Photo by Monica Moriak January 05, 2021
Alumnus Stephen Cook inspires agriscience students through hands-on learning, magnetic personality
University of Delaware alumnus Stephen Cook was born and raised on his family’s dairy farm only nine miles from the Newark campus. After graduating from Middletown High School in 1988, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather Herman Wallace Cook, Sr. (Class of 1923) and H. Wallace Cook, Jr. (Class of 1956), enlisting in the U.S. Army National Guard so they could serve and still run the farm. After the fourth week of boot camp, Cook had difficulty running, and during a visit with his family physician, was diagnosed with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy. He was shocked.
Pondering his future, his mother Martha Gruwell Cook (Class of 1956) encouraged him to pursue a college degree. Since Cook’s family were all Blue Hens, the decision on where to study was easy. So, he went to work — on the farm in the morning, UD courses in the afternoons, back to more farm work and then sometimes closing the day with a night class.
After graduating from UD as an agricultural education major, Cook embarked on a career as an agriscience teacher. Cook is a perfect match for the profession, an opinion his former college professors and high school students alike share.
During the fall of 2020, Cook was awarded the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) Distinguished Alumni Award. Cooperative Extension Agent Dan Severson, his former classmate, and TA Baker Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources Lesa Griffiths said nominating the Appoquinimink High School teacher was an easy decision. Griffiths first met Cook when she advised him and the rest of his Animal Science Club classmates.
“Steve never let muscular dystrophy get in his way. In fact, none of us even knew the challenges he faced,” said Griffiths, who also taught Cook in her Beef Cattle Sheep Production course. “I still smile when I think about when Steve was an undergraduate student. He was always up to something; you didn’t know what, but he couldn't hide anything because of his infectious laugh and huge smile. Steve drew people to him; it was obvious that he was a natural leader.”
Steve’s magnetic personality also drew students to him as he began his teaching career at Caesar Rodney High School, developing wildlife conservation, animal science, plant science and leadership curricula. Steve understood that students learn in unique ways, so the Blue Hen alumnus used a variety of teaching pedagogies that engaged and inspired students. Early in Cook’s career, Griffiths was already hearing stories of the remarkable high school teacher and mentor.
He takes his work home with him; the Cooks take pride in their farm’s role in educational outreach. In addition to high school agriscience students, he regularly hosts CANR classes and UD Animal Science Club members, where the family boards dairy replacement heifers and works with UD and Dupont research projects among others.
“Our students would talk about what a fantastic time they had on the farm and how much they learned from Steve in terms of animal care and management,” recalled Griffiths. “He was later invited back to the Animal Science Club as a guest speaker. Although I don’t recall the topic, I vividly recall the message. In just a few minutes, I recognized what a gifted motivational speaker Steve is. He is inspiring, a caring teacher and mentor, in the most genuine way possible.”
The agriscience teacher began his career at Caesar Rodney, where he worked until 2018 when he moved to Appoquinimink. Cook has always based his classroom approach not on his own achievements, but rather his students’ successes. He’s loves the ability to share hands-on experience and impact their lives. He stresses leadership, public speaking and external competitions where students display what they learn in the classroom.
Cook takes up to 15 students per year to compete in large animal competitions at the Delaware State Fair. The great majority of students do not come from an agricultural background and would not have the opportunity to work with large animals were it not for Cook’s organization of statewide animal leasing programs, which is now used by many Delaware farmers.
“We want them to have experience to halter break and display an animal,” Cook said. “They learn to work hard to achieve a goal.”
Severson was an undergraduate and part of Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity in the same era as Cook, who helped found the organization.
“Cookie is worthy [of the award] because he is and always has been unselfish, true, fair and a pure teacher,” said Severson, the Extension agent, who first met Stephen through youth 4-H dairy shows. “If there is a teacher gene, Cookie has it. He is a teacher that you will remember for the rest of your life. Regardless of their level, he gives everyone an opportunity.”
Over his 24 years of teaching, Steve inspired hundreds of students to become agriculture advocates through their experience in FFA, a youth organization preparing students for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture. He has coached numerous students in career and leadership development, encouraging many members to become state officers with FFA. Cook is extremely proud of all his students, especially the 13 former students he now calls colleagues. The feeling is mutual.
Milford Senior High School teacher Caitlin Walton recalled how Cook believed in her even when she did not believe in herself.
“Mr. Cook is that teacher who takes learning to a whole new level, provides leadership opportunities and ensures that every student who takes his class has an appreciation of the agricultural industry,” said Walton, a Milford agriscience educator and FFA advisor. “Personally, I would not be where I am today without Mr. Cook. Just as he has done for countless other students, he encouraged me to set high goals and to not stop until I achieve them. I am only one of the thousands of stories you’ll hear from Mr. Cook’s students in how he has impacted their lives in a positive way.”
Jeffrey Billings of Odessa High School remembered being a shy and intimidated sophomore. Right from the first class, Cook’s lessons resonated with him and still do today.
“As I sat in a classroom, I could not help but feel like for the first time in my life – the teacher was actually speaking to me. I saw the enthusiasm from an educator who lived the lessons he was going to teach to his students,” said Billings, who is an agriscience educator and FFA Advisor at Odessa. “I was totally unaware of how that day’s lesson would eventually influence me as a person and ultimately — as cliché as it sounds — change my life. I can say without hesitation that Mr. Cook played a major role in reshaping the future of agriculture, especially the animal science world here in Delaware and beyond.”
Teaching remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, Cook said he misses the hands-on learning for which agriscience classes are known. Ever the student himself, the Blue Hen spent 2020 developing his YouTube skills, recording lessons around his farm and sharing virtually with students. But even drastic changes like the ones brought forth by COVID-19 can’t shake Cook. Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy has taught him patience and adaptability.
“The disorder slowly takes away your muscle. When I first started teaching, I could halfway jog. Now, I’m in a wheelchair full time,” said Cook. “It’s made me very patient. When we did hands-on work like an operation, I led by example. Now I talk others through it right from the beginning. I show them how to be leaders.”
Despite the hurdles of the last year, Cook remained ever focused on teaching others about his beloved industry.
“Many of my students are three or four generations removed from agriculture in their family line,” Cook said. “Agriculture needs advocates. We need people to explain its important role in our society and the challenges we’re facing. Even if they don’t go into a career in agriculture, I want them to understand all that goes into putting food on the table for the millions of people in our country.”