J.P. Blase Cooke

[Age 60] Beginning as a $3-an-hour laborer, he became owner of one of the country's largest building contractors.

"It was never about Blase. It was always about people and the operation of the company," a colleague said.

October 05, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Joseph Peter Blase Cooke, who rose from a $3-an-hour laborer to become president and owner of Harkins Builders Inc., one of the largest design and building contractors in the nation, died Tuesday of cancer at his Glenwood home. He was 60.

Mr. Cooke, who was known as Blase, was born in Baltimore and raised in Irvington. After his father died of a heart attack when Mr. Cooke was 12, he went to work in a sandwich shop and served as a caddy at Turf Valley County Club to help support his mother and four younger siblings.

After graduating from Edmondson High School in 1966, Mr. Cooke served for two years as an Army military policeman. In 1975, he earned a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of Baltimore.

He began his career at Harkins as a laborer in 1968 and steadily rose through field positions in the general contracting company until being promoted to division manager in 1978. In 1980, Mr. Cooke was named vice president, and two years later, he became executive vice president.

He was elected president and chief operating officer in 1984, and after the death of the company's founder, Thomas P. Harkins, in 1993, he assumed full ownership of the company and was elected chairman and chief executive officer of Harkins Builders Inc.

"I'm a grunt," he told Business Monthly in a 1999 interview. "I just identify what's important and do it."

"He was a giant of a man in all nonliteral ways. He was a hugely charitable and goal-oriented man," said Dick Lombardo, the company's chief operating officer and a friend of 31 years.

"He wrote his goals down and kept them in his pocket, and every day he took them out and looked at them. This is what helped him become successful. It was never about Blase. It was always about people and the operation of the company," he said.

Colleagues recalled that Mr. Cooke's style of management was collegial.

"He always insisted that things had to be done the right way - not his way. He insisted on that, and you never felt you were battling his ego," Mr. Lombardo said. "He appreciated what people did for him and was always saying, `Thank you,' or sending them complimentary notes."

Joani Van Tuyl was Mr. Cooke's assistant and officer manager for 25 years.

"If you wanted to talk to him, no matter what your position in the company, his door was always open. He was an absolute advocate of an open-door policy," Ms. Van Tuyl said. "He managed by walking around, visiting job sites and talking to people. He knew everyone's name."

Mr. Cooke enjoyed working hard and often explained his strong work ethic by saying that he didn't want his "family growing up eating mustard sandwiches."

"When he was growing up, his family didn't have a lot of money for food, so they ate mustard sandwiches," said a son, Kevin C. Cooke of Canton.

"A habit that served me well has been never to leave my office at night until I addressed all of the priorities that were on my desk for that day," Mr. Cooke said in the Business Monthly interview.

"This meant that our family often ate dinner together quite late. But each morning, I was prepared to jump into an emergency or problem that required my attention because I wasn't burdened by all of the things that I didn't finish yesterday," he said.

"I tell our supervisors, `If it weren't for problems, we wouldn't need you. It isn't what happens to you, it's how you handle adversity that matters,'" Mr. Cooke said.

"He really was one of a kind and did a lot of good for a lot of people because he was financially successful," said Gary J. Garofalo, Harkins' chief financial officer. "Making a lot of money and not doing anything with it wasn't Blase."

After being diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Mr. Cooke continued to lead his company, which employs 250. In 2002, he sold the majority of his shares in the company to the employees while remaining president and CEO until his death.

"The value of the employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, has grown to, like, $25 million," Mr. Lombardo said.

Mr. Cooke, who was involved in many charitable and civic organizations, had served on the board of Catholic Charities and was on the board of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

An avid golfer, Mr. Cooke was a founder of Cattail Creek Country Club.

"He liked golfing and especially at any golf course in Ireland," his son said.

Mr. Cooke was an active communicant and committee member at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, 12500 Clarksville Pike, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. today.

Also surviving are his wife of 39 years, the former Dawn Klinger; two other sons, Jason J. Cooke of Roland Park and Brian W. Cooke of Glenwood; two brothers, Phillip Cooke of Herndon, Va., and Gregory Cooke of Sykesville; and two sisters, Mary Cooke of Columbia and Julia Stamerro of Glenwood.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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