Bill Cook, a 45-year resident of Geneseo, New York, was born December 27, 1943 to Dr. William H. and Anna F. (Harmon) Cook in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bill’s dad (died 1990) was a podiatrist, World War II veteran, National Guard officer, and amateur actor. His mom (died in 2005 at age 97 in Geneseo) was a homemaker and for several years served as his dad’s office manager. When Bill was 7, the family moved into a 3-bedroom home in a housing development largely consisting of veterans of World War II. For six years, Bill sang in the boys’ choir at Trinity Episcopal Church. He was a good field, no hit first baseman in Little League, and occasionally pitched effectively since few kids were used to seeing lefties. Throughout Bill’s youth, he attended Indiana high school basketball tournaments and was present in 1954 at the Milan-Muncie Central game that was the basis of the movie “Hoosiers.”
Bill made good friends in grade school, but he also spent a lot of time alone. He read and wrote on an old Underwood typewriter, fielded countless ground balls bounced off the carport wall, and rode many miles on his bike.
For several years, Bill attended Warren Township schools but was enrolled in Indianapolis Public School #1 in the sixth grade, when his neighborhood was annexed into the city. Bill chose Arsenal Technical High School, the state’s largest at the time, primarily because his dad was a Tech alumnus and also doctor for the school’s athletic teams. Bill had been accompanying his dad to football and basketball games since he was a small boy, and Tech felt like home despite the fact it was 7 miles from his house and he knew no one there when he entered in 1958. At Tech, Bill became active in student government and was president of the student council in his senior year. He was a manager and later Chief Statistician for Tech’s basketball team. He was also an outstanding student, graduating second in a class of about 500. He won many honors including an Eli Lilly Scholarship and the Hanson H. Anderson Scholarship.
He attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he was a member of the Glee Club and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, and graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1962. Bill majored in history and minored in political science. By the end of his sophomore year, he was sure that he wanted to attend graduate school and become a college professor. Winner of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Bill headed to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to study medieval history. While there he was awarded a Herbert Lehman Fellowship. Bill received his master’s degree in 1970 and the Ph.D. in 1971. Bill studied with the well known medievalist Brian Tierney and spent a year doing his dissertation research in Oxford, Vienna, and several cities in what was then Czechoslovakia. His dissertation was a study of Peter Payne, a theologian who fled persecution in England and became a part of the Hussite movement in what is now the Czech Republic.
In 1970, Bill was appointed Assistant Professor of History at the State University of New York, College at Geneseo (usually referred to as SUNY Geneseo). The college has about 5000 undergraduates and is located in a village of about 5000 people in western New York, 30 miles south of Rochester and 60 miles east of Buffalo. When he arrived, the College was still in transition from having been a teacher training college (normal school) to becoming a liberal arts college. Today, it is generally recognized as the premier college in the SUNY system and one of the best public undergraduate colleges in the United States.
Bill was hired to teach medieval history, and he developed several courses in his area of specialization. He has also taught many general education courses including Western Civilization, Western Humanities, The Bible, and Christian Thought. He developed courses in Greek and Roman history, although he has not taught them since the College hired an ancient historian in the early 80s. He regularly teaches courses in the Italian Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. Beginning in 2000, he has taught a course about Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a topic quite far afield from his academic training. He has also taught three first-year seminars on topics in African American history and local history. Late in his career, he created a course entitled World Christianities, which examines Christianity outside Western Europe and the USA, focusing on old forms of Christianity in such places as Armenia, Georgia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, and Christianity in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, India, and East Asia.
Beginning in 1973, Bill has teamed up with medievalist Ron Herzman in the English Department to team teach interdisciplinary courses at Geneseo. Beginning with The Age of Chaucer, they have taught several specialized courses, most often a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Bill and Ron taught three courses in Europe in the 1970s. Beginning in 1993, Bill took students every other January or June from 1993 to 2013 to study medieval cities in Siena, Italy.
Bill was recognized from the beginning of his career as a good teacher, though he had never taught a class before arriving in Geneseo. In 1974, he received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching; this was the first year the award was given in Geneseo. In 1984, at the age of 40, he received the rank of Distinguished Teaching Professor. Eight years later he was named Professor of the Year for the state of New York by CASE, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. In 2004, he was runner up for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching at Baylor University. He was awarded $25,000, part for himself and part for the History Department at Geneseo.
