An obelisk stands about 25-feet tall in the corner left of the entrance of Hillsdale’s Oak Grove Cemetery next to the street. It towers over the other graves, bursting through the branches of a neighboring tree that was probably just a sapling when it was built. Next to these other more modest graves, the obelisk seems overdone, ornate, and gaudy. Twenty-one headstones surround it as if Stonehenge were encircling the Eiffel Tower. Two belong to wives of the deceased, nine to children, three to his children’s wives, and the rest to grandchildren and their spouses. Six headstones bear only first names, which suggests early childhood death. The gravesite belongs to John P. Cook.
Few from Hillsdale have even heard of this man, not to mention the rest of the country or the world. Curious law students at the University of Michigan might discover him during an investigation into the origin of a particular dorm’s name (named after Cook by his son), but few other monuments dedicated to John P. Cook exist. This stands in sharp contrast to someone like George Washington, whose name flashes across statues, schools, and hospitals nationwide. People like Washington are historical superstars; everyone wants to see their tombs. While paying your respects at these tombs is important, you should also do so at the graves of normal people like Cook.
From the gravesite, we learn that Cook was blessed with wealth and family. But the epitaph tells us more: “A man whose judgment, steady purpose, and strong convictions, with his integrity, high principles, unassuming manners, and charitableness toward all men, constituted a harmonious nature, formed the characters of his children, and builded a wide influence for good. His home was the center of his thoughts and hopes. The world is better for his having lived.”
We can’t help but stumble over the archaic “builded,” yet such praise is so effusive that we almost expect to see a name like Washington’s above it. Instead, we don’t recognize “John P. Cook” because the name is emphatically ordinary. He made the world better by being good, honest, and charitable towards all men, especially his family. We have to wonder what else he did to be worthy of such a reputation.
The Hillsdale County Historical Society tells us his story. Growing up in Cato, N.Y., Cook moved to Jonesville in 1834 with his friend Chauncey Washington Ferris and they started a convenience store. Soon after, Cook became the first postmaster of the city of Hillsdale. By 1846, both he and Ferris owned stock in the Michigan Southern Railroad. He owned the Delta Sigma Phi house, which was built in 1863 — though he probably didn’t play football. According to Margaret A. Leary’s biography on his son, William Cook, published by the University of Michigan Law School, Cook served on the constitutional convention for the city of Hillsdale in 1850, thereby becoming one of the founders of the city. Through trading, investment, and service, Cook accrued an estate worth $7 million. Dan Bisher’s “History of Hillsdale County: Pioneer Period” adds that Cook served on the board of trustees at Hillsdale College for 20 years after it moved from Spring Arbor in 1853.
Despite Cook’s success in Hillsdale, he was no George Washington. He founded a tiny city in rural Michigan. He wasn’t a statesman; he wasn’t a war hero. But his family wrote of him that “the world is better for his having lived,” which echoes those words we want to hear from God at our deaths: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Cook didn’t father a nation as Washington did, but he nonetheless improved the world by loving his neighbor as himself — by loving those nearest to him. He’s as worthy as any of a grave that stands out because he should stand out among us as an example.
We should visit cemeteries to pay respects to those who lived as Cook did. Few of us will ever be a Washington, but we will be fathers, mothers, priests, and teachers. Regular people like Cook deserve honor nearly as much as Washington does, for good fathers, mothers, priests, and teachers are primarily why you and I are as well off as we are, even if we don’t always know their names.
The end of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” emphasizes this point: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully in a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
John P. Cook rests in such a tomb. Visit his and others.
Gill West is a senior studying Philosophy and Mathematics.