New generations Cooke up a winner

Alcoa arrives (and leaves); family eyes second century

John Esten Cooke (L) bought The Reporter on May 29, 1911, pubished it for 25 years. His son W. H. Cooke, was on the job for 55 years as publisher-editor, publisher and publisher emeritus. John Esten Cooke (L) bought The Reporter on May 29, 1911, pubished it for 25 years. His son W. H. Cooke, was on the job for 55 years as publisher-editor, publisher and publisher emeritus. POSTMASTER—John Esten Cooke was appointed Rockdale Postmaster in 1936 and he oversaw construction of Rockdale’s new post office in 1939. He died the next year.

W. H. Cooke became publisher editor in 1936 when his father became postmaster. It was a particularly hard time in Rockdale, as it was elsewhere in Depression-Era America.

One year into W. H. Cooke’s tenure as publisher, almost 70 percent of the farmers in Milam County were tenant farmers, not owning their land. When the farm program checks arrived one month it was the lead frontpage story.

The Reporter in the 1930s occupied a special place in the lives of its readers. Entertainment money was scarce and the newspaper grew to take on additional roles. A second, pre-printed section was added with entertainment news, wire service photos, serialized fiction, self-help columns, even comic strips, some in color.

Publisher John Esten Cooke (hands on hips), in about 1918, in The Reporter’s original quarters, a wooden structure across Cameron Avenue from City Hall (now the police station), warmed, of course, by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove. Publisher John Esten Cooke (hands on hips), in about 1918, in The Reporter’s original quarters, a wooden structure across Cameron Avenue from City Hall (now the police station), warmed, of course, by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove. In just a couple of years W. H. Cooke’s front page column, with its humor, warmth and insight, became a must-read.

“Regal Ramblings,” later shortened to “Ramblings,” was a part of the fabric of Rockdale life for 50 years.

THE WAR—On Dec. 7, 1941, The Reporter, and Rockdale, changed. The previous issue had contained stories about a high-diving dog coming to town and the annual Baptist Church banquet.

Ken Esten Cooke worked at The Reporter for 15 years, was publisher for three, 2007-10. Ken Esten Cooke worked at The Reporter for 15 years, was publisher for three, 2007-10. Ensuing issues reported on a air raid warning observation post being established at Sandy Creek and The Reporter ran pictures of aircraft silhouettes, showing how to tell Allied from Axis bombers.

Cooke summed it up: “War is hell, folks. That’s a mighty good thing to keep in mind.”

He was right. Two weeks later this was the front page lead story: “Rockdale boys killed in early stages of war.”

There would be more.

SUNDAY VISIT— W. H. Cooke ran the newspaper’s biggest headline to date in May, 1945, when Germany surrendered.

‘GERMAN WAR ENDS’ it screamed.

But a bigger one would come within a decade.

Cooke and The Reporter were instrumental in the creation of the post-war Young Men’s Business League.

In 1946 the league placed signs at the entrances to Rockdale: “Home of the world’s largest lignite deposits...your opportunity is here...”

That opportunity came into focus one drowsy Sunday afternoon. Cooke was at home when the doorbell rang. He answered it and Rockdale stepped onto a rollercoaster ride that lasted 57 years.

At the door was a little man in a black suit and high button shoes. He was J. G Puterbaugh, owner of McAlester Fuel Co., a mining company. He had come to tell the newspaperman Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) was interested in building an aluminum plant at Sandow.

He was correct.

The ensuing headline ‘ROCKDA LE MAY BE SITE OF HUGE $100-MILLION PLANT’ remains The Reporter’s largest to this day.

The 1950s were a dizzying decade for Rockdale and The Reporter.

Alcoa was built, went on-line and expanded. The city more than doubled in size and population. New schools were built. Alcoa Lake became a prime Central Texas “fishing hole.”

Local author George Sessions Perry, writing in The Saturday Evening Post, dubbed Rockdale “The Town Where it Rains Money.”

Cooke covered it all. By the decade’s end he had some help.

NEW LOOK—J. W. (Bill) Cooke joined The Reporter as news editor after receiving his journalism degree at North Texas State in 1958. And he brought a new look to the paper.

Through an increased scope of departmentalized news and sports, the paper’s circulation grew as did its pages, from an average of 14 pages in 1959 to an average of 28. “The emphasis was on school and other youth activities,” Cooke recalls, “because people want to read about their kids’ achievements, sports, UIL academics, whatever.” The paper’s press run gradually increased from about 3,000 to almost 5,000.