Although Bill has spent his entire teaching career at SUNY Geneseo, he has hardly limited his teaching to his home campus. In the early 1980s, he taught courses on four occasions in a community college program inside Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison and site of the bloodiest prison riot in American history. In the spring of 1981, he flew to Albany each week to teach a course about St Francis of Assisi at Siena College in nearby Loudenville. From 2008 to 2010 and again in the spring of 2013, Bill returned to his alma mater, Wabash College as Visiting Professor of Religion and History. He was able to re-connect with Wabash and was an active alumnus during his stay there and continues to be a proud member of the Class of 1966.
In 1983, Bill was asked to direct a Summer Seminar for School Teachers, a new program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. By the time he retired, he had directed 11 seminars on three different topics-ancient and medieval historians, early Christian monasticism, and Francis of Assisi. The latter topic he has taught seven times in Italy. In the decade of the 2000s, Bill directed three NEH seminars for college professors, a rare honor for someone not teaching in a graduate institution.
With Ron Herzman, Bill has made four courses on tape for The Great Courses (formerly theTeaching Company). The first one was about Dante’s Divine Comedy and consisted of eight 45-minute lectures; it was primarily sold as audio tapes. More recently, Ron and Bill re-made the Dante course in both audio and video versions, consisting of twenty-four 30-minute lectures. They also have audio/video courses on St Augustine’s Confessions (24 lectures), St Francis of Assisi (12 lectures) and a video only course entitled Discovering the Middle Ages (12 lectures), a beautifully illustrated course using slides that Bill has taken over the course of 40 years of traveling in Europe.
Later, Bill did courses entitled The Lives of Great Christians, Machiavelli in Context, The Catholic Church: A History, Alexis de Tocqueville and the American Experiment, The Cathedral (dvd only), and The World’s Greatest Churches (dvd only). For the latter, Bill traveled to and photographed churches in 19 countries from Iceland to Israel, Ethiopia to Ecuador, Romania to Korea.
In 2002, Bill and Ron made their national television debut as “talking heads” for a special that The Learning Channel did on Dante’sInferno. In late 2002, Bill appeared on a Hallmark Channel program about Francis of Assisi called Reluctant Saint.
During the first few years Bill was at Geneseo, he continued his research on the Hussite movement, publishing several articles and returning in 1972 to Czechoslovakia and East Germany for further research. However, research was difficult behind the Iron Curtain, and he had not had to master the Czech language to do his initial research since Peter Payne, the subject of his studies, wrote in Latin. In 1973, he spent a summer in Italy, in part to search for new areas of research within the field of church history.
While in Assisi, Bill re-discovered St Francis (1182-1226), someone he had studied in graduate school but had not really understood. As Bill tells it, “Francis began to make sense in Assisi.” Not only did Bill do some reading while there but also spent a lot of time looking at the art in the Basilica of St Francis. Not long after returning to the USA, Bill decided to focus much of his research on St Francis and especially how he was represented in art. Almost forty years later, this is still the focus of Bill’s research.
When Bill returned to Italy for a sabbatical in 1979, he began the formidable task of finding every painting of St Francis made in Italy within a century of the saint’s death. Little did he know that this project would take 20 years! In 1999, Bill published his catalogue of paintings, a work that has been well received by both scholars and Francis enthusiasts. Actually, this was Bill’s third book on Francis, for he had written a short biography (1989) and a book about Italian paintings of St Francis that are in the USA (1998).
Bill and his friend Ron Herzman began writing a book about the Middle Ages in 1974, and it was published in 1983. The Medieval World View is currently in its third edition with Oxford University Press and has also been translated into Spanish. It has introduced generations of students to the study of the Middle Ages.
In addition to Bill’s research and writing on Francis, he has published articles about medieval monasticism, Dante, The Song of Roland, and the teaching of history and humanities. In addition to his continuing research and writing in the area of medieval history, in 2000 he published a book about the history of Livingston County, NY, of which Geneseo is the county seat. He also co-authored with one of his students and one of his sons a picture book about the history of Geneseo, NY and one about the nearby town of Dansville. Those interested in a full list of publications with complete citations can return to the Home Page and click on Teacher/Scholar.
Bill was raised an Episcopalian and for several years sang in an excellent boys choir at his home parish, Trinity Church in Indianapolis. Gradually, the influence of St Francis and the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery located four miles from Geneseo, led him toward Roman Catholicism. On Easter, 1975, he became a member of the Catholic Church, confirmed by Abbot John Eudes Bamberger. Since then, Bill has been an active Catholic at SUNY Geneseo’s Newman Catholic Community.
In 1978, while traveling in Italy with his student and friend Wes Kennison (later Geneseo Town Supervisor and colleague at SUNY Geneseo), Bill met the Bianciardi family at an outdoor dinner in Siena. That evening changed his life because he has become very close to that family and because the dinner was in the contrada (neighborhood) called Onda, of which Bill is now a zealous member.
