.

Eventually, the American Red Cross reunited her with her parents, Ilse and Sami Mohr, in New York City in 1944.

Ruth attended New York University for two months before taking a job as a fashion reporter.

A friend at NYU introduced her to John Cook, a psychology instructor at the university. They were married in 1954 and moved to Raleigh three years later when Cook accepted a job at N.C. State University.

In Raleigh, the Cooks became involved in the civil rights movement, and Ruth Cook served as president of the local League of Women Voters while caring for her two children.

In 1966, Cook became the lobbyist for the State Council for Social Legislation, which fought for issues dealing with the less fortunate.

But in 1971, John Cook died of a stroke at age 55. Cook immersed herself further in politics, serving on the advance team for Terry Sanford's presidential bid and getting elected to the state House in 1974, where she served five terms.

She was instrumental in getting laws passed to license day-care centers in the state after a fire in one had killed children. She also fought against small loan agencies taking advantage of the less fortunate, her daughter said.

In 1984, she served on the N.C. Utilities Commission.

After retiring, she lobbied part time. In her later years, she traveled to China and was a supporter of the arts, attending the ballet and opera. She went to a Bruce Springsteen concert in New York shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, where she saw former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in the lobby. "She was even happier when she realized our seats were better than his," her daughter said.

"My mother's style was to lead by example," Greenberg said.

Her children absorbed their mother's values. Roger Cook is a Legal Aid attorney, serving the poor in civil matters. Greenberg, who lives in New Jersey, worked for public radio before she had children.

Cook's funeral is 11 a.m. today at Temple Beth Or, 5318 Creedmoor Road, Raleigh.

leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

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