Jim Engster: Gone is an LSU Giant with the Common Touch

A decorated LSU alum died last week in Los Angeles. Not another rich guy who threw a few coins at his alma mater.

Nobody loved his university or valued people of all kinds more than Lodwrick Monroe Cook, the soft-spoken titan of business whose name adorns the Alumni Center and the campus hotel where the Tiger footballers reside on Fridays before home games.

Cook left the world at 92. For a generation, he ran a great global oil company, Atlantic Richfield, based in Los Angeles where Cook was revered to the point that the city’s historic downtown public\ library bears his name in its rotunda.

He was a man of great triumphs but acknowledged his business setbacks. In our introductory visit, he was reminded that I was an investor in Global Crossing, the company he founded after leaving ARCO.

“How much did you lose?” Cook grimaced as he asked.

“A few thousand dollars,” I answered with some residual pain.

“If it makes you feel better, I lost 300 million,” Cook frowned.

I surmised that my modest investment was a greater loss on percentage of assets than his, prompting Cook to laugh, and a friendship was born.

Cook was an avid Republican who took delight in raising money for presidential libraries for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

“It’s much easier to ask for money for someone else,” Cook mused when questioned how he was able to go to the same donors over and over and get them to write huge checks for philanthropic endeavors promoted by the folksy fellow from tiny Castor, La.

Cook ranked second at his high school graduation in 1946, a class of six students. Born in 1928, he experienced the deprivation of the Great Depression and credited his education at LSU as a game changer. Cook received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1950 and a second degree in petroleum engineering in 1955 with his schooling interrupted by service in the Army during the Korean War.

Nearly a decade ago, I visited him at his office on Wilshire Boulevard, located in an imposing edifice towering above the lush 400 acres of UCLA. “That’s a beautiful campus,” Cook smiled as he peered at the iconic university nestled in Westwood below the majestic Santa Monica Mountains. “But it’s no match for LSU.”

He talked of his friendship with President Reagan. Cook emerged as perhaps his closest friend after the 40th American president was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994. He and Reagan golfed together into the 2 st Century with Reagan dying at age 93 in 2004.

Cook remembered Nancy Reagan coaxing her husband to get haircuts under the pretense that he was being driven to the course to play with his old friend Lod. Reagan hated having his haircut in his declining years, and didn’t care for the ruse. But Cook was like a brother as the kid from Castor would visit his buddy at his St. Cloud Drive estate in Bel Air.

When Reagan addressed the Class of 1990 at Tiger Stadium on May 18th of that year, Cook was awarded with an honorary doctorate degree. The only known archive of the event is a cassette recording from the Louisiana Radio Network. When Cook was provided a copy of the tape, this accomplished man displayed his trademark humility. Cook walked with princes and was comfortable with paupers.

In 1984, Cook was invested by the Prince of Wales with the Insignia of Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire for his contribution to Anglo-American relations and support of world philanthropy.

That same year, Cook requested some pals, former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, to be present for the opening of the Lod Cook Alumni Center. Nixon died days before the celebration, and Reagan was absent because he had just publicly acknowledged his battle with dementia. Ford and Carter were there.

A staunch conservative, Cook was gracious when President Clinton sought and won his friendship. Cook enthusiastically raised funds for the Clinton Library in Little Rock even though he never voted for the Democrat he called the best politician of his lifetime. It was no surprise the affable Arkansan charmed Cook, a pair of rags to riches Southern boys who grew up 100 miles apart.

Cook is survived by five children and was preceded in death by his wife Carol Diane Cook, who died in 2010. When he was going through a divorce, he caught a glimpse of the beautiful Carol, an employee of his dentist in Los Angeles.

Sensing that she was the one, he acquired a condominium located on a hill overlooking the office. When he spotted her car, Cook would call in with an emergency situation so he could see Carol. She turned him down in his initial pursuit, but Cook, the persuasive negotiator, eventually wore her down and they enjoyed a long and happy marriage.

In his final years, Cook welcomed guests to his sprawling home in Sherman Oaks, the most impressive house in that part of Los Angeles. It was called Carolwood in honor of his wife, who transformed the massive residence into a spectacular showplace.

In his late 80s, the still handsome and spry Cook retained his eye for attractive companions. His dinner guest on occasion was the actress, Morgan Fairchild, the pride of Dallas where Cook started his rise in the oil business and obtained an MBA from SMU.

A few years ago, Cook made a tough decision to sell Carolwood with the purchaser in the eight-figure transaction being Alex Grant, the British hip hop producer better known as Alex da Kid. Grant’s partner at the time of the sale was the Academy Award winning star Halle Berry. Lod was pleased to surrender his family home with so many cherished memories to a talented record executive with a stunning girlfriend.

Cook suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after moving, but he remained immersed in the final company he started, Neuro Sigma. When he last visited LSU in 2017, Ed Orgeron wisely asked Cook to address his team and tell them how he rose from poverty to reach the pinnacle. Cook won them over with his back story about virtues of honesty and persistence.

There was nothing pretentious about Lod Cook. Former Chancellor Jim Wharton and Alumni Association leader Charlie Roberts forged their relationship with him in 1984 when LSU beat USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was a natural progression for Cook to be involved with the school he entered at the end of WWII. Cook was spotted at games weeping as the Tiger Band played the alma mater.

Cook lamented that many wealthy and powerful associates doubted a life beyond the earthly grave. “It’s sometimes impossible for smart and successful people to take that spiritual leap,” Lod observed in 2016.

Cook was pleased at the prospect of being reunited with the love of his life. He and Carol are interred together at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. The unassuming lad from rural North Louisiana had a house lined with awards and conquered one of the great cities of the universe.

Yet he was most satisfied at departing this world with his beloved Tigers reigning as national champions.

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