The Bianciardi family (Silvano and Zina plus their two sons Guido and Simone) invited Bill and Wes to dinner at their house, and the bond between Bill and the Bianciardi family began to form. The following winter, Bill returned to Siena, which he used as the center for his sabbatical research on St Francis. Within a few months, Bill became Guido’s confirmation sponsor (padrino in Italian); and he invited his godson to come to the USA that summer. It turns out that this was to be the first of three trips Guido took to the USA while he was a teenager, and Bill and Guido have done a lot of interesting and exotic things including canoeing the Whitewater River in Arkansas (long before it became famous), camping in Monument Valley, spending a week on a dude ranch in Wyoming, living in a teepee on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana, seeing NFL and major league baseball games, and riding pack mules into the Grand Canyon.
Bill made other friends in the contrada of Onda in Siena and became passionate about the Palio, the twice-a-year horse race contested between contrade (neighborhoods) in the main square, the Piazza del Campo. He has attended about 50 runnings of the Palio and has been fortunate enough to see Onda win five times. In 1985, he even returned briefly in October for the grand victory dinner! Two years later, he was initiated as a member of the contrada through the ritual of a secular baptism performed by the prior of the contrada.
In the same year Bill was baptized as a member of Onda, he bought a small apartment in Siena near the Piazza del Campo though, alas, not in Onda. Since then he has spent a part of every year save one in Siena.
By the end of the 1970s, Bill had tenure at SUNY Geneseo, had bought a house on Oak Street, but was unmarried. His experiences with Guido led him to think about adopting a child. He completed all the required training at Hillside Children’s Center in Rochester in 1981 and the next year adopted Paul Fillmore of Onward, Indiana, who later changed his name to Paul Cook. He was 16 when he came to live in Geneseo and had been separated from his birth family since the age of five. A year later, Bill adopted Gualberto Fernandez, who was 15 at the time and living in the Bronx in a group home. In 1987, Bill adopted a third son, 14-year-old Angel Quintero, who was living with a foster family near Auburn, NY.
Bill was an inexperienced dad, and all of the boys had been hurt and betrayed by adults; but Bill and his sons persevered, weathered some difficult times, and remain a family. Paul now lives in Macon, GA and is a truck driver. Gualberto has an apartment and steady in Rochester, and is a loving father of Francheska, age 8. Angel graduated as a history major from SUNY Geneseo and for the last 12 years has been a New York State Trooper. Angel and his wife Erin (Schliff), a Geneseo alumna, married in 1996 and are the joyful parents of Gabriel (14), Aidan (12), and Isabella (8).
Gualberto and Angel are both Puerto Ricans born in New York. Bill took Gualberto to Puerto Rico and later accompanied Angel there as well. Angel had lived and gone to school in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, but Gualberto had never been to the island. These trips were important both for the boys and for Bill, who learned enough about the culture to understand his boys and their behaviors better. He can even cook an acceptable arroz con pollo!
Through an odd set of circumstances, Bill invited a family from Cambodia whom he had never met to his house for his first Thanksgiving with Paul. The Pao family had fled the Killing Fields, and they soon became good friends of Bill and Paul. While Bill was helping the Pao family to bring relatives to the USA, he encountered an agency of the Catholic Diocese of Rochester which helped to place refugees in the area. He was asked if the Geneseo Newman Community would be interested in sponsoring a family, and Bill brought that idea to his community. The result was that in 1986, Lien Bui arrived from Vietnam with her 14-year-old Amerasian son named Hung. Bill was among those who greeted them at the airport and helped them to settle into a snowy Geneseo.
When Bill’s son Angel was about to leave for college and Bill was preparing to live alone once again, he learned that Hung (later named Felix when he became a US citizen), by then living in Rochester, had dropped out of high school. Bill “persuaded” Felix to come to live with him in Geneseo and finish high school at Geneseo Central. Felix did so, and Bill began, without knowing it, another part of his life-serving as a surrogate parent for teenagers. In 1992, Angel’s best friend Jason Hayes came to live with Bill for a year after experiencing difficulties at home. In 1994, Obn Taylor, who through no fault of his own had no parents able and willing to care for him, came to live with Bill for two years of high school and beyond. Felix, Jason, and Obn became integral parts of Bill’s family and remain so today. Felix and his wife Renee have a 7-year-old adopted daughter Caitlyn, and Jason and his wife Kathy have a 2-year-old adopted son Spencer.
