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Brief Biography

By Margaret A. Leary
Director and Librarian
University of Michigan Law Library

October, 2006

William W. Cook was an inspired, and inspirational, donor.

Cook's gifts--the four architecturally outstanding buildings that comprise the Law Quadrangle and generous endowments to support legal research--brought national attention to the Law School. The first gift was front and center above the fold of the Sunday, September 21, 1924 New York Times, which called it "one of the finest buildings of its kind in the world." The gifts, worth $20 million in 1930 would be $240 million in 2006.

Cook's Hillsdale Home

Cook's boyhood home,
Hillsdale, MI.

Source: Cook Family

This article outlines Cook's life: growing up in Hillsdale, Michigan (1858-1876); earning undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Michigan (1876-1882); moving to Manhattan and becoming a successful practitioner of corporate law (1882-1920); writing Cook on Corporations which had eight editions, and many other books and articles; and the decade of his retirement and beneficence (1920-1930). Cook died on June 4, 1930, at his Port Chester, N.Y. estate.

Growing up in Hillsdale, 1858-1876

Cook was born April 16, 1858 in Hillsdale, Michigan. His father, John Potter Cook, was a founder of Hillsdale, successful in business, farming, and logging. The community respected him so much that he was the first postmaster of the town and a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1850, where he led the committee that wrote the sections of the Constitution about corporations.

Hillsdale College, 1874

Hillsdale College, 1874.

Source: Hillsdale College.

From his father, Cook learned temperate habits and the importance of the rules of success: morality, virtue, industry, and economy. He also developed an interest in corporations, respect for education, and a basic understanding of law and business. Cook attended Hillsdale's prep school and then Hillsdale College  Webpage opens in new window for two years, where there were courses (which he did not take) in business and telegraphy, which later became the source of his fortune.

From his mother, Martha Wolford Cook, young Will developed a sense of responsibility to his family and a sense that home was "the safety of the nation." Cook's first gift to the University was a women's dorm, named Martha Cook which opened in 1915. Martha raised not only her own nine children, but the five John Cook had with his first wife Betsy, who was Martha's sister.

University of Michigan, 1876-1882

In 1876, Cook transferred to Michigan where, by his own choice, he started over, with four years in the Literary College from which he earned a B.A. in 1880, was the class thespian in his last year, and was a member of Delta Tau Delta, of which he was national president in

Cook, along with his older and dearest brother, Chauncey Ferris Cook, attended the Law School from 1880-1882 and graduated in March 1882. Law School consisted of two years, each having six months of classes, with long summers for learning from working in a law office. Cook worked one summer in Nebraska at the firm of his brother-in-law, N. S. Harwood, and another in Toledo with Scribner, Hurd and Scribner.

Thomas Cooley  Webpage opens in new window, one of the founding members of the faculty and an early Dean, was one of Cook's professors. Cook probably studied domestic relations and other subjects under Cooley. Cook appears to have been greatly influenced by Cooley, who was one of the leading authors, jurists, and legal scholars of the 19th Century. Cook quoted Cooley throughout his life, and cited him as an example both of a great lawyer, and a great teacher. Cooley was a Jacksonian democrat and an early progressive, active in the temperance movement, an advocate of pacifism in international relations, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, and the first head of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

UM Law School, 1875

The University of Michigan
Law School, 1875

Source: Bentley Historical Library

Practice of law, 1882-1920

Almost immediately on arriving in New York City, Cook developed a law practice, and probably clerked in the Coudert law office. One of his clients was John W. Mackay Webpage opens in new window, who made a huge fortune mining silver in Nevada and "retired" to Manhattan. When Mackay experienced the monopolistically high rates for telegraph and cable service charged by Jay Gould's Western Union, he determined to break the monopoly. This he did by partnering with James Gordon Bennett to acquire small struggling companies and merge them into new corporations with competitively broad geographic spread. His lawyer for this was Cook, who quickly became an expert on corporation law and then developed new approaches, including a concern for the rights of stockholders.

