Forty years ago or so, Harry Cook, an Episcopal priest turned newspaper reporter who later worked as a priest again, landed perhaps the last interview ever with Father Charles Coughlin, the famed radio priest whose open anti-Semitism and flirtation with Nazism led the Vatican to silence him during World War II.
“Are you a Jew?” Coughlin asked Harry.
Concealing his disgust, Cook said no, and then went off to the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak to talk with the Roman Catholic priest Franklin D. Roosevelt called one of the most dangerous men in America. Harry Cook, who was a good friend of mine, wasn’t exactly dangerous, unless you tried to argue with him and didn’t have your facts straight.
But for the last two decades, he was one of Metropolitan Detroit’s leading public intellectuals, lecturing to rapt audiences on topics ranging from the Bible to the Electoral College. Hundreds more fans all over the world followed a weekly blog he wrote.
Cook was uncompromisingly honest. Though he had gone through rigorous seminary training and was an expert in Biblical texts and ancient languages, he had long since become a nonbeliever. I have known other ministers who had lost their faith, but they mostly kept that concealed from their congregations.
Harry didn’t. He let his flock at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Clawson know how he felt, and wrote books about how to live a moral life in a world without a personal god.
A few families left, and there were grumblings about charging him with heresy, but most of his congregants stayed loyal to Harry. In some ways, he was a bit like the Old Testament God himself. He was a deep-voiced curmudgeon more at home with a fountain pen than a smart phone. He had a sardonic sense of humor, but wasn’t light and breezy. When I did a tribute on this station to Ernie Harwell when that iconic baseball announcer died, Harry assumed I had been made to write on a topic he thought beneath me.
He was stunned when he found out writing about baseball was my idea, but forgave me anyway. Cook was brilliant and erudite, but what was perhaps most impressive was his strong commitment to social justice. He was a regular volunteer at Crossroads of Michigan, an inner-city social service agency, and was a strong supporter of same-sex marriage long before that was cool.
He had a wide-ranging life. One of his first memories was being in Detroit as a five year old when the race riot of 1943 broke out, after which his family moved up north. He had been a railroad worker, a newspaper reporter, religion editor and editorial writer, and a priest.
And he gave everything his all. He believed firmly that saving the world is up to us. Or, as the title of one of his books put it, “Long Live Salvation by Works.” Harry Cook didn’t back down from a fight, but last month, he lost one to prostate cancer. There will be a memorial service tomorrow morning at 11 at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Oak Park, and people will share a lot of stories.
My guess is that Harry would be happy if a lot of those who admired his work came.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.