On Wednesday, Senior District Judge C.C. “Kit” Cooke III began his 34th year in judicial service to the state of Texas.
The same day he learned he was being honored for his service as the recipient of the 2009 Wall of Fame Award by the Cleburne High School Ex-Students Association.
Cooke, along with Coming Home Queen Janet Honea Wallace and parade Marshal Alan Borden, will preside over this year’s Homecoming festivities and will be honored in ceremonies before Friday evening’s kickoff with Waco University.
“When Judge Cooke’s nomination was discussed, I had to do some double-checking,” said Ex-Students Association President Mark Banton. “I couldn’t believe he wasn’t already in the CHS Wall of Fame. He is very deserving of this award, and it is quite an honor to present it to him.”
A member of the CHS Class of 1965, Cooke’s career is a reflection of his family heritage of achievement and service to others.
He is the grandson and namesake of legendary Cleburne physician Dr. C.C. Cooke and the son of longtime Cleburne ISD teacher and administrator Charles C. Cooke Jr.
His mother, the late Betty Cooke, was a Johnson County court clerk for more than 40 years.
He attended C.C. Cooke Elementary School, which was built on land donated to CISD by his grandfather.
“After my grandfather died, my dad built a house on Kilpatrick, and I transferred from Long Elementary to Cooke for grades 4, 5 and 6,” he said. “It was really special going to a school named for my grandfather.”
“Sometimes I’d ride my horse to school,” Cooke said. “I’d tie it up on family property there by the school at the old hospital my grandfather had owned. My teacher would let the kids ride the horse during lunch.”
In the sixth grade, Cooke was given the honor of presenting a portrait to the school in conjunction with a Cleburne Rotary Club meeting.
“That was a big honor for me,” he said. “That portrait is still displayed at the school after all these years.”
Cooke was among the 5,000 babies delivered in Johnson County by his grandfather.
“Everyone in the family called him ‘Dad,’ ” Cooke said. “When he spoke, everybody listened. He had that command and presence.”
Cooke’s first lessons in service and giving back were from his grandfather, whose life is reminiscent of the country doctor portrayed on such television classics as “Little House on the Prairie.”
“Not everyone could afford a doctor’s fee, and many times he took care of people for free,” he said. “Quite often paid with a chicken or a cow. When my dad was growing up, it was his job to go to homes and pick up the livestock they were making as payment and take it back to the family farm.”
“The way my grandfather treated his patients shaped my future and affected my life tremendously,” Cooke said. “As a member of his family, you were expected to do the same. I was taught to give back to the community.”
Cooke accepted the responsibilities of his family heritage early on — and it didn’t just relate to the standards and expectations set by his grandfather. When he was in the eighth grade, his father became his junior high principal.
“For me, if I got in trouble at school, I for sure got in trouble at home, too,” he said. “Fortunately, my dad was promoted to principal at Cleburne High School after I graduated.”
Because of his grandfather, many thought Cooke would study medicine upon graduation from CHS. But he had other plans.
“I was encouraged to become a doctor,” said Cooke, who suffered from severe allergies and asthma as a child. “But the sight of blood bothered me. I wanted to study law.”
He credits his mother for that decision.
“The reason I got into law was because of my mother,” he said. “She was in the clerk’s office for 42 years. I ran all over that courthouse growing up. I climbed onto Judge Penn Jackson’s bench one time and said ‘I might do this one day.’ ”
Speaking — or arguing — before a courtroom jury was never a concern, according to Cooke. He credits his father for the development of his public speaking abilities.
“I think that came from church, too,” he said. “My dad was a deacon, and I was involved in a lot of youth activities in which I spoke before crowds. I’ve always been comfortable with speaking before large crowds. It has never bothered me.”
After high school graduation, Cooke enrolled at Baylor University. He hit the ground running, already looking ahead to law school and what lay beyond.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” Cooke said. “I went all year ’round. I was ready to go on to law school.”
He received his bachelor’s degree from Baylor and was accepted into Baylor Law School at the age of 19.
While at Baylor, he was reminded of the importance of the heritage established by his late grandfather.
“I had run out of gas and had no cash,” Cooke said. “I coasted into a gas station, only to be told that they wouldn’t take a check, which was all I had. While talking to the man running the station, he asked me my name. When I told him, he then asked if I was related to Dr. Cooke.”
“After telling the man I was his grandson, there was no problem,” Cooke said. “He told me that my grandfather had delivered all five of his children, and letting me have some gas was the least he could do when compared to all Dr. Cooke had done for him.”
It wasn’t the first Dr. Cooke story he had heard and certainly wasn’t the last.
In his second year of law school Cooke married his college sweetheart, Barbara, whom he met in his sophomore year as an undergraduate. She put him through his final year of law school.
Equipped with her own degrees in education as an English teacher and as a campus and central office administrator, Dr. Barbara Cooke is also the recipient of a PhT degree, her husband said.
“That is a Putting Hubby Through degree, given to those wives who put their husbands through law school,” Cooke said. The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in August.
At age 22, Cooke graduated from law school and became a practicing attorney. He received offers from Dallas firms, where Barbara grew up and her parent’s still resided, but Kit chose to come home to Cleburne.
