‘Permanent Good’: Wabash Alumnus Dedicates Retirement to Laying Educational Foundations Around the World
In 1992, while Bill Cook was eating dinner with his son at a restaurant in San Andrés Tuxtla, Mexico, a 12-year-old boy came in begging for food.
The owner spotted him and kicked him out.
Cook told his son, Angel, whom he adopted from Puerto Rico, to tell the young boy to wait outside. Cook doesn’t speak Spanish.
“The kid ate an enormous amount of tacos at the local tacos stand and we sort of said goodbye and that was that,” Cook recalled. “But then the next morning, he was there at the hotel when we were packing our bags to say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you.’”
The boy introduced himself as Pedro Martinez.
Cook was so surprised he took a photo of the boy, which still hangs on his wall at home.
“I always wanted to remember this is a kid who needed somebody to do him some permanent good, and all I did was feed him for a night and he was hungry the next night,” Cook said.
That experience inspired him to start the Bill Cook Foundation, and that photo continues to inspire him today.
Cook, an alumnus of Alpha-Kappa Zeta at Wabash College, launched the foundation in 2015, having no idea what he was getting himself into, he said. All he knew was he wanted to do as much permanent good as he could for the world’s poorest children.
The foundation’s mission is to help children all over the world receive the best education possible, regardless of their circumstances. It supports education from basic literacy and vocational schooling through university education, according to its website.
In November, the foundation was seeking donations for projects in Papua New Guinea, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Kenya.
‘Those 4 Years Were So Valuable’
Cook was born and raised in Indianapolis, where he attended Arsenal Technical High School.
After high school, he went on to Wabash College, also in Indiana, where he joined Lambda Chi Alpha. He actually rushed the summer before his freshman year, he said.
“Wabash is very small and it’s all men, so it sort of plays by its own rules,” Cook said. “I got put in the Lambda Chi house by pure lottery.”
He joked the only reason he was given a pledge pin was because he could pay a house bill.
“I didn’t really impress anybody, I don’t think, but I had a high GPA in high school, so I’m sure they figured, that’s good, he’ll help us boost the ‘ole’ GPA,” Cook said.
For two or three days, he said, everyone was pleasant. Then, one night that first week, the brothers had the incoming freshmen line up in the house.
“What did I get myself into?” he thought.
“Gentleman, we were very impressed by your high school grades and all of the teams you were on and everything you’ve accomplished,” Cook said he recalls hearing. “But gentleman, we’re not impressed anymore.”
“In college, there are plenty of smart people,” he said. “Being smart, it doesn’t single you out.
“When you join a fraternity, you realize it’s not about just you anymore.”
As the only child of a doctor, that was something Cook had to get used to. All of the things he always thought meant the most in this world — the grades, the prestige, the material items — went out the window.
“You discover that it’s about the good of all of you. There’s a sense of cooperation and community that I never had growing up,” Cook said. “You have to build your own world with the 24 guys you’re thrown together with. Those four years were so valuable to me because I learned things I didn’t learn growing up.”
It’s a perspective he’s carried with him throughout his life.
He adopted three boys and served as a guardian for eight others.
Cook earned Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Medieval History from Cornell University, an Ivy League school in upstate New York. Eventually, he landed a job at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he worked as a professor studying the history of Christianity for 42 years. He retired in 2012.
20 Countries in 2 Years
Retirement has yet to slow Cook down, though.
He’s spent the past two and a half years globe trotting — stopping where he’s needed most.
Because he completed a lot of work for the Young President’s Organization (YPO), an international leadership organization for CEOs, he had a group of people to turn to for donations once his foundation received 501c3 status, becoming an officially recognized nonprofit.
“I had no idea how to do any of this stuff. I just sort of made it up as I went along,” Cook said. “But I did know that while 20-dollar contributions are great, 10,000 -dollar contributions are even better.”
Two years in, the foundation has already raised nearly 500,000 dollars.
“I keep telling people I want to be the third largest foundation under the name ‘Bill,’” he said, laughing. “You’ve got Gates, and you’ve got Clinton.”
So far, the foundation has helped children in 20 different countries.
The foundation looks for ways to help them get an education, whatever that may be.
“That’s any kind of education,” Cook said, whether that means building a school, having books or clothes shipped, fighting to change a policy, or providing food and housing so the kids’ focus can be on their education.
He even helped three Cambodian men move to Indiana to attend his alma mater.
The foundation’s work extends beyond K-12. The goal in every location is to build a foundation for success.
“We basically look for projects where it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a difference,” Cook said. “My hope is that 40 years from now, we’ve educated enough people that we’ve made a little bit of a difference in the world.
“You can’t eliminate ignorance easily. You can’t just give somebody a shot for it. They’ve got to go to school for 10 plus years. So that’s why we’re trying to build a structure for the long haul.
“When you have more educated people, they’re going to demand an education for their children. They’re not going to go backwards,” he continued.
Cook isn’t naive to his age.
“At 73, you never know when a knee is going to go, or an organ for that matter,” he said.
For the time being, he’s scurrying around trying to lay as many foundations as possible.
Finally, Some Permanent Good
Recently, Cook made it back to Mexico to reunite with the boy he and his son met begging for food. But it wasn’t an easy feat.
“I went to his neighborhood and had trouble getting anyone to talk to me,” Cook said. “Finally, someone told me to go down a path to a ramshackle shack.”
There was a man about Pedro’s age in the yard, he recalled. The man said he had a brother named Pedro, but he had moved 1,000 miles away.
“The brother called him, but he remembered nothing of the event,” Cook said. “That’s when one of the man’s kids looked at the [Cook’s] photo and told his dad it was Uncle Angel, not Uncle Pedro.”
They called Angel who remembered every detail, he said.
“He told me later he would never, as a street kid, give his right name,” Cook said.
His real name is Angel Fararoni. He’s a man now, and he has three young boys of his own.
“When I finally went to have this great reunion, I realized that his son, Kevin, wasn’t speaking,” Cook said.
Kevin was disabled.
The public school he attended didn’t offer special education classes, so the foundation paid the fees required for Kevin to attend a special school.
The boy also needed a mouth operation to correct a birth defect so he could finally learn to speak, Cook said. The foundation paid for that as well.
“I was finally able to do some permanent good for him,” Cook said, “all these years later.”
For more information or to donate to the Bill Cook Foundation, click here.