2010 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"It's not just wealth that makes you a success, it's what you do with your life."
Bill Cook was born in 1931 in Mattoon, Illinois. His father was a traveling insurance salesman who went from farm to farm throughout the Midwest selling protective farming insurance as well as subscriptions to Prairie Farmer magazine, owned by the WLS Chicago radio station. He wanted his wife and son with him on a daily basis, so the small family moved in and out of cheap hotels during the first nine years of Bill Cook's life. Bill remembered that during the first grade, he went to nine schools in three states. "The quality of our daily lives depended on how well my father's sales went," said Bill Cook. "If he sold a $10 subscription for the station, we ate well that night. We usually slept three to a bed because it was all we could afford."
Rather than seeing this nomadic life in a negative way, however, young Bill Cook thrived. His second grade teacher even recommended skipping him half a grade. In addition to his academic skills, he was socially adept and competitive. "I was always the new kid in town," he said. "I had to learn how to cope with that because I was always tested by the other kids. But I never had any trouble with my peers."
As Bill was getting ready to enter the fourth grade, his mother told his father it was time for the family to get off the road. Bill's father took their life savings and, with the help of a bank loan, bought two grain elevators in Canton, Illinois. Bill enjoyed the rest of his youth there. "It was a pretty place to live," he said. "I had a dog and lots of permanent friends. I have nothing but pleasant memories of Canton."
During his teen years, Bill worked in the grain elevator for his father. He supplemented that income working as a lifeguard at the local community pool. The pool also employed him as a night watchman. "I went to work at the pool at seven in the evening," he explained. "After it closed, I cleaned the pool and spent the night there. In the morning, I would get up and go to work for my dad."
Bill graduated from high school in 1949. Hoping to become a doctor, he attended Northwestern University, where he majored in biology and minored in chemistry. He worked his way through school waiting tables and driving a taxi. One memorable experience during college was the 1948 Democratic National Convention. "I drove several politicians around town," he said. "It was a fabulous experience."
After college graduation in 1953, Bill Cook entered the Army during the Korean War. His work as a medic at the Brooke Army Medical Center burn unit in San Antonio, Texas, caused him to lose his zest for becoming a doctor. "I identified with the burn patients and got too emotionally involved," he said. "I knew then that I didn't want to become a doctor, but I did realize I had an interest in the mechanical parts of medicine."
When Bill received his honorable discharge from the Army in 1955, he became an engineering recruiter for Martin Aircraft. Later he became a catalog editor, and then worked as a scientific products salesman for American Hospital Supply Corporation. In 1958, married and still living in Chicago, he co-founded MPL Incorporated, which became the third-largest hypodermic needle manufacturer in the United States.
Five years later, in 1963, Bill decided he wanted to leave Chicago. He and his wife Gayle settled in Bloomington, Indiana, where he set up Cook Incorporated. "The only employees were Gayle and I, working at home" he said. "She served as my secretary and quality control inspector." The products Bill developed were wire guides, catheters, and needles. He worked out of their three-bedroom apartment, using a blowtorch, a soldering iron, and a few tools he made himself. Gayle designed a catalog of their products. Their first sale came from the Illinois Masonic Hospital, which bought two units for a total of $7. "When checks came in," said Bill Cook, "we celebrated with a night out at McDonald's." Little did they realize that their company would become known worldwide as the pioneer in interventional medicine, nicknamed "surgery through a needle hole." The company was the first manufacturer of coronary artery stents and nearly every type of stent used to maintain patency of cardiovascular arteries, veins, ducts, and organs.
The company's sales passed $1 million for the first time in 1970, then $100 million in 1983, and $1 billion in 2006. Today, the company has become a conglomerate, Cook Group Incorporated, with manufacturing facilities in the United States, Australia, Denmark, Ireland, and Canada. Sixty-two companies form Cook Group, which employs 10,000 people and is the largest privately held medical products manufacturing business in the world. The firms manufacture cardiovascular diagnostic and interventional products and other medical equipment including urological, gynecological, and gastrointestinal devices. Corporations within the group are also involved in real estate, travel, hotels, casino, and aircraft service.
When asked about his phenomenal success, Bill Cook shrugged and said he lived much the way he did when he was young. "Gayle and I still live in our first house bought 43 years ago. I don't see wealth as a determination of success. There is a woman at Indiana University who became a Nobel Prize winner when she was 76. She had worked and struggled all her life as a college professor. She is a highly successful person, but she is not wealthy. It's not just wealth that makes you a success, it's what you do with your life. If you feel as if you have done a good job at whatever it is you have done, then I think that's success."
Looking back over his career, Mr. Cook was especially proud of the recognition he received from the medical societies of interventional radiology—here and in Europe. He said, "To have doctors recognize me as one of them and accept me as a layman into their societies has created my greatest feeling of accomplishment as far as my professional life is concerned."
Bill Cook believed what he had accomplished in his life's work could not happen anywhere except in the United States. He spent long periods of time working in Australia and Europe, and he was always gratified to return home to the States. "It's our way of thinking," he said. "Americans are free thinkers, creative thinkers. Our freedoms set us apart from everywhere else in the world and create an environment that becomes limitless in possibilities and opportunities."
Bill Cook had a favorite poem that he followed most of his life. It was written by Edgar A. Guest and given to him as a child by his mother:
Success! It's found in the soul of you,
And not in the realm of luck!
The world will furnish the work to do,
But you must provide the pluck.
You can do whatever you think you can,
It's all in the way you view it.
It's all in the start that you make,
You must feel that you're going to do it.
He said, "This poem means a lot to me because it tells me that success is in my soul. Success is whatever I want to make of it. Did I want to become a college professor? Did I want to become Secretary of State? Did I want to become rich? What did I want to become? The whole world was my oyster because of this country. I could do anything I wanted, and I was able to achieve my goals. And what I wanted was to be a successful businessman."
When offering advice to young people, Bill Cook suggested they should take their time discovering what it is they want to do. "Do a little job hopping," he said. "If it takes you until you are 30 or 35 to find what you are looking for, don't despair. I was 32 before I found myself and I never regretted the time I spent before that exploring other possibilities. All of your experiences help you to broaden your scope and become more knowledgeable."
Bill Cook's Philanthropy
Long before they became wealthy, Gayle and Bill Cook were giving back to their community. Through their son's experiences, they saw what drum and bugle corps participation could do for young people. They started a corps from scratch in Bloomington, and built it into a world championship corps in nine years. From that came a traveling brass music show that morphed into the Broadway production "Blast!", which won a Tony
Their passion was historic preservation. They restored a southern Indiana farm home where Abraham Lincoln had visited as a boy, and turned it over to the state for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. They reworked and saved a nineteenth-century downtown Bloomington home and put it to use as a business center. Other restoration projects include Fountain Square Mall, Graham Office Plaza, the Showers Office Complex, and the Grant Street Inn—all in downtown Bloomington.
In 1998, Bill and Gayle Cook were approached to serve as the primary restorers of the West Baden Springs Hotel, whose huge domed atrium was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The hotel, which had its heyday in the 1920s, closed after the stock market crash. Over the next 60 years the hotel changed hands and uses several times. By the mid-1990s, the structure was in danger of falling onto the weed-infested grounds. Bill and Gayle became fascinated by the history of the hotel and wanted to restore it to its full glory. The $90 million restoration resulted in a four-star hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, which has become a popular resort destination.* Deceased