2012 Public Servant of the Year
Sometimes people and the careers they pursue seem almost preordained: A 7-footer who plays basketball. A math whiz who becomes an accountant.
Such is the marriage between Dick Cook and public service. He and his wife, Karen, came out of the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, were among America’s early Peace Corps volunteers, working in a barrio in Venezuela, and were soon hooked on public service.
“The 1960s were all about changing the world and making it better, so that everyone could have a fair chance,” Cook recalls. “Once I began to see the real possibilities of that through the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, I couldn’t turn back.”
In 1995, more than 20 years after graduating with his MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Dick returned to become director of the School’s Social Work Community Outreach Service (SWCOS). Again, the man and the position couldn’t be better made for each other.
“Dick models a life of public service to those who have often been forgotten or ignored,” says Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, dean of the School of Social Work. “He inspires others around him to do the same, whether they are students, faculty, or community residents.”
With SWCOS celebrating its 20th anniversary, Cook couldn’t be prouder of the organization and its people.
“After 20 years we are still turning out graduates who intend to change the world. And they are doing an impressive job of it!” Cook says. “They start new organizations, tackle new issues, create new resources, and do it all in partnership with the people in the communities being served.
“CASA de Maryland’s Day Labor Center, Adelante Familia, Baltimore Mediation Program, Feeding the People, Priceless Gowns, Maryland CASH, and Baltimore Freedom Academy are a few of the organizations that exist because of the tireless efforts of individuals who received their social work field education through SWCOS. These alums are the heroes that this award [Public Servant of the Year] celebrates!”
Of course Cook’s contributions aren’t limited to SWCOS. When he’s away from the University, Cook volunteers for community causes such as organizing residents to protest the closing of a branch library; developing the Charles Village Community Benefits District to reduce crime and improve sanitation; serving on the Community Advisory Board at Greater Baltimore Medical Center to help low-income residents find health care; assisting the Baltimore American Indian Center, Maryland Hispanic Affairs Commission, the Open Society Institute, and much more.
To Cook, whose community service work abroad includes countries such as Croatia and El Salvador, helping causes in the neighborhood is no big deal. “Community work is much more interesting than anything shown on television,” he says with a smile.
Others are less humble about Cook’s contributions. “Dick lives and breathes community,” says Megan Meyer, PhD, MSW, associate professor and chair of SWCOS’ Faculty Advisory Committee. “He is a true public servant and treasure to this campus and Baltimore City.”
Cook says it is he who is the fortunate one.
“I have had the incredible opportunity of working with extraordinary people! Community leaders who live with the consequences of society’s failures and don’t give up till they have made a difference. Students who listen to those community leaders and discover resources to solve the most intransigent of society’s problems. Faculty who support and guide the students despite a faculty reward structure that discourages this work. Donors, supporters, funders, who give their time and resources to ensure that this work will continue. Two deans [Barth and Jesse J. Harris, PhD, MSW] who believe in this work enough to give it their support, despite pressures to the contrary,” Cook says. “I live a pretty privileged life for having the opportunity to know and work with extraordinary people!”