John W. Mackay

John W. Mackay

Source: Notable
New Yorkers, p. 416

Cook, in that first decade, had other clients. His father died in 1884, leaving an estate worth what would be $7 million today, which must have helped Cook establish himself. He partnered with Thomas M. Waller, former Connecticut Governor, and S. Harrison Wagner, and represented people involved in complex stock transactions. In the early 1890's, he was part of a small consortium that bought all the street railways in Detroit, began to shift them from horse to electric power, and sold them in 1894. Cook briefly ran those railways in 1891. Part of his fortune may have come from that, and other, investments in street railways. He also invested in Cuban sugar and railways, which was natural given the efforts Mackay made to establish cable lines to Cuba. Cook testified in Congress in 1901-1902 as part of that attempt.

Commercial Cable

Commercial Cable
Building, New York City

Source: King's Views
of Brooklyn, 1896 p. 7

In 1894, Cook was still with Waller, Cook and Wagner with offices at 15 Wall Street. By 1896, he was at the office of the Postal Telegraph Company, 253 Broadway, as General Counsel. What eventually became The Mackay Companies began in December 1883 with the founding of the Commercial Cable Company, which landed its first cable in July 1884. In 1886 Mackay chartered a new company, the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company and then gathered struggling independent telegraph companies, built a partnership with Canadian railways, and reached the Pacific Coast that year. Mackay lowered prices to compete with Western Union, but by 1889 there was stability in the telegraph world. The company built the first direct cable between New York and Havana. In 1903, Mackay built a Pacific cable from Manila to San Francisco and to commemorate the event, Clarence Mackay and President Theodore Roosevelt exchanged the first messages to travel around the globe, which took 9 minutes. By 1906 there were six Mackay cables crossing the Atlantic. By 1924 there were 300,000 miles of land lines and 33,800 miles of ocean cables under Mackay control. Until 1920, William Cook was General Counsel for the Mackay Companies. Cook was involved in many appellate cases (see cases), culminating in two that reached the United States Supreme Court and on which he worked with Charles Evans Hughes Webpage opens in new window, connected with the government's take-over of the Mackay cable and telegraph during World War I.

Cook's Clubs

Union League Club

Union League Club, New York City

Source: King's Views of New York,
1896 p. 31

In addition to his membership and leadership of Delta Tau Delta, Cook joined many other clubs. Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, he was recommended to, and became a member of, the Kane Masonic Lodge, whose members were among the most powerful men in the city. Masonry was very active in Hillsdale when Cook was growing up,. There is no evidence that his father was a Mason, but friends and business associates of his father were, and so was at least one of his brothers, Chauncey. Masonry may be the reason Cook went to, and succeeded in, Manhattan. Cook also belonged to the Lawyers Club in New York City, and this may have inspired the Lawyers Club in Ann Arbor, which was part of the first building and which, as an organization, was another way Cook intended to raise money for legal research. He was a member of the Blooming Grove Hunting and Fishing Club, and built a cottage there in about 1902, which still exists as a simple, well-proportioned building on one of the most remote sites on the club's 22,000 acres. He was a member of the Union League Club, but was apparently not active.

Cook's Personal Life

Cook's Blooming Grove, NY Cottage

Cook's Blooming Grove Cottage

Source: Margaret Leary

In 1889, Cook married Ida Olmstead, the daughter of prominent New York lawyer Dwight Hinckley Olmstead who reformed the way of registering land in New York City, by developing and urging the adoption of the lot and block system used to this day. One of Ida's aunts was married to Theodore Dwight Webpage opens in new window, dean of Columbia Law School from 1858 to 1891. Cook and Dwight must have had conversations about the nature of legal education, and both were committed to the importance of formal education rather than education through experience which was then the common way to enter the bar. The marriage was not a success, and the couple separated several times, the final one in early 1894. They were divorced in 1898, after Ida went to North Dakota and began an action based on desertion by Cook.Cook, represented by Porter McCumber Webpage opens in new window, Michigan J.D., 1880, counterclaimed and was granted the divorce. The judgment mentioned no children and provided neither alimony nor division of property.

