New London community leader Milton Cook dead at 75

New London community leader Milton Cook, center, died Thursday at the age of 75. In this 2008 photo, as board chairman of the soup kitchen, Cook comments during a New London City Council Homeless Working Group meeting at city hall, with City Councilor Adam Sprecace, far left, Catherine Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center, far right.
New London community leader Milton Cook, center, died Thursday at the age of 75. In this 2008 photo, as board chairman of the soup kitchen, Cook comments during a New London City Council Homeless Working Group meeting at city hall, with City Councilor Adam Sprecace, far left, Catherine Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center, far right. Dana Jensen/The Day

New London — Milton Lewis Cook Jr., a man "very concerned about the community and service to the people ... and the needs of humans," died Thursday after a brief illness.

He was 75, his wife, Minerva Cook, said Friday.

Cook "did everything" during 35 years at the Opportunities Industrialization Center of New London. He served as the city's NAACP chapter president and was involved with organizations like the Homeless Hospitality Center and the New London Community Meal Center, where he was president of the board of directors.

"He's been a great man in the community and he's going to be sorely missed in a lot of circles," said Bill Donovan, president of the New London Lions Club, an organization Cook served for more than 30 years.

Cook moved to the city in 1977, his wife said, and became "immediately involved in the community." It started at OIC, which provides job and skills training, and where Cook began working in December of 1977, said Bennie A. Jennings, the center's founder.

"He immediately adopted the philosophy of OIC, which was 'self-help,'" Jennings said Friday from Mississippi, where he moved after retiring. "He had many roles there. Whatever we called on him to do, he did it."

The organization opened a branch office in Norwich, now since closed, Jennings said, and Cook was called upon to run it. When the OIC began a culinary arts program, Cook — who had a passion for cooking — took the helm, Jennings said.

"Over the years, besides being my co-worker, we ended up being the best of family friends, so the history goes way back," Jennings said. "He was straight up and to the point: He would say what he meant and mean what he said."

He said Cook was "putting 24 hours a day with the activities he was involved in."

Cook petitioned the New London Board of Education to shut down the schools on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day when Cook led the crowd at the first MLK Day parade.

His "Unity Day," which began at Ocean Beach Park and moved towards State Street where vendors would sell goods, drew large crowds as well, Minerva Cook said.

And in the 1980s, he served three terms as the New London NAACP chapter president. When Cook said he wouldn't seek a fourth term in December 1986, then-City Manager C. Francis Driscoll told The Day, "The minority community has lost an articulate, firm and meaningful voice. He's probably as fine a leader as the southeastern Connecticut minority community has ever had."

Almost every night, Cook would stop in at the soup kitchen on Montauk Avenue and "sit there like the Pope, holding court, at his particular table," said Cook's friend, Jon Gaudio.

Gaudio, a cardiologist with the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital Physicians Association, said he began a free doctors clinic at the soup kitchen at Cook's urging.

Gaudio would stop in to visit Cook, who each night would give "fatherly advice" to soup kitchen patrons, many of whom were down on their luck.

"He was that kind of guy, he knew everybody's story but never judged," Gaudio said. "He was a heartfelt guy, just a good dude."

Cook stayed true to his commitments up until his death, Jennings said, which came less than a week after the death of another community stalwart, Eunice Waller.

"I would say that between those two, aside from just the minority community, the community as a whole has lost some very concerned and dedicated individuals, people who were concerned about everybody," Jennings said.

Donovan, who said he and Cook each served three times as president of the Lions Club, remembered Cook as "not just a casual member. He's a main player in everything we do."

"It's a big loss to the Lions and to the New London community as a whole," he said. "Whenever we had projects, Milton was always the first one to step up."

A service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Shiloh Baptist Church, 1 Garvin St., New London.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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