Educator, community volunteer still doing what’s right

Shirlene Cook with BISD students

Shirlene Cook has lived in Beaumont for decades, retiring from the Beaumont Independent School District in 2007 after 30 years of service. Throughout her life and her career, Cook has served the community in many capacities – volunteering, fundraising for nonprofits, leading, teaching – and that service has continued on into her retirement.

Cook has battled racism and sexism, breaking down barriers segregating certain groups, but she says she is just doing what is right.

“I am just an American citizen who happens to be black,” Cook said. “I don’t do things having an agenda. I see things that I personally feel need to be done. If I can help, if I can make a difference, that’s what I do. I’ve done that all my life. If I do something, it’s because I’m me, not because I’m black.”

Cook grew up in Wills Point, Texas, a small town near Dallas, and graduated from Cartwright High School with a class of 15 in her hometown of about 3,000 people.

“The schools were segregated at the time, but later they built a single school for everyone,” Cook recalled. “Wills Point was progressive and not progressive at the same time. We did not have a lot of racial problems growing up there in the ’60s. But there were differences.”

One such difference was evident at the local cinema, said Cook. Black people were expected to sit in the back of the theater. But Cook’s parents taught her well, instilling self-respect and giving her great strength and confidence. They told her and her siblings they could not attend movies at the local theater.

“They told me, ‘You’re not a second-class citizen, and you’re not going anywhere where they treat you like you are,’” said Cook. “That had a big impact on me.”

Cook said she and her brothers and sister had plenty of entertainment with Dallas only a short train ride away.

“Everything social we did, we did in Dallas,” remembered Cook. “We would go to shows, go shopping. My sister liked going to the movies. It was a lot of fun.

“There were no integrated restaurants at the time. We sometimes went out at establishments run by black people because we were treated with respect there.”

After graduating high school, Cook entered Texas College, a small Methodist college in Tyler. That’s where she joined Delta Sigma Theta Inc., a community service sorority.

“We did community service projects, like March of Dimes projects and fundraisers,” Cook related. “We tutored kids.”

Cook is still an active member of the Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, and does what she can to help her sorority sisters, organizing events and raising funds. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is a fellow alumna and was a chartering member of the Xi Tau chapter of the prominent sorority while at Harvard.

At Texas College, Cook majored in vocational home economics – a choice that would ultimately lead her down a rewarding career path. She took courses in childcare, cooking, sewing and other household skills. After she completed her bachelor’s degree, she worked for a while and then started earning her master’s in Home Economics Management at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where she met Alvin Cook, the man who became her husband of 37 years before his death in 2000.

Cook later transferred to Prairie View A&M University, changing her focus to Vocational Counseling – her area of expertise.

After earning her graduate degree, Cook started her counseling career at Beaumont High School in the Beaumont Independent School District. The school later became Beaumont Charlton-Pollard, and then Central High School. Cook retired from the district in 2007.

During her tenure at Beaumont ISD, Cook touched the lives of many students as their high school counselor.

“I loved it, but there were so many challenges at the time,” Cook explained. “Blue-collar workers were treated like second-class citizens, and many counselors would advise students who they thought were above average in classes not to take vocational training courses. … There are numerous career paths that lead to success, not just careers that require a four-year degree. I think students should be aware of all the options available to them to improve their lives. Plumbers, mechanics, auto body repair workers, chefs – these are valid career options for many students.”

As an example, Cook talked about a male student she counseled who developed a very successful career based on a vocational training course he completed that other counselors would have likely advised him against taking.

“I had a student who told me he wanted to take home economics because his girlfriend was taking it,” Cook recalled. “He was a smart young man, and I helped him sign up for the class. While he was there, he learned he had a passion for cooking. He went on to culinary school and became a very successful chef, making a six-figure salary at a prominent restaurant.”

Cook said she feels it is important to encourage students in education and allow them to pursue valuable career options that will lead them to success and fulfillment.

“Beaumont ISD could have been a district for national emulation had we used the resources available in a positive way,” she said, adding that BISD counselors today are less rigid in their ideas and recommendations than they once were.

As a counselor, Cook shaped and molded BISD students, driving home to them the message of self-respect her parents had instilled in her.

“We never had any children,” said Cook. “We never really tried, but I thought if it happened I would stay at home with the children. I’ve done many things I could not have done if I had children.”

Cook’s enthusiasm for education and experience in vocational training paid off and was put to good use when she was selected by the governor as a member of the Southeast Texas Workforce Development Board.

“I was part of the original team. I have worked for four Texas governors on various boards related to vocational education. I worked with a lot of men on these state boards,” Cook said, highlighting the disparity between the number of men and women involved with the boards on which she served.

But Cook was never intimidated. She served with passion, and her opinion was valued and respected by her fellow board members.

Cook helped develop the state’s home economics curriculum, and was later chosen to serve as an advisor for “Stamp Out Sexism in the State of Texas” at the University of Texas, an initiative to give female students equal footing with their male counterparts that led to the passage of Title IX – a segment of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbidding exclusion on the basis of gender from any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Cook said Title IX was a great stride for equality for men and women, and said income disparity is still an issue. She believes men and women deserve equal pay.

“If you are a single female and bread is $4 a loaf, do you think the store will give you  a discount because you are a woman? No. And employers should not give discounted wages to women.”

She is a natural leader, and has attended leadership development programs, receiving national recognition.

Cook is a charter member of the Beaumont Community Partnership for Children, an organization close to her heart.

“We started Partners in support of Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers,” Cook explained. “At one time, case workers were paying out of their own pockets for necessities for the children they were helping. We organized the Rainbow Room, a place where caseworkers can get the things they need for the children, like shampoo, blankets, clothes. That really makes a difference.”

The Partnership for Children raises funds for the Rainbow Room and buys the supplies to keep the room stocked so the caseworkers no longer have to pay for necessities themselves. The group benefits both the children in need and the caseworkers. A few months ago they had a fundraiser at McAllister’s Deli, and Cook said the group is having a major fundraiser on Feb. 24.

Cook said she has accomplished a lot in her life and wants to continue to give back to the community as much as she can.

“Life is a choice,” Cook asserted. “If you commit to something, you carry out that commitment. You know what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s about choices.

“I’ve had people ask me what I want to be called (African-American, black, etc.) I tell them, I’m Shirlene. That’s what I want to be called.

“If I do something, it’s because I’m me, not because I’m black.”

For her service, all she’s given to the community, and for just being herself, The Examiner honors Shirlene Cook.