Reporter has been ‘Cooke-ing’ for 100 years

Four generations of publishers
Reporter Editor

Publishers emeritus J. W. (Bill) and Peggy Cooke with daughter Kathy, current publisher. They’re displaying photos of John Esten Cooke (R), who purchased The Reporter 100 years ago and published his first issue June 1, 1911, and his son W. H. Cooke, who worked for the newspaper 55 years as editor, publisher and publisher emeritus. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Publishers emeritus J. W. (Bill) and Peggy Cooke with daughter Kathy, current publisher. They’re displaying photos of John Esten Cooke (R), who purchased The Reporter 100 years ago and published his first issue June 1, 1911, and his son W. H. Cooke, who worked for the newspaper 55 years as editor, publisher and publisher emeritus. Reporter/Mike Brown John Esten Cooke began his first issue as publisher of The Rockdale Reporter on June 1, 1911, with an apology of sorts.

There wasn’t room for the “Tom Thumb Wedding,” a fund-raising entertainment benefitting St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

The transition week in which Cooke took over from former publisher R.W.H. Kennon had been hectic.

“We only got about half the copy put in type,” Cooke apologized.

Neither The Reporter, nor the Cooke family, has missed much else relating to Rockdale in the ensuing 100 years.

This issue marks the 100th consecutive year for the family to publish the newspaper. The key word is definitely family.

FAMILY AFFAIR—John Esten was publisher- editor of The Reporter for 25 years before turning over the reins to son W. H. Cooke in 1936.

W. H. Cooke was on the job for 55 years as publisher-editor, then publisher and publisher emeritus.

He put in a full day at The Reporter on the final day of his life, July 3, 1991.

J. W. “Bill” Cooke worked with his father from 1959 to 1991, becoming editor in 1962 and publisher in 1981.

J. W. Cooke has been publisher emeritus since 2007 and is now in his 52nd year at The Reporter.

His wife Peggy has been working at the newspaper for the same length of time as a writer, columnist, proof reader, editor, publisher emeritus and occasional sergeant-at-arms.

Ken Cooke, son of Bill and Peggy, worked for The Reporter from 1995 to 2010, becoming publisher in 2007. He moved to Victoria last year.

Kathy Cooke, daughter of Bill and Peggy, has worked at the paper since 2000, becoming assistant publisher in 2007 and publisher/manager in 2010.

A fifth generation Cooke, ad salesperson Katie Grace Cooke- Garza, daughter of Kathy, has been employed at The Reporter since 2009.

ROADS—Those are the numbers and they’re impressive but they only tell part of the story.

Through the Cooke family The Reporter became, and has continued to be, the town’s strongest pro-Rockdale voice for 100 years, supporting its economy, its community life, its students, its athletes and, above all, its businesses.

From the moment John Esten Cooke wrote his first editorial in the paper dated June 1, 1911, the newspaper has championed “shop at home” and promoted local business institutions.

First order of business for John Esten Cooke was to be sure Rockdale area residents—and most of them were on farms 100 years ago—could get to town to use those local merchants.

Cooke immediately embarked on a good roads crusade that ended up lasting most of the decade.

There was substantial opposition to be overcome.

“Most of the men who would vote against a bond issue for good roads have never travelled down a good road,” Cooke wrote.

Rockdale residents went to the polls on May 27, 1914, and voted for $100,000 in road improvements bonds.

Or so they thought. While the margin was five votes over the required two-thirds needed, a group of 88 petitioners opposed to the election sought, and obtained, an injunction against the bond issue, claiming several persons had voted illegally.

Cooke then printed names of the supposedly illegal voters, triggering many of them to write letters taking issue with the “antibond” forces and asking that their names be “cleared.”

Milam County District Court wanted nothing to do with the litigation so the case went to an appellate court in San Antonio which, in 1916, ruled the road bond election was invalid.

