Occasionally you hear about someone whose success goes beyond the mere accumulation of wealth. Someone, in fact, who single-handedly pulls up the droopy socks of a rundown town with their purposeful philanthropy.
Medical device mogul William Alfred Cook, who passed away in 2011 at age 80, blazed his way through life and medicine with an abiding faith that philanthropy could change lives, communities and the world. After working for two years as an Army surgical technician in the early 1950’s, he and his wife, Gayle, later invented the first coronary stent in the back bedroom of their Bloomington, Ind. apartment. The mom-and-pop company eventually morphed into Cook Inc., an innovator in the field of minimally invasive medical devices that changed the healthcare paradigm in the U.S. and transformed vascular medicine into a global giant.
Among other philanthropic efforts, Cook used profits from his medical device company to become a leader in the American historical restoration movement. An offshoot company developed real estate and renovated dozens of historic but dilapidated buildings in his adopted hometown of Bloomington and throughout the state. His crowning achievement came at French Lick, the tiny southern Indiana town with the funny name that time had forgotten.
At an estimated cost of over $500 million, the Cooks, including son Carl, fully restored the French Lick Springs Hotel and, a mile away, the West Baden Springs Hotel, both early 20th-century edifices that were in ruins. It was a labor of love. Each property was fully restored to its original sophistication, luxury and grandeur. A new casino was built adjacent to the French Lick Hotel and opened in 2006. The West Baden Springs property, with its massive dome, a.k.a. the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” reopened as a hotel in 2007 for the first time since 1932.
With a Dixieland band performing on its wide wooden porch set with rockers, the grand but festive yellow-brick French Lick Springs Hotel offers an “American Classic” experience highlighted by Italian mosaic floors and scagliola (faux marble) accents. The West Baden Springs Hotel, a National Historic Landmark known for its extraordinary atrium, offers more in the way of European sophistication plus fine dining at Sinclair’s, a stylish restaurant named for one of the hotel’s original owners.
With the hotels fully refurbished, Cook addressed the golf experience at French Lick in a very significant way. After revitalizing the resort’s historic hilltop course, a classic design by Donald Ross circa 1917, Cook brought in Indiana homeboy Pete Dye to build a new course on the state’s second-highest peak. Dye, a P.T. Barnum in khakis who can remove a man’s socks without untying his shoes, told Cook he’d build the course free of charge, and that a fee could be figured out after he was finished. (Delighted by the results, Cook reportedly wrote Dye a check in the high six-figures). As is his wont when hired by billionaires, Pete spent roughly $31 million of Cook’s money to construct his hilltop tour de force, a layout that both Golf Digest and GOLF Magazine selected as the best new course in the nation when it opened in 2009. Personally, I’m still savoring my most memorable golf round of the year on a truly spectacular course that delivers, bar none, the Midwest’s finest golf experience.
Two years after his death, Cook’s reclamation of French Lick Resort continues to have an enormous economic impact on the tiny little town put on the map in the mid-1800’s by its sulphur-based, lithium-laced Pluto Spring waters. His generosity and vision provide jobs for nearly 1,700 of the county’s 3,000 residents.
According to Steve Ferguson, chairman of the board of Cook Group, Inc., “Few men have ever touched as many lives, saved as many lives, as Bill Cook and the company he created.”