Distinguished teaching professor William Cook is a father, a scholar, a Catholic, an explorer and a teacher, but in reflecting on 38 years at Geneseo, it's hard to draw boundaries between his many accomplishments and adventures.
He owns a house in the village and an apartment in Italy. He has built his reputation in lectures around the world and through Geneseo's academic halls. He shares his expertise in laymen's terms as well as in scholarly books. He shares his faith in community projects and in travels worldwide. He's adopted or been guardian to 11 children and has seen thousands of students pass through his classrooms over the years. And he's done it all in funky outfits and weird ties.
Cook completed his doctoral research in Prague, but government repression and the language barrier impeded his facility to study and communicate.
"I took a summer in 1973 to travel around Italy," he said, recommending the trip simply on basis of the great art and great food. "There I really figured out that I wanted to study Francis and the Franciscans, and I've been doing that ever since."
In 1987 he purchased an apartment in Siena, where he has spent decades studying his hero, Saint Francis of Asissi, the subject of three of his books.
Cook's Christian faith has interwoven most of his endeavors. He seeks opportunities to practice his religious values on both local and global scales. As a professor, he teaches one course on the Bible and another on Christian thought. And according to Cook, "I'm constantly wheeling and dealing to find ways to relieve comfortable people of their money to give to people who are uncomfortable."
In his annual charity dinner for the Covenant House, he has raised over $80,000 in the past 22 years.
Travelling to various countries has allowed Cook to present another one of his talents and ambitions to the world.
"You have to know what you're good at and what you're not good at in the world," he said. "One of the things I'm good at is taking fairly complicated stuff that scholars write about in books and incorporating that into a sort of interesting and comprehensible appreciation of things."
In less than a week, he'll be doing a symposium in Colorado on the Italian Renaissance, and in a few months, he'll lecture to the Friends of Florence organization on history and art. In each case, he'll present his own scholarly expertise within a more understandable and enjoyable context.
"I like to go exploring," Cook said. "Most of my travel is involved with research and giving lectures."
He visited Japan just this fall. This past summer, he visited Istanbul, Turkey, researching Islam and its connections to Christianity, in an effort to improve himself as a teacher as well as to talk respectively with people of other faiths. He rode a camel and slept under a berber tent in Morocco for last year's Spring Break, and plans to visit the monasteries of northern Ethiopia for this year's.
Cook views teaching, "not only as a profession but as a vocation, and also as a great privilege."
Being among the top seven longest-standing faculty members at Geneseo, Cook has seen the school undergo several transformations. In the late '70s, he said, "Geneseo began to take on a niche within the SUNY system. We began to have a character of our own." With that character came higher academic standards that made Geneseo a distinctive college in the state and the nation. According to Cook, "It's a harder but more rewarding job in the sense that you see your students go off and do the most wonderful things they can imagine."
"The things I do," he said, "I do zealously, enthusiastically, and hopefully, intelligently. I have a lot of curiosity, and for a 63-year-old guy, I feel fairly young and well able to communicate with young people, including my own sons."
As a longstanding sports fan of all of his children, he said, "We've had agony, we've ecstasy, we've had sectional championships.
"I like being around young people," he said. "I like talking to them, I like challenging them, I like learning from them. Students allow me to tease them, allow me to get tough with them, because they ultimately know that I love and respect them. I think I have a fairly hopeful, non-cynical view of life for an old guy, because I get to spend my life with hopeful, non-cynical people most of the time."