Dwight Hinckley Olmstead

Dwight Hinckley

Source: Notable
New Yorkers, p. 148

Cook grew up in Hillsdale's finest home, and created two for himself. While still renting in Manhattan, he began to buy land in Port Chester, on the Connecticut border, which was soon easy to reach by commuter rail. Eventually he had almost 100 acres, which he kept at arboretum quality, with many species of evergreen, thousands of dollars worth of rhododendrons, and a full time gardener.

Cook's Steinway Piano

Cook's Steinway Piano

Source: Margaret Leary

In 1911, he hired the prestigious architects Edward York and Philip Sawyer Webpage opens in new window to design and build a townhouse for him at 14 East 71st St., next to the Frick mansion and half a block from Central Park. Artisans who worked on the house included Atilio Piccirilli Webpage opens in new window, (sculpture), Samuel Yellin Webpage opens in new window (iron work) and Rafael Guastavino Webpage opens in new window (clever tiled arched ceilings). The house was richly furnished, with a custom art case Steinway Webpage opens in new window grand piano, tapestries, velvet drapes, and beautiful woodwork.

Near the end of his life, in 1929, when the Legal Research Building was under construction, Cook decided to have his personal library "the room, and the book collection" taken to Ann Arbor, where the room was reconstructed and the books housed. A list of the books in his personal library is on this website.

Cook's Gifts to Higher Education

Cook's Manhatten Townhouse

Cook's Manhattan Townhouse
Upper Three Floors

Source: Margaret Leary

The first gifts were to Hillsdale College, in perhaps a classic case of people giving to people rather than to institutions. Cook's gifts to Hillsdale were all given during the period his brother Chauncey was on the Hillsdale Board, and Chauncey oversaw the spending of the money personally. First Cook gave $1600 for a heating plant for a building being renovated for a women's dorm. Then, from 1906-1915, he gave $1,000 a year to help establish, and maintain, a department of domestic science. Then, Cook notified the Board, from which Chauncey was departing, that the gift would stop and the department should operate on its own, which it did for over 50 more years.

Martha Cook Building

Martha Cook Building.

Source: Bentley Historical Library

The end of his giving to Hillsdale coincided with the start of his giving to the University of Michigan. Cook's first pledge, in 1910, was for $10,000 toward construction of a women's dorm, which was a high priority at Michigan as at Hillsdale because the parents of young women were reluctant to have them leave home for an education when the daughters had to live in possibly seedy rooming houses. Through skilled persuasion by President Harry Hutchins, Cook's gift grew to provide the Martha Cook Building, a dormitory for selected young women which cost $400,000 and opened in 1915.

Hutchins and subsequent Presidents Burton, Little, and Ruthven, along with Law School Dean Henry Bates, continued to work with Cook to find ways he could, through the University, foster his ideals. His gifts to Hillsdale and Michigan, through 1915, focused on his desire to provide a way for women to learn through higher education by providing dormitories, but also for them to learn how to create a "home the nation's safety", as inscribed on a mantel in the Martha Cook building.

Landscaped wall outside Cook's Port Chester home.

Landscaped wall outside
Cook's Port Chester home.

Source:American Landscape Architecture, 1924, p. 133.

Cook's gifts to the Michigan Law School were in support of a different ideal which is expressed in his will, mounted in bronze in Hutchins Hall, as:

Harry Hutchins

Harry Hutchins, 1910.

Source: Bentley
Historical Library

Believing that the character of the law schools determines the character of the legal profession, I wish to aid in enlarging the scope and improving the standards of the law schools by aiding the one from which I graduated, namely, the Law School of the University of Michigan.