“Farmers surrounding Rockdale are doomed to paddle around in mud and sand just as they have for the past 40 years,” an unhappy Cooke wrote.

But the pro-road forces rolled up their sleeves and got back to work. There was another election on March 29, 1917. Rockdale voted in favor of road bonds 595-213.

Side-by-side on the front page with the election results was a letter from the chairman of the effort against road bonds three years previously. “We have fought our battle and lost out,” he said.

The road bonds were sold March 13, 1919, and the 1920s opened with a major burst of road building.

ON THE MAP—Roads weren’t the only innovation John Esten Cooke brought to The Reporter.

There had been no photographs in the paper under previous editors Kennon and C. L. Tanner, only drawings and artist’s conceptions of national and world news events supplied by press services.

Cooke changed that. His very first issue included a photo of the 1910 Rockdale Fair, illustrating a story about plans for the 1911 event.

The next week there was a photo of the Milam County Boys Corn Club.

Cooke enlarged the paper, extended its circulation and The Reporter began to win respect in newspaper publishing circles throughout the state, a tradition that carries to this day

He joined the Texas Press Association in 1914 and by 1920 was its president. Cooke wrote the TPA’s code of ethics which was adopted by the organization in 1921.

Back home, Cooke coined several phrases which were used for decades including “Regal Rockdale” and “Matchless Milam.”

Most famous was “Reporter Ads Get the Grapes,” a slogan promoting the value of advertising in Rockdale’s newspaper.

It came from a real incident. In 1921, Minerva-area farmer Davis Jenkins placed a classified ad to sell Carmen grapes, a tame commercial-grown variety. And he had six acres.

The ad was supposed to run indefinitely, until stopped by the purchaser. The next week Jenkins called Cooke: “I don’t need to run that ad any longer. I’ve sold completely out of my grapes.”

Cooke coined the phrase on the spot. It’s still in use.

Ten Rockdale Milestones covered by The Reporter, 1911-2011

Sept. 9, 1921—The Great Flood. The Rockdale area’s biggest natural disaster ever. Sixty-three people died and hundreds were rescued, clinging to trees and parts of houses. It’s estimated 90 percent of the livestock in Milam County perished.

Sept. 3, 1935—The Scarbrough & Hicks Fire. An era ended when the landmark insititution, covering four buildings at the corner of Ackerman and Cameron, was destroyed by fire. Two Rockdale volunteer firefighters died fighting the blaze.

Dec. 7, 1941—World War II begins. A prophetic W. H. Cooke writes: “We are going to whip Japan to be sure, and Hitler and all of his cutthroats, too, before it’s all over. That’s the job that’s cut out for us. But it’s a job that’s going to take time and suffering and setbacks.”

Aug, 29, 1943—Bad Day in ‘The Rock’. The Coffield Warehouse burns at Milam and Main just after midnight, a quarter-million dollar loss. That afternoon, a tornado strikes “College Hill” along Bell Avenue, ripping the roof from the high school gym.

June 7, 1951—HELLO, ALCOA! Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) announces it will build a $100-million aluminum plant near Rockdale, bringing thousands of jobs and a multi-million-dollar payroll to the area.

Nov. 22, 1963—The Unthinkable Happens. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, two hours away. The Reporter’s front page is a heavy black border surrounding a portrait of the murdered president.

Dec. 17, 1976—Tigers Number One! Rockdale 23, Childress 6. The Rockdale Tigers are state football champs. And they do it in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Oct. 22, 1983—Write This Down. A cowboy from San Marcos sings at the Rockdale Fair. First name George. Last name Strait. 13,000 people show up.

Sept. 11, 2001—The Unthinkable Happens, Again. 9-11, terrorists attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Astoundingly, young Rockdale residents are witnesses at both locations.

June 19, Sept. 30, 2008— GOOD-BYE, ALCOA! Alcoa closes its Rockdale smelter, throwing more than 1,000 workers out of a job and ending a 57-year era.

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