After 42 years at Geneseo, Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Bill Cook is retiring.
“Even before I came to Geneseo, I heard about Bill Cook,” said President Christopher Dahl. “The provost I worked with at Millersville University in Pennsylvania said ‘Oh you’re going to Geneseo, that’s where Bill Cook works. Just wait until you see his shirts and ties – they are wild.’ And when I first saw him, he didn’t disappoint.”
“He’s also legendary as one of the finest college professors in the country,” Dahl added. “He’s unique … [in] the energy he brings to the classroom, his sense of social justice and his enthusiasm for all aspects of medieval history.”
Cook came to Geneseo as an assistant professor in 1970 after receiving his doctorate from Cornell University.
“Like many professors, I came to a place we’d barely heard of,” Cook said. “Many of us assumed we’d stay a few years, write a brilliant book and be whisked off to someplace we’d heard of.”
According to Cook, the incoming group of new professors soon realized that they liked Geneseo and wanted to build it into a special place.
“I think a lot of us happily came to the conclusion that this is where we wanted to spend our professional lives,” he said. “That would be people like [Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus] Bill Edgar, [Distinguished Teaching Professor of English] Ron Herzman, [Distinguished Teaching Professor of English] Gene Stelzig and a lot of other people. A lot of the people I came in with have retired.”
“Our generation helped to put the place on the map and transform it from being a good public college … to being a distinctive liberal arts college that has a national reputation,” he said.
“Ultimately the college has grown and matured in extraordinary ways … We have a better curriculum from when I came, our faculty from top to bottom is more distinguished academically … and I think that the college is a more serious place.”
“This is not just a place to get a piece of paper four years later, but it’s a place to have a distinctive and intense education,” Cook said.
“Everyone has a theory about why Geneseo has risen to the prominence that it has,” Herzman said. “It seems to me that the reason it happened was there were a bunch of teachers of truly extraordinary talent and ability who came here as very young kids … and stayed for their whole career.”
“It’s that core faculty, more than any other single thing, that’s responsible for what Geneseo is today,” Herzman said. “If you’re talking about the people at the top of that list, you’d have to put Cook.”
Cook, along with Herzman and others, is credited with the growth of study abroad at Geneseo and the formation of the Western Humanities program.
“We met each other in 1972 as people who were in the same field but in different fields. That is to say we were medievalists – he in history and I in English,” Herzman said. “We got together and taught a course and that course led to our teaching several courses in a row in Europe with our students.”
Cook and Herzman have also written together, including three editions of The Medieval World View: An Introduction.
According to Herzman, the humanities course started as a course called Synthesis, which, after many trial runs, became Humanities I. Cook, Herzman and Edgar taught the first section. Both Herzman and Dahl noted Cook’s dedication to all his students, whether they pass his course with an A or a C grade.
“He’s one of those teachers who is insanely interesting in class and also tremendously demanding,” Herzman said. “It’s almost a kind of miracle the way so many people that get Cs from him come back for other courses.”
“It will be unusual for the college not to have Bill Cook working full time,” Dahl said. “I’m pretty sure that we’ll see him teaching a course or two. It’s hard for a teacher like Bill … to leave the classroom permanently.”
“I think the thing I will miss is next year there won’t be any new faces that I’ll know,” Cook said. “In three years there’ll be no student here who knows who I am.” Cook said he plans to continue traveling the world after retirement and possibly teach as an adjunct at Geneseo.