GRAND RAPIDS — Early on in what would prove to be a highly successful career, Peter Cook took an aptitude test that revealed he was best suited to being either a salesman or a minister.
He more or less took both career paths.
Though never ordained, Cook created a ministry of sorts, sharing the personal wealth he accrued as a salesman to help individuals and organizations in need.
The former chairman of Mazda Great Lakes is well known locally for his business acumen and philanthropy. But to those whose lives he has touched with his generosity, he’s simply known as a nice guy with a big heart.
Cook attributes much of his good fortune to “God’s grace” and to “the good people around him” over the years.
“We were always taught to give even though we had very little; it’s my Christian faith,” Cook recalls of his upbringing. “I’ve been greatly blessed to have been provided all these material things; I think one of the reasons is to be able to help people and organizations that need help.”
He and his wife, Pat (Ema Jean), have given and continue to give 30 to 35 percent of their annual income every year to charities.
Right now their giving is through personal donations to organizations they hand select based on how they see a particular organization benefiting the community. Their emphasis tends to be on local charities and causes, Cook said.
“All I can say is that God provided — whether it be by giving us the opportunities or the ability to recognize opportunities, and the ability to recognize good people,” Cook said. “The two important things in giving are being willing and being able. By far the most important is being willing.”
The Cooks established the Peter C. and Ema Jean Cook Charitable Trust in 1959, which became known as the Cook Charitable Foundation in 1987. The foundation currently has assets of $7.7 million and its areas of interest are education, religion and science.
The foundation has not been a “big giver” up to this point and doesn’t take unsolicited requests, noted Carrie Boer, who handles Cook’s investments.
Among those organizations that did receive foundation funds this year were Gospel Communications, Grandville Avenue Academy, Media Research Center and Child & Family Residence Service.
By design, the Cooks set up the foundation so the giving could continue in their names after their deaths, Cook said.
The couple has made millions in personal charitable contributions to organizations ranging from colleges, universities and hospitals, to Christian organizations benefiting children and families, to the arts, and through years of giving has developed close affiliations with many charities.
For years Cook also has “given back” by sharing his experience and insights as a member of numerous boards, which he continues to do today. He is currently a trustee for the Van Andel Institute.
Cook actually graduated from South High School in 1932 with the hope of becoming a lawyer. But the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, he was the eldest of five children and there simply wasn’t money for law school.
Instead, he took a 17-cents-an-hour factory job at Kalvinator and enrolled in an 18-month secretarial course at Davenport College at a time when male secretaries were in great demand.
That led to jobs in accounting and treasury for a couple of furniture companies and eventually to the imported wholesale car business, where Cook built a successful career selling imports like Austin Healey, Jaguar and Volkswagen.
Bob Przybyze has known Cook more than 20 years as a friend and business partner. One of their joint ventures was the Grand Rapids Hoops. He said no one could ask for a better role model, friend or mentor than Peter Cook. And despite his success, Cook has always remained humble and unpretentious, Przybyze said.
“Peter Cook is one of the finest, most incredible Christian men I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to know. He’s certainly one of the most generous, giving people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being associated with,” Przybyze said, adding that Pat Cook shares her husband’s warm, giving and caring nature.
“I’ve never known him to say no to anybody who needed help — whether it’s dollars, or lending his name or time to a project. His involvement in a project gives the project instant credibility. I would consider him one of West Michigan’s greatest natural resources,” Przybyze remarked.
In all of the years he has known Cook, Przybyze said he has never heard anybody in any capacity say a negative word about him. Considering all of the success Cook has had and all of the things he’s been involved with, Przybyze thinks that’s pretty remarkable in and of itself.
“He’s certainly someone who not only talks the talk but walks the walk. As he has been blessed, he has given back and let all of us be blessed by his success. He’s a remarkable man.”
Verne Barry, president of Faith Inc., makes it clear that he’s a Peter Cook fan. Barry’s South Division Avenue nonprofit helps the community’s needy and jobless get training and work. Cook has supported Faith Inc.’s mission.
“Peter would very often hear about something I was trying to do and he’d come forward with the help before I ever got around to asking for it,” Barry said. “He’s that on top of what’s going on in the community. He never gives begrudgingly. He always does it positively and happily.”
Barry describes Cook as a class act who practices “compassionate capitalism” everyday. Cook doesn’t wait for people to cry help. If he’s aware of a need in the community, he’ll step forward to address the need, Barry said.
“He doesn’t hang back and wait until someone mounts a campaign where there are a lot of bells and whistles. He’s a quiet giver.”