In 1989, the Huynh family, consisting of a mother and father and 11 children, arrived in Geneseo from Vietnam. Bill got to know them when they arrived and found himself spending a bit of almost every day at their house. In 1993, 15-year-old Hieu, announced that he was moving in with Bill; and he lived there for a year and a half. In 1994, Bill took Hieu to Italy with him. In 1996, fifteen-year-old Hanh moved in and stayed for his last three years of high school. In 2000, 16-year-old Hung Huynh became the third member of his family to live at 14 Oak Street. Hung’s younger brother Cuong, although he has never lived with Bill, has also become a part of Bill’s family. Finally in2004 the youngest Huynh, Jimmy, arrived at 14 Oak Street and lived there throughout high school. Hieu, Hanh, and Hung are married and each is the father of two young children. Older brother Duc and his wife and son have also been fully integrated into Bill’s family. Altogether, Bill has been a dad or at least a father-figure for 12 young men, and his favorite event of the year is Christmas Eve dinner, when they have a big family dinner. Alas, there has not yet been a year when all the boys have been present, but Bill is hopeful that such a time will come.
Although Bill has never raised small children, he is enjoying being a grandfather. He is known by various grandchildren as nonno (Italian) abuelo (Spanish), Poppa Bill, and a few other names. When Gabriel was 13, Bill took him to Italy (Siena and the Palio, of course) and France and hopes his health will be good enough to take the others when they become teenagers.
Bill’s involvement with children has made him deeply aware of child abuse and abandonment in the United States. In 1985, Bill borrowed and adapted an idea from his Wabash College days and asked faculty friends to put up for auction meals in their homes that students could bid on. The $1200 he made were sent to Covenant House in New York. The next year he added a second event, the Marco Polo Dinner. Bill and friends prepare a multi-course meal consisting of courses from all the places Marco Polo visited, from Italy to Southeast Asia. Since then, “Covenant House Weekend” has become an institution in Geneseo. Through 2015, Bill and his friends have raised about $120,000 for Covenant House.
Bill has always been interested in politics. At the age of 4, he handed out “Vote for Thomas E. Dewey” cards from the stoup of his apartment building. Four years later he amassed and wore a great many I Like Ike buttons and watched the first televised national conventions. While in high school, Bill attended both Republican and Democratic political events surrounding their biennial state conventions in Indianapolis. Although Bill never lost his interest in politics, he was not active through his years in college and graduate school or in his first years of teaching. In the early 1990s, he ran unsuccessfully for the school board of Geneseo Central School.
Bill became disenchanted with the Republican Party because he believed that it had drifted far from the party he had supported. New York, after all, had Nelson Rockefeller as its governor when Bill moved there and had been represented in the US Senate by two progressive Republicans, Jacob Javits and Livingston County native Ken Keating. Bill left the Republican Party, but in his mind it was really the GOP that left him. After the 1994 congressional election, in which his Congressman, Bill Paxon (R-Amherst), had only token opposition, he began to consider a run for Congress. He sought the Democratic nomination in 1996 but was unsuccessful. However, he did receive the party’s support and became the nominee two years later. With Paxon’s unexpected retirement, it was an open seat race against State Assemblyman Tom Reynolds (R-Springville). Bill took a leave without pay from SUNY Geneseo so that he could campaign full time from May till November.
The 27th District of New York consisted of several rural counties in western New York plus some suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester. It was created as a safe Republican district, first for Jack Kemp and later for Paxon. The district stretched about 120 miles, roughly following the New York Thruway, from Buffalo to Auburn. Bill traveled back and forth throughout the district, putting almost 30,000 miles on his car and, alas, getting three speeding tickets! He attended dinners, fairs, festivals, and civic events of all kinds. He marched in countless parades and walked the main streets of the district’s villages and cities. Reynolds raised more than $850,000 while Bill had only about $60,000.
In New York, there are several minor parties that usually endorse major party candidates, and seeking their endorsement is important. Bill received the nomination of the Independence Party (called the Reform Party outside New York) and the Right-to-Life Party, the latter quite unusual for a Democrat. Bill received the endorsement of one of the two major daily papers in the district, Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle. Although pundits assumed that Bill had no chance because he had so little money, he surprised everyone on election day. Bill captured 43% of the vote (76,000 votes) and carried the town of Amherst, Buffalo’s largest suburb and the largest jurisdiction in the district. In fact, in the ten largest jurisdictions, Bill received 49% of the vote. He was especially pleased that he won 72% of the vote in the village of Geneseo. For Bill, running for Congress was a privilege and honor.
Bill has always been a traveler. By the time he was 15, he had been in all 48 adjacent states, and he took his first tour of Europe in 1961, when he was 17. Although in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, he was almost exclusively in Italy, he has also traveled in England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. In 1969 he spent a few days in Morocco and in 2000 a week in Tunisia. Closer to home, in addition to Canada Bill has traveled in Mexico and has twice been to Puerto Rico. He spent a week on St Maarten with Hung and Cuong in 2003.