A very visible change was in The Reporter’s photography.

Staff-produced photos had begun to appear in the late 1940s but by the end of the 1950s the paper was generating award-winning news, feature and sports photography and coverage.

The paper’s expanded sports pages attracted new generations of readers with crisp coverage and eye-catching photos. Cooke’s Sports Cookebook column provided analysis, sidelights and continued the tradition of standing tall for Rockdale interests.

HOSPITAL—The Reporter played a role when changing times and new federal requirements threatened to leave Rockdale without a hospital.

A new facility, Richards Memorial Hospital, was constructed in 1973-74. The Reporter helped generate support for a massive fund-raising drive with extensive publicity.

The Reporter continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s and was there through numerous economic ups and downs, mostly tied to how many Alcoa potlines were operating at any given time.

When the Rockdale Tigers won a state football title in 1976, The Reporter was there for all the highs—winning it all at Texas Stadium in Irving—and the rare lows—a shocking week nine loss to Elgin that almost derailed the championship express.

W. H. and J. W. Cooke formed a partnership in January, 1970. In 1981 the son purchased the father’s interest. W. H. Cooke continued to write his popular humor column and managed the firm’s commercial printing and office supply departments.

He died July 3, 1991, after putting in a full day at the office and attending his beloved Rotary Club meeting at noon.

The final line of his last column, which ran the issue before his death was:

“And then there was the man who said he would not hesitate to drive up to the Pearly Gates—and honk.”

FOURTH GENERATION—In July 1995, Ken Esten Cooke, son of Bill and Peggy Cooke—became the fourth generation Cooke to join the newspaper staff.

Named for his great-grandfather— Ken Esten studied journalism in college, acquired a business degree and became the paper’s general manager.

His sister, Kathy Cooke, joined the newspaper in advertising sales in 2000 and became advertising manager in 2004.

In September, 2007, Bill and Peggy Cooke became publishers emeritus, semi-retiring to part-time work with Ken Esten as publisher and Kathy as assistant publisher and advertising manager.

Under Ken Cooke’s guidance the newspaper developed a new high-tech design with eye-catching layouts, graphics, and more color. A website was begun and the paper is now available through digital subscriptions.

But the basics didn’t change. The Reporter remained Rockdale’s advocate and Ken Cooke continued his family’s passionate support of local businesses.

He became involved in numerous economic development activities, served on the city’s first economic development board and he and the newspaper backed the successful effort to create and fund a Municipal Development District.

GOOD, BAD—As in previous eras, there was plenty of good news and bad news.

The Reporter covered efforts to construct the first new school facilities in more than 30 years, and endorsed the subsequent successful bond issue.

But in 2008, A lcoa closed its Rockdale smelter and threw some then 1,200 employees out of work, essentially ending an era which began when J. G. Puterbagh knocked on W. H. Cooke’s door in 1951.

The Reporter has been covering the aftermath

Ken Cooke elected to leave Rockdale in September, 2010, to join the University of Houston-Victoria in marketing where his wife, Christine, had been hired as a professor in English and creative writing.

With his departure, Kathy Cooke was named publisher.

A fifth generation family member, ad salesperson Katie Cooke- Garza, daughter of Kathy, joined The Reporter staff in 2009.

HONORS—The Reporter began to gather numerous regional and statewide awards almost as soon as John Esten Cooke took the helm 100 years ago this week.

It has earned a reputation as one of Texas’ best, and most honored, large weekly newspapers.

The Reporter won its first South Texas Press Association Sweepstakes award in 1974. That’s the top award bestowed by the STPA, which is the largest regional press association in the United States. It is calculated by combining points from all phases of newspaper production, from news and photos to advertising and page design.

In all, The Reporter has won 16 STPA Sweepstakes awards, including 14 of the last 21 and the last four in a row.

Peggy and Ken Esten Cooke served terms as STPA president. Kathy Cooke is currently an STPA director.

The Reporter has also won numerous awards in Texas Press Association state competition. The past two years it has tied for TPA’s sweepstakes (best all-around newspaper) award.

And, oh yes, just in case you were wondering. John Esten Cooke got the St. Thomas Episcopal Church Tom Thumb wedding in the paper in his second issue as publisher, on June 8, 1911.

The family hasn’t missed much that’s gone on in Rockdale over the past 100 years.

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The burn ban for Milam County has been lifted. Burning is always prohibited in the county's municipalities.

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