Inscriptions express his complete ideal:The character of the legal profession depends on the character of the law schools. The character of the law schools forecasts the future of America. (State Street entrance to Lawyers Club) and Upon the bar depends the continuity of constitutional government and the perpetuity of the republic itself. (South University, east entrance to Law Quad).

The Law Quadrangle

The Lawyers Club, which includes a dining room and kitchen, large lounge, and residential rooms, was opened in 1924 and dedicated in 1925. There was then a four year hiatus in building, much to the consternation of Dean Bates, while Cook worked on and off with York & Sawyer on plans for another dormitory and the Legal Research Building. While the students were happily living in their grand new quarters, classes, faculty offices, and the library were still in the old Law Building near the corner of State and North University. Bates especially wanted what he called a "law building" which would hold faculty offices and classrooms. But Cook put a higher priority on an additional dorm (to generate revenue to support research), and a library, or Legal Research, building.

Construction, 1924

Lawyers Club Construction, 1924.

Source: Bentley Historical Library

The John Cook dormitory and the Legal Research Building were completed in 1931. The new dormitory also included a handsome, but smaller, lounge, in addition to rooms. The Legal Research building had the library collection, library staff space, offices for faculty, and space for researchers. Its outstanding feature is the Reading Room. The windows contain stained glass replicas of the seals of great universities and colleges of the world; the ceiling is an intricate gold and blue; the reading tables are large and sturdy; and the chandeliers add a lacy quality matched by the stonework of the entrance.

Hutchins Hall, with classrooms and faculty offices, was completed in 1933. Built, for the most part, after Cook's death, in circumstances complicated by the Depression and the contest over Cook's will, it is simpler in most respects than the earlier buildings. Whereas Cook himself provided direct inspiration and even direction to York and Sawyer Webpage opens in new window up until his death in June 1930, after that the Law School, and in particular Dean Bates, and committees and even subcommittees, made decisions about such features as the stained glass cartoons and the inscriptions.All Hutchins Hall inscriptions are in Latin; all those for the other buildings, chosen by Cook, are in English.

Cook's Will

Bronze plaque of part
of Cook's Will in Hutchins Hall.

Source: James Duderstadt

The Contest over Cook's Will

Cook died on June 4, 1930, leaving nearly his entire estate to the Michigan Law School. The news was covered by many papers, including the New York Times. Almost immediately, those most involved became concerned about a mysterious family member who might contest the will.The news became public on April 17, 1931, when Ida Olmstead Cook engaged William Gibbs McAdoo Webpage opens in new window and others to represent her claim that the 1898 divorce in North Dakota was invalid. Were that correct, she could exercise her claim to one half the estate. The negotiations were intense, but by December there was a settlement, which became public early in 1932. This entire period was very difficult for the University: Cook's estate was tied up during the initial period after the suit was filed, and the value of the estate, largely in stocks and bonds, was diminishing. Wise leadership, particularly from Regent James O. Murfin who was the lead negotiator and strategizer, enabled the completion of Hutchins Hall and the Quadrangle.

Cook's Legacy

Cook's Grave

Cook's grave Hillsdale, MI.

Source: Margaret Leary

Cook's gift brought much positive publicity to the Law School, at about the same time that Michigan Law was asserting leadership in research, raising the requirements for entry and graduation, developing some of the first specializations in foreign, comparative, and international law, and building a library collection to support research in any legal topic, in any jurisdiction, and any period of time.

The inspiring collegiate gothic buildings, the sense of community from living in the Quad, the library collection, and the Cook endowment in support of legal research, have provided Michigan Law with an endowment that goes beyond dollars and reaches the core of educating great lawyers.

For more information about Cook and the Law School:

See the Further Reading section of this website.

Photo Citations

King, Moses. King's Views of New York 1896-1915. New York, Arno Press, 1980, originally published Boston, 1896.

———. Notable New Yorkers of 1896-1899, A Companion Volume to King's Handbook of New York City, New York, Moses King, 1899.

Last updated: Friday June 01 2007