New York Radio Personality Louis Cook Walks On
He was a noted jazz host and radio producer in Indian country in northern New York State. But above all, Louis “Louie” Cook was a loving presence and a mentor to many.
Known to the world at large as the late-night host of “Jazz Waves” and the producer of “You Are on Indian Land” on North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York, Cook walked on last week at age 66. He passed into the spirit realm on May 13, a week after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
“His witticisms; his laughter,” are what his younger sister, Saka Pembleton, will remember most of growing up with Cook, after they were orphaned when he was 10. That and his simple enjoyment of life.
“He was a very elemental man; he loved fishing,” she said, recounting too his love for the St. Lawrence River and for wading in its sands, and adding that he had a keen eye for detail as well.
“He was an observant man,” she said, through tears. “I can see the same thing as he does, and I won’t notice what he did.”
Louie shared his knowledge and life experience generously, “training and mentoring many young radio producers, particularly those from the Native community, including his first cousin Ray Cook,” wrote North Country Public Radio station manager Ellen Rocco, in a memorial for the radio personality.
Louie Cook worked for North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York from the mid-70s to the early 90s. He was the late-night host of “Jazz Waves” and the producer of “You Are on Indian Land,” a series that dealt with Native issues.
“Louie was the brother I never had,” said Ray Cook, opinion editor for Indian Country Today Media Network, to Rocco. Indeed, Ray said, it was Louie’s influence that inspired him to go into media.
“He was an artist in the traditional form,” Ray said in an interview with Martha Foley, a colleague of Louie’s. “He believed in the power of music and how it can soothe the soul and he always treasured the stories that he recorded and the people he talked to when he was in the production mode.”
Louie’s co-workers said they’d miss his musical passion and his zest for life.
“Louie was full of life, he had tremendous energy, he was passionate about his music–really, he was bigger than life,” said Radio Bob, another radio colleague.
Beyond being a radio host and producer, Louie Cook also helped others understand Native issues and rights.
“I remember a staff meeting, probably sometime in the early or mid-80s, when a colleague used the expression ‘Indian giver’ in reference to someone who had taken back a present,” Rocco wrote. “Quietly but firmly, Louie pointed out the inherent ethnic insult in that common phrase, and that led to a conversation about other elements of everyday language that advanced negative racial stereotypes.”
Louie’s mother was from Kanawakeh, the Mohawk reservation outside of Montreal; his father hailed from the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on the St. Lawrence River. His father was a Marine pilot during World War II and returned to service as an instructor during the Korean War. He walked on during a training exercise when Louie was just 10. Louie lost his mother around the same time to a heart attack.
Louie was raised by extended family at Akwesasne and followed his father’s footsteps into the service; he served six years in the U.S. Navy, where he trained as a lab technician. Radio wasn’t Louie’s intended career, though. He attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and Canton and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mortuary studies. According to Pembleton, he planned to work in a funeral home with his father-in-law. But he loved music and ended up at WSLU, which is now North Country Public Radio, in the mid-70s.
“Louie loved music, he loved music from the time he was a little, little boy. He and my mother loved music; it’s just part of who he was,” Pembleton said. “When he got out of the service he had been working three jobs. He was so tired and he needed a break, so he decided he would find something that was more solitary, like the lab technician work was, and that was being a deejay. He went to the local radio station, they hired him, and he took a few classes. He enjoyed his work as jazz evening host.”
Soon after leaving the station in the ’90s, Louie moved to South Dakota, remarried, and began working with a nonprofit organization that helps Pine Ridge families maintain gardens. He and Alex White Plume, former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, worked on techniques for growing industrial hemp. Pembleton said their brother Tom was involved as well.
“Louie, along with his other blessings, was a gifted gardener,” Pembleton said. “As the oldest boy he was in charge of the garden, especially when we had no father. He always planted, so it was a natural transition to help Tom with that. They became interested in how to make hemp that didn’t have THC. They made bricks that were strong, and built a house.”
Louie wasn’t without his struggles. Cousin Ray described them as demons; Louie’s sister said he checked himself into rehab multiple times for chemical dependency and had self-medicated in trying to deal with bipolar disorder. Louie may have struggled, she said, but he came out on top because he was a positive influence to so many in his life.
“He left a quiet footprint, a legacy that should be remembered, it was among the time of reel-to-reel tape, cassette machines as big as bread boxes and when muti-tracking meant multiple machines,” said Peggy Berryhill, Muscogee Creek, a public radio producer. “We both went on our adjacent paths affiliated in our desire to use radio as a means of teaching and educating Indians and non-Indians and having some fun. Louis did finally tame his demons, and he continued to work with the earth, literally, at Pine Ridge. Thank you Louis, for sharing a time with me and leaving your legacy.”
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