Bill has visited Mexico several times including driving around the country with Angel in 1992. With one of his students, he traveled to Peru in 2004 and has been expanding his experiences beyond Europe ever since. Except for a bit of Asian Turkey, he had never been to Asia until 2007. Now he has visited 22 countries on the world’s largest continent, several more than once. Among the more exotic nations he has visited are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan. He also spent 10 days in Israel and Jordan and a week in Armenia and Georgia as well as three weeks in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Of course he has traveled to Vietnam and visited members of the Huynh family in the Mekong Delta.
After meeting Father Godfrey Odunga in Rome a few years ago, he took up Father’s invitation to come to Kenya and has now been there three times, once with 16 Wabash students. He has also made multiple visits to Ethiopia as well as recent stops in Tanzania (especially the island of Zanzibar) and Rwanda.
Bill has visited some of the ugliest places in the world, sites of genocidal acts. Bill has walked through Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, seen the genocide museum in Yerevan Armenia, and seen the results of the genocide in Rwanda. From these experiences comes a deep concern that we have not yet seen the final genocide. He follows the news carefully and believes that we must all speak out when we see hatred expressed on a large scale and toward a people or religion.
Bill has always enjoyed good health. In his first 32 years of teaching at Geneseo, he missed two days due to illness. However, that illness was a serious one. In 1996 he was operated on to remove a bone spur from a vertebra in his neck that was causing excruciating pain. His recovery was slow, and unfortunately Bill was not able to dance at the wedding of Angel and Erin two weeks after the operation. When he checked into the hospital for surgery, it was his first time. He had only checked out of a hospital once in his life–a few days after he was born! When they sewed him up in 1996, those were his first stitches. Other than a broken arm caused by slipping on shaving cream during a fraternity party when Bill was a freshman at Wabash, he had never been injured.
In 1999, Bill was diagnosed with type 2 (adult onset) diabetes. This was not shocking since his father, paternal grandmother, and maternal grandfather were diabetics. For Bill, it meant putting aside two things that were often closely associated with him–Hershey bars and Pepsi. Now it is strictly sugar-free treats and Diet Pepsi. Bill has been a good patient, and his doctor is happy with the way he has altered his lifestyle and diet in order to live a healthy and long life. A night owl his entire life, Bill now rises early because he needs to eat breakfast and take his medicine.
In 2012, two years after returning to Geneseo from his two-year visiting professorship at Wabash, he retired. He taught part time at Wabash for a semester in 2013 but has not otherwise taught regular courses. Of course, he continues to teach in all sorts of ways including writing, giving lectures, consulting, and making videos. He bought a new and bigger house on Oak Street in Geneseo, about 100 yards from where he had lived for 33 years. Now he has guest rooms, space for books, and a swimming pool!
In the past three years, Bill has led all sorts of programs in Europe. He did teach a group of Geneseo students for three weeks in the summer of 2013, but he has also led alumni groups from both Wabash and Geneseo. He has done many programs for organizations of presidents of companies (YPO/WPO and CEO). He is active in leading art tours for Friends of Florence. Bill has on several occasions taught high school students from the Jay Pritzker Academy (Siem Reap, Cambodia) who have had the opportunity to study in Florence. Bill has also been a visitor to JPA.
Bill has done a great deal of traveling since retirement because he knows that a day will come when he will be unable to walk the sidewalks—a euphemism—of Yangon or be a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela or to hike into the slums of Nairobi. Of course he still spends a good deal of time in Europe, especially Italy. However, he has made multiple trips to Asia and Africa.
In his trips, partly by accident and partly by design, he has seen schools and met individual students who needed significant support. He has been sponsoring students at universities and schools in Laos and Ethiopia. However, he wanted to do more. So, in 2015, Bill established the Bill Cook Foundation, a 501(c)(3), that is raising funds to help some of the world’s poorest children. In the beginning, he has identified schools and individuals he wants to help in Papua New Guinea, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and Kenya and is looking for projects in Latin America and Europe (for Roma children).
Bill has decided that he will devote much of his energy and time to his Foundation. He plans to travel to see the good done or the need not met at the sites the Foundation has supported. And he has taken up something foreign to him but well known to St Francis—begging—not for himself but for the children who will be educated thanks to the generosity of his donors. Anyone can contribute any amount to the Foundation by sending a check to the Bill Cook Foundation, 3 Oak Street, Geneseo, NY 14454. Watch for the launch of www.billcookfoundation.org.