A member of the Atlanta Board of Alderman (now the city council) from 1960-70 and the Georgia House of Representatives from 1966-72, Cook was the first Republican elected since Reconstruction. At the time, Georgians could hold two elected offices at once.
Cook also ran for mayor but lost to Sam Massell in 1969. He opposed the Peyton Wall, a concrete barrier built in December 1962 to separate white and black neighborhoods but torn down in March 1963.
District 54 State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, gave Cook’s eulogy in the House chambers. Fellow Reps. Harry Geisinger (District 48), R-Roswell; Tyrone Brooks (District 55), D-Atlanta; and Wendell Willard (District 51), R-Sandy Springs; each knew him. Geisinger is the only remaining House member who served with Cook. Brooks was a Southern Christian Leadership Conference member who helped him bring down the Peyton Wall, and Willard and Wilkinson each volunteered for Cook during at least one of his political campaigns.
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who was mentored by Cook, could not attend his funeral but wrote a tribute to him:
Remembering a genuine American hero, Rodney Cook Sr.
By Newt Gingrich
A genuine American hero passed away.
He didn’t think of himself as a hero. He was just a citizen who did what he thought was right.
His heroism was of a quiet, steady kind we desperately need and seldom get.
It wasn’t the heroism of gun fights and big noises.
It was the heroism of taking on a task when others hid, standing up when others fled and telling the truth when others turned away.
It was a remarkable heroism because it was combined with a pleasant, happy personality, a charming ability to be friendly with everyone and a very sharp mind that could look into the future and see what really mattered and what needed to be done.
It was obvious that Rodney Cook Sr. was a smart man. He graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude from Washington and Lee University.
He combined that intelligence with a steady commitment to the city if Atlanta and the state of Georgia. From Hartsfield-Jackson [Atlanta] International Airport to [Atlanta-Fulton County] Stadium, which housed the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons, to the very interstate that carries people through Atlanta, Rodney Cook Sr. played a major role in the development of the city.
I first met Rodney when I was a student at Emory and he was running for Atlanta Board of Alderman (now the Atlanta City Council). There were no elected Republicans back then. It was a sign of his civic commitment and belief in the two-party system that he was one of the pioneers in building a Georgia GOP.
The tensions around desegregation were growing as Rodney first served on the city council. To his eternal credit he had the courage to stand up against segregationists and demand fair treatment for African Americans. The result was a Ku Klux Klan cross burning on his lawn. He did not flinch for a minute.
Rodney served his party in the city council, the state Legislature, and as candidate for mayor and governor.
He also helped as a mentor of [U.S.] Sen. Paul Coverdell and of me. We found ourselves as young Republicans, advised, helped encouraged, and strengthened by Rodney. In many ways the modern Georgia Republican Party stands on Rodney’s shoulders.
Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” was the fictional quiet, understated hero for a generation of Southerners. He was brilliantly portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie.
Rodney Cook Sr. was Atticus Finch in real life. He wasn’t acting in a movie. He was day by day making real decisions, taking real stands, working for causes he believed in, and building a better city and state for his children and his neighbors.
That is the heroism a free society needs and in Rodney we got it. He will be missed by all who knew him.