CHAMPAIGN — Colleagues are remembering Anne Cook as a curious, quirky, fun journalist who was as comfortable at school board meetings as she was in interviews with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Ms. Cook of Champaign died last month at age 80.
Equipped with a master’s degree in English literature from Northwestern University, the woman born into a Piatt County farm family embraced complex agricultural issues and made them understandable and interesting for readers of The News-Gazette for more than 20 years.
“What Anne had for the many years I worked with her as the ag reporter was a youthful enthusiasm for the stories she was working on,” said Sidney-area farmer Dennis Riggs.
As spokesman for the Champaign County Farm Bureau for about 14 years, Riggs interacted with Ms. Cook frequently.
“She’d come in with that reporter’s notebook and a writing device and say, ‘Dennis, I’m working on this story,’ and would be searching for what angle would be interesting,” he said.
Anxious to educate while informing, Riggs said he would start talking while watching her react.
“She would wriggle in her chair and get excited, and you could see her flowing into the story with her whole body and things were just flying,” he said. “I don’t have any idea what she was jotting down. The next day, when it came out in the paper, it was fantastic. She never misquoted me.”
Ms. Cook’s family had farmed in East Central Illinois for more than 100 years and owned a 300-acre farm near Seymour at the time she was hired as a full-time News-Gazette reporter in 1981.
She had also worked as a correspondent for three years before that, covering meetings of all kinds and news of interest from Piatt County.
“She had enough knowledge about agriculture to be dangerous,” Riggs said with a laugh, “and she’d want to know more. Half was for the story and the other half was for her better understanding of agriculture.”
Former News-Gazette reporters Don Dodson and Julie Wurth recalled learning and laughing as they overheard her end of telephone interviews in the open newsroom.
“She taught me so much about cheerily pulling information out of sources on the phone, dealing with the stresses of the newsroom, and embracing life no matter what,” said Wurth, the recipient of lots of good life advice from her friend and co-worker.
“We sometimes chuckled when a source apparently used a clever turn of phrase and Anne responded, ‘Great quote!’” said Dodson.
Now-retired photo editor John Dixon called Ms. Cook a “character.”
“I never looked forward to an assignment from her that included directions,” Dixon said of the pre-Google Maps era. “You never knew where you might end up. But one of my favorite photos came from an assignment we did together on the barns of Piatt County. It still hangs on the wall at home.”
As part of her beat, Ms. Cook wrote annually about the News-Gazette’s Farm Leader of the Year, the lead story in a special agriculture section. While she took on the more complex stories, she was great at matching colleagues who knew virtually nothing about agriculture with fun and informative stories to supplement hers.
She attended and wrote about Farm Progress shows held once a year in Illinois, Iowa or Indiana in which new concepts in agriculture were showcased.
She shepherded stories about the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, when former Illinois Director of Agriculture John Block was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan.
Ms. Cook and the rest of the staff covered the first Farm Aid concert on Sept. 22, 1985, at Memorial Stadium, a massive effort by more than 50 musicians performing for 12 hours for 80,000 fans to help out farmers who were losing their livelihoods.
In 1988, she interviewed then-Vice President George Bush during his ultimately successful campaign for president.
Given the pre-eminence of the agriculture programs at the University of Illinois, Ms. Cook frequently found herself hobnobbing with cutting-edge researchers or international diplomats and academicians visiting campus and area farms.
Her work netted her awards from the Associated Press, the Land of Lincoln Soybean Association and the Champaign Soil and Conservation District.
In 1986, she and fellow reporter Tom Kacich won a first-place award for community journalism from the Southern Illinois Editorial Association for a series they wrote about the economics of farming and its impact on struggling central Illinois farm families.
Long-time family friend Alan Parker of Champaign recalled Ms. Cook as a tough person with a mind of her own.
“If she was going to do something, it got done,” he said.
The Parkers’ two sons and Ms. Cook’s twin daughters grew up together, with the families taking many camping trips together. Ms. Cook was devoted to her girls and their endeavors.
Another former News-Gazette colleague, Rosemary Garhart, echoed Parker’s sentiment about Ms. Cook’s determination.
“Nowhere was this more evident than when she was battling breast cancer. She scheduled her chemo on Friday so she could deal with all the nasty side effects on the weekend and return to work on Monday,” Garhart said. “She never complained. Few in the newsroom could imagine what she was going through, because she never missed a beat.”
Ms. Cook had many varied interests, including reading, travel, entertaining, and doting on daughters Sarah and Elizabeth, her four grandchildren and her beloved cats.
Parker said as Ms. Cook’s health declined, his strong-willed friend continued to drive herself to visit family and even made an out-of-state trip recently to visit her sister.
“That’s what a tough nut Anne was,” Parker said. “If she was wanting to go, she went.”