Jack Kent Cooke, of Redskins, dies Washington's owner had opposed NFL team in Baltimore

April 07, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Jack Kent Cooke, the courtly but iron-willed owner of the Washington Redskins, who amassed a vast fortune from a humble start peddling encyclopedias in his native Canada, died yesterday. He was 84.

Paramedics were called to Cooke's Washington residence at 10: 45 a.m. yesterday, and they rushed him to George Washington University Hospital. He died about 30 minutes after arrival and was pronounced dead at 12: 09 p.m., hospital spokeswoman Merle Goldberg said.

A statement from the team attributed the death to congestive heart failure resulting from heart disease. With him when he died were his wife, Marlena; son John Kent Cooke Sr.; his son's wife, Rita; and their son, John Kent Cooke Jr.

The National Football League team owner had been in poor health for some time. He had a heart attack in 1973 and was known to suffer occasional bouts of angina, or chest pains. On the advice of doctors, he skipped the final Redskins game at RFK Stadium in Washington in December.

Mr. Cooke was building a stadium for the Redskins in Maryland, but that was the only pro football team he'd wanted in the state. Mr. Cooke had opposed efforts to return the NFL to Baltimore.

"He was a piece of Americana -- a self-made man. He was a great doer and achiever and very aggressive in achieving his goals. He made certain that his goals were realized," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the Democratic president of the Maryland Senate and one of Mr. Cooke's earliest and strongest allies in state government.

"I've met a lot of public figures like the queen of England and the pope. But they were people of great reserve. Jack Kent Cooke had a persona all his own. He was a showman. He was meticulous in his dress and in the way he enunciated his speech. But he could be very demanding with people," Mr. Miller said.

Ravens owner Art Modell, who entered the league the year after Cooke first acquired shares in the Redskins, said: "He was one of the first real, multisport owners in sports. I think he'll be remembered as a genuine sportsman."

Mr. Cooke's death robbed him of the chance to see perhaps his most enduring monument, the $180 million football stadium now going up in Prince George's County in the Washington suburbs. Mr. Cooke, who privately financed the stadium, ordered construction on a record-setting pace and spoke often of his eagerness to see the massive and, at times, frustrating project through to completion.

It is scheduled to open this fall. "That stadium is nearing completion and certainly an expression of Mr. Cooke's determination and drive," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"Mr. Cooke spent much of his life working hard to build an NFL franchise that brought pride to the entire region. I know he looked forward to his team playing in his new stadium," Mr. Glendening said through a spokesman.

Under Mr. Cooke's ownership, the Redskins made four trips to the Super Bowl, and the owner's box became a gathering spot for the rich and famous. Invitations to rub shoulders with the likes of political commentator George Will or members of Congress were coveted. Television cameras often caught Mr. Cooke waving regally to the crowd below, like a king recognizing his subjects.

Mr. Cooke also developed a reputation for getting his way, sometimes by ruthlessly brushing aside opposition. His impatience with the pace of negotiations over his stadium plans sent him on a nine-year search for a place to build the project, taking him through Washington, Virginia and several sites in Maryland. Community groups fought him at every turn.

Among those he crossed was former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer, who tirelessly strove to return the NFL to his city. Mr. Cooke opposed a competing team 30 miles north of his own, and, Mr. Schaefer says, helped dash the city's chances of getting an expansion team in 1993.

"He was very polite and well-mannered. He liked to talk about his youth, about growing up in Canada. But when we started to talk about football, the atmosphere changed," Mr. Schaefer said.

"He was very egotistical, which is fine. I liked the guy. He was an interesting guy," he said.

Mr. Cooke's death ends a colorful story of success and perseverance. He was born in 1912 in Ontario, the son of a picture-frame maker. As a youth, he was an avid hockey player and fan and learned to play the clarinet and saxophone. For a time, he played in bands in Toronto, including one that included Percy Faith, the orchestra leader and composer.

During the Great Depression, Cooke began his business career selling encyclopedias.

By the age of 26, he had entered an industry destined to be more profitable for him: He joined a Canadian-based broadcasting and publishing firm and was part-owner of a chain of newspapers. His publishing holdings eventually included the Los Angeles Daily News.

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