Obituary of Ralph "Ron" Cook JR.
RALPH “RON” H. COOK, JR. (1933-2021)
Rev. Ralph “Ron” H. Cook, Jr. died on July 6, 2021, at the age of 87 in the house he designed and built on the Big Sur coast, in a bed he also crafted. His wife Deborah Streeter and dear neighbors stood by him as he died, and members of the Mid Coast Fire Brigade carried his body out the path and onto a firetruck for an honor guard departure.
Ron’s legacy was as a builder. He built up churches. For 27 years he helped build up students seeking a religious calling, perhaps in UU ministry, through his work at Starr King Seminary in Berkeley. And perhaps most precious to him, he built his own house on the Big Sur Coast, beginning in 1969. In his 25-year retirement he would say, “I used to be in the ministry tribe, but now I am in the builder tribe.” He took incredible care and detail in building a house, a life, tables, stairs, a bed to die in.
Ron was born August 27, 1933, in Snohomish, WA to Ralph Hiram Cook and Esther A. Cook. His mother was one of 14 children of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants and he grew up on a pea farm, working summers in the fields and loading food onto refrigerated railroad cars. He was the first in his family to go to college, earning his BA in Art and Political Science from Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA in 1955. He then did a year of post graduate art study at the University of Washington in Seattle. From 1956 to 1957, he also worked in commercial art and drafting, including time as a draftsman at Boeing Aircraft.
As a child Ron was an Episcopalian, a happy Cascades camper and faithful acolyte. In his postgraduate years in Seattle, he joined the University Unitarian Church. There he was encouraged by Pastor Aron “Gil” Gilmartin to attend Starr King School for the Ministry, CA and graduated in 1960 with his Bachelor of Divinity. In his Berkeley years he discovered San Francisco jazz and art, and made dear lifelong friends.
He would proudly tell the tale of how the UU Ministerial Fellowship Committee turned him down for ministerial fellowship, but how in 1961 the UU Church in Ventura, CA sent him a telegram “Boston be damned! We’ll have our own Tea Party” and ordained him. From 1961-1966 he served not just that congregation but the wider community in leadership in Fair Housing, opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee, promoting racial justice and opposing the local John Birch Society. He was an active member of the UU Pacific Southwest district, a leader in youth programs, camping and conferences. In 1965 he joined many UU and other pastors and marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Birmingham across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
A Ventura church member encouraged him to explore the wider world and in 1966 he resigned from the UU Ventura church and took a year long trip to Europe and Africa, beginning a lifelong love of travel. He returned from Nigeria to accept a job as Associate Director of Young Adult Programs at the UUA (1967-1969). Using the Billings Fellowship grant moneys Ron promoted the career of Ric Masten, UU Big Sur poet and song writer, to engage UU student groups at campuses across the US. He also worked in support of student activists to oppose the Vietnam War.
In 1969 Bob Kimball invited Ron to join the faculty at Starr King School and help revive the school from various challenges. With Bob and Ed Setchko and later Til Evans and Clare Fischer he promoted the distinct Starr King style of education, student centered and affirming of life experience. We teach by who we are. Work done, credit given. As Professor of Ministry he taught Preaching and Worship, Weddings and Funerals (Marry ‘Em and Bury ‘Em), UU History, and oversaw the extensive internship program, travelling widely to settle students in meaningful internships and then later preaching many ordination sermons. He coordinated weekly chapels and led many himself. He also developed and served as Dean of Starr King Summer Schools in Berkeley, CA, Cambridge, MA, Oxford UK, and Chania, Crete.
Ron retired from Starr King in August 1996. Later that year the UU Church of Ventura County named him Minister Emeritus.
Ron’s last 25 years were spent at his beloved house in Palo Colorado Canyon, Big Sur, California, in the house he began building in 1969 as he began his ministry at Starr King. While promoting Ric Masten as UU poet and prophet, he bought 4 acres in Ric’s neighborhood on the Central Coast and designed his first ever house. His partner was Rev. Byrd Helligas, with whom he had gone to Starr King, lived with in Boston while he worked for the UUA, and continued his friendship when Byrd was pastor at the San Jose UU Church. Canyon neighbors and Starr King students helped him build the house over the summers and by 1974 the house was livable for renters.
Ron met Rev. Deborah Streeter, United Church of Christ minster, in 1977, thanks to the matchmaking of Starr King grads Maren Hansen and Harlan Limpert, a special weekend in Portland, Oregon and some ping pong in Albany CA. They married in 1979 on the deck of the Big Sur house, Maren and Byrd officiating. Their two children Owen Streeter Cook and Norah Streeter Cook were born 1982 and 1987 while Deborah served UCC churches in the Bay Area and Ron kept teaching at Starr King.
They moved to that Big Sur house full time in 1996 as the kids entered adolescence, thinking perhaps for a year or two, but stayed for 25 years, became active in the community, helped form and grow their local volunteer fire brigade, organized neighbors to oppose a proposed local logging project, and kept making the house more livable year-round. Ron served as a volunteer CASA volunteer, speaking in court on behalf of foster kids, and as a member of the local water company board and Fire Brigade. He kept building, a new roof, guest room, tables, vestibule, new stairs. With a ready shovel he kept the bad dirt road passable and wrote a memoir about building. He read widely especially in UU and US history, old New Yorker magazines, and music history. He loved hearing from former students. He kept travelling in the US and Europe, many happy trips. He stayed in touch with dear neighbors and friends, especially the “Old Guys” who hiked each summer the Pine Ridge trail and worked on each others’ homes. He helped neighbors Ric Masten, Owen Greenan and Bob Douglas get to doctor appointments and stood by their sides during death and their memorial services.
Ron was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) in 2011 and later had a cancerous kidney removed. He worked hard to stay alive that last ten years, during which he co-officiated at both children’s weddings and welcomed three grandchildren, one born a few weeks before he died.
Ron died peacefully in the bed he built in the house he built. He had many favorite architecture quotes/wise words. Three that he wrote out and pinned up in his beloved kitchen nook are “The organic house is never finished,” (Frank Lloyd Wright), “Thanks and praise for the knot in the wood, across the grain, making the carpenter curse where a branch sprang out, carrying sap to each leaf,” (Scottish poet and MD Gael Turnbull, member of the Ventura church) and “I knew that no house should ever be on a hill or ON
anything. It should be OF the hill. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other,” (Frank Lloyd Wright.) Ron’s organic life is never finished and he and this house and hill live happily together.
A memorial service will be held at 2 pm on Saturday, October 9, 2021 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula, 490 Aguajito Rd, Carmel, CA 93923, www.uucmp.org. Revs. Bill and Barbara Hamilton-Holway presiding.
SKSM grads Ted Tollefson and Tom Kunesh have started a public Facebook page, Remembering Ron Cook.
Memorial donations may be made to the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade, 38000 Palo Colorado Rd, Carmel, CA 93923 which Ron and Deborah helped found, develop into a professional group, raised money for their firehouse and organized many BBQs. MCFB saved their home from destruction in the Soberanes Fire of 2016.
Notes of condolences may be sent to Rev. Deborah Streeter at 37755 Palo Colorado Rd, Carmel, CA 93923, or firstname.lastname@example.org.To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Ralph "Ron" Cook JR., please visit Tribute Store