Elinor Grace Cook took care of the brothers of Sigma Chi for three decades. After she retired in 1994, they spent the next two taking care of her.
About three dozen alumni of the University of Kentucky fraternity were in the crowd that nearly filled Consolidated Baptist Church on Monday to say goodbye to Cook, who died Aug. 11 at age 90.
Each fraternity brother placed a white rose atop the casket of the short black woman who cooked his college meals and did so much more.
They recalled how Cook’s unconditional love touched them and hundreds of other white fraternity boys. Decades later, she could remember their names — not that she ever used them. She called each of them Baby, and they called her Baby.
In a eulogy, Darryl Isaacs, a Louisville personal-injury lawyer famous for his “heavy hitter” TV commercials, said he first met Cook when he was a scared 18-year-old pledge having a bad day.
Isaacs said he put out his hand, “and she said, ‘We don’t give handshakes. We hug.’ She said, ‘I love you, Baby.'”
“I’ll never forget that,” said Isaac, who later introduced Cook to his parents as “my second mom.”
“She loved you whether you were white, black, rich, poor, fat, skinny,” Isaac said. “Of everybody I’ve ever met, there’s nobody that stands out like Baby.”
Cook also was a legend at Consolidated Baptist. She was an active member for more than 80 years and the church’s culinary minister. She was in her kitchen, cooking, when she suffered the fall that put her in a hospital for the last time.
The Rev. Richard Gaines said Cook was mentally sharp and in good spirits to the end, complaining about hospital food and saying she was ready to meet her maker.
“She lived a powerful life,” Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor and minister who grew up in Consolidated Baptist, said in his eulogy. “Everybody’s got a story to tell, because she had this infectious as well as contagious kind of spirit.”
Cook used to joke that she would write a book about all that happened at the Sigma Chi house. The guys joked back that she would make more money if she let them pay her not to.
After she retired and her husband, William Edward Cook, died, the brothers realized she could use their help. She had a large family that eventually included two children, four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Michael Dammert, an investment advisor in Covington who met Cook as a pledge in 1969, worked with Isaacs and others to organize the “Baby Fund” that alumni contributed to for 20 years. And they gave her more than money.
Jay Rodes, who met her in 1981, took her meals and kept her sidewalk salted each winter. His wife drove Cook to doctor appointments. Someone mentioned in a group email that she needed a railing outside her house; one appeared within days.
When UK’s largest fraternity moved to a bigger house in 2012, a plaque was placed in the new kitchen declaring it “Gracie’s Place” in honor of “Sigma Chi’s beloved cook and sage.”
The meals Cook prepared in the old house’s small, hot kitchen were amazing, the men said, leavened with plenty of butter and sugar. And she always had time to hear their troubles and secrets, and give them advice about girlfriends and life.
Cook wouldn’t put up with foolishness. A boy who once thought it would be funny to bring a rubber snake into her kitchen narrowly missed a rolling pin to the head.
“If you acted up, she made you come to Consolidated Baptist Church with her,” Dammert said. “I was on that list.”
“She had a cuss jar,” Ted Tudor recalled. “It was always full of money.”
As Consolidated Baptist’s pastor looked out over the crowd at Cook’s funeral, he saw her family and friends from church and the Radcliffe-Marlboro neighborhood. He also saw successful businessmen, prominent lawyers, a UK vice president.
“On most Sundays, you don’t see this kind of cultural diversity,” Gaines told the crowd. “But here we are on a Monday afternoon in church, and look at what God has done. Thank God for the lives she touched.”