“We decided to come back here, where I was known,” Cooke said. “I began practicing here in 1970.”
In 1972 he ran for the state legislature, something he first contemplated while a Baylor law student.
“As an attorney, I was interested in several areas of legislation,” he said. “In college I had to write a paper for a speech course in which we had to project what we were going to do in life. I said then that I wanted to run for the legislature.”
He had also discussed it with fellow CHS graduate and Baylor roommate Tommy Altaras, who served Johnson County for many years as county judge.
“Tommy and I talked about it a lot,” Cooke said. “We had it in our blood to do it.”
Cooke won the election, becoming the youngest to ever represent Johnson County in the state House and the third youngest legislator in that congressional session. He also represented Hood, Somervell and Erath counties.
This milestone in his career also coincided with a milestone in his personal life.
“In May, Barbara was right there with me on the campaign trail,” he said. “Our son, Chris, was born in June. He was campaigning before he was born.”
Among Cooke’s fellow rookie representatives that term were Price Daniel Jr., Speaker of the House from 1973-74; Sen. John Whitmire; Sen. Tom Schieffer and Kay Bailey Hutchison.
“A lot of people got their start that year,” said Cooke, who was appointed to the House Appropriations and Judiciary committees.
After one term in Austin, Cooke returned to his practice and local politics.
In 1975 he ran a successful race for county judge. At age 26, he was the youngest county judge in the state.
“Back then you did everything as county judge,” Cooke said. “There were no judicial courts.”
That was about to change.
In 1977, Gov. Dolph Briscoe created the 249th District Court and appointed Cooke to the bench.
At age 30, he was the youngest district judge in the state.
Cooke served as 249th District Court judge for the next seven years.
In 1984 he passed another milestone in a career already marked with achievements, in becoming a Visiting district judge for the state of Texas.
“At that point I began to make a name for myself outside of Johnson County,” Cooke said. “As a visiting judge, I dealt with some very high profile cases.”
He stopped traveling in 1989 after winning the election for district judge of the 18th District Court of Johnson and Somervell counties.
During his nine years in the 18th District Court, Cooke often invited students to his courtroom to discuss his work as a judge.
One of his favorite school talks involved Adams Elementary fifth-graders who stayed for a tour and a visit with the judge after their Just Say No Parade to the courthouse in conjunction with Red Ribbon Week.
“I’ve tried to be a teacher,” he said. “It’s important to me to show kids that judges are common people, too. I also wanted them to know that when you tell them ‘Don’t do drugs,’ the judge is the one that puts you in jail if you make the wrong choice.”
In 1998, he retired from public service after 26 years. He continues to sit as a senior district judge throughout the state on an assignment basis.
He is also “of counsel” to the Cooke Law Firm, with his son, Chris.
His 39 years in the practice of law have been recognized in numerous ways.
In 1982 he was presented with the Victims Rights Advocacy Award.
In 1986 he was honored by the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court for disposing of more cases than any district judge in the county’s history.
He received the Gean B. Turner Award for Legal Excellence in 1992.
In honor of his years of judicial service to the citizens of Johnson County, county commissioners named a portion of Farm-to-Market Road 3048 between Cleburne and Keene the C.C. Cooke Parkway.
Cooke’s reputation and expertise as a jurist extends beyond the boundaries of the counties and state in which he serves.
His involvement in death penalty cases has led to lectures across the nation and the creation of a trial manual for judges who try capital murder cases, known in judicial circles as the “Cookebook.”
He is a three-time presenter at the annual conference of New York State Judges. New York judicial guidelines require all judges to watch a video of Cooke’s presentations before trying a capital murder case.
This past summer he was interviewed in Cleburne by a reporter with Japan’s largest newspaper for an article dealing with the use of the death penalty and the overturning of several cases based on the introduction of DNA tests as new evidence.
His civic involvement ranges from campaign chairman for United Way of Johnson County to commissioner for Cleburne Little League Baseball and Cleburne Little Dribblers. He is also a Cleburne Pee Wee Football Association past president.
“My whole life has been dedicated to Cleburne and Johnson County,” Cooke said. “From the time I left high school, I wanted to come back. Because of what my family had done here, I felt an obligation to carry that on. I am grateful to have been able to work in my community because of the heritage I had and because I was fortunate in that the voters put me in that position.
“As a public servant, you aren’t there to just do a job. Every divorce, every law suit, every restraining order, every kind of case goes through a district judge, where life decisions are made. The juries and people who serve make life changing decisions every day. It’s something I take very seriously.
“It’s also about the life you lead. If I’m known for anything, I hope it’s for hard work. I was at the courthouse by 5 a.m. every morning, here and in Fort Worth. And I never left early. The one thing everyone can say, and for what I hope to be remembered, is that I believe in hard work. That and making sure our justice system works for all people.”
In addition to their son, Chris, and daughter-in-law, Markie, the Cookes have two grandsons, Carter Christopher, 9, and Hunter Kincaide, 4. Cooke’s sister, Lisa Cooke Dobbins (CHS 1976) is a teacher at Santa Fe Elementary. His brother, Bill (CHS 1970) is a justice of the peace in Killeen.
On Wednesday, Senior District Judge C.C. “Kit” Cooke III began his 34th year in judicial service to the state of Texas.
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