Jack’s Eulogy

By:  Michael Baxter                                            Funeral Mass

St. Thomas Church, Delmar, NY                      February 27, 2015; 9:30


Jack.  Jackie Cookfair.  Jocko, is what my father used to call him. Or “Cookie,” which I sometimes called him, his father’s nickname. “Hey Cookie, we going shopping on Christmas Eve again this year?”  For a string of years, we’d do our Christmas shopping all in one day: eat lunch, crack jokes, look at the ladies, catch up on gossip (“you hear what happened with so and so?  Un-believable.”), and of course reminisce: “Hey, remember the time . . . ?”

We each have personal memories of Jack.  Some, we’d all recognize.  Others, so personal, only a few of the people would understand.  Other memories are not fit for a post-communion reflection at a memorial Mass, such as those associated with the infamous “Delmar Men’s Club.” Many memories make us laugh.  And in these early days after his death, none of us used to Jack being gone, most memories make us cry—here and now, or later today, tomorrow, in the weeks and months to come.

I remember Jackie when the Cookfairs lived on the corner of Harrison and Bender Lane.  Joan would pay me a quarter to walk Mark around the block in a baby carriage, and take Jim, Jack, and Tim with me. Over the past year, with a baby in my and Katie’s house (“Jack”), I’ve come to see that this was money well spent, even in 1967 dollars. Just to get a minute to herself, Joan would the group of us walking around “the old neighborhood,” as we called it: the Dalton’s across the street; the Perrys a couple doors down; next to them, the Fitzes; the Hulihans (59 Alden Court); the Mitchells on the corner of Alden and Mullen Drive; the Baxters, at Mullen and Harrison; down Bender Lane were the Tooheys, the Pellerins, the Futias, the Browns, the Hinmans, and at the end on the other side of the street, the Giordanos. Johnny Giordano, Peter and Tom Toohey, and I would play football with the Cookfair kids, bury them in the autumn leaves, toss them into snow banks.

In the mid sixties, the Cookfairs moved to 32 The Crossway, located in the upwardly mobile “Kenhome Gardens.” Another classic neighborhood: across the circle were the Grovengers, the Yeliches in the back, the Drumms on the other side of the Yeliches.  The Baxters moved to Brookview Avenue in June 1970.  My family, Jack’s, and the others spent a lot of time in each other’s houses, each others’ yards, playing basketball, football, hide-and-seek.  All through grade school for Jack, high school for me, we’d go to weekend parties, picnics at the Sportsmen’s Club up in Clarksville, Labor Day at Loon Lake with the O’Brien clan.

I mention growing up here in Delmar because Jack loved talking about it, telling stories. Like this one: Bill Cookfair recruited my dad, Steve Yelich, and Bruce to chop down a cherry tree in the back yard, with an ax and a rope, and a bee lands on Steve’s forehead, he lets out a yell, everyone else thinks he yelled “pull,” they all pull, the rope snaps, everyone falls on each other, with my dad (6’ 4” 285 pounds) falling on top of poor Bruce Yelich. You had to be there.  But then again, I wasn’t there, and I don’t think Jack was either. But we told it to each other every summer, reminiscing.  The power of memory.

Another story: my father got a beer-keg refrigerator put into our kitchen, had a party to celebrate, invited the Hulihans, Yeliches, Fitzpatrcik’s, Toohey’s, and the Cookfair’s who had to come late. Turns out ,my father couldn’t get the contraption to work, no one could, so no beer, my father cussed a blue streak, had to go out and buy some cases.  Then, around 10:00 Bill and Joan walk in, Cookie hears the story, looks at it and says, “what’s this little red nob,” flicks it on, and suddenly the beer flowed. I was there for that one.  And I had a picture of Bill Cookfair holding high his glass of beer that is still up in Joan’s house.

Of all the things our parents taught us, perhaps the most important thing was how to make friends—in the neighborhood, at school, on the wrestling team. So I’d always see Jack and his family when I came home from college: Christmas night at our house, or New Year’s Eve at the Yeliches, the famous parties, with Jack and his high school friends joining the circle around the tap, sneaking their illegal beers (sorry Joan).  The same was true during my seminary and early priesthood years.  I would hear from my folks of Jack, along with his family or friends, coming over, watching the game, going through bags of chips (eventually Jack started bringing his own).  It was while I was in graduate school at Duke that we started our Christmas Eve shopping tradition. We would stop for lunch at some deli in Crossgate Mall, he’d always have questions for the waiter—“what do you put on that sandwich?”—and then, with the order in, he’d reminisce: remember the time at the Yeliches when Steve asked me, “Jack, You want a sandwich?” And I said, “What kind of sandwich?” And he said, “Jack, you want a sandwich?”  Jack was a picky eater, a slow eater.  I’d always find myself with arms folded, waiting for him to finish his lunch.

Jack came out for a football game at Notre Dame with Mike Fitz and Jim Shaw.  It was only a month or two after my mother died, so they brought her antique desk out too, loaded it in the truck.  It was a great weekend, hysterical. Playing basketball, swimming in St. Joe Lake, eating brats on the quad, heading into the stadium with the marching band. Afterward Jack sent me a collage of photos he made from the place where he worked: in one, he’s posing in front of Corby Hall, the priest’s residence, with the Notre Dame cheerleaders; in another, he’s doing push-ups with the leprechaun.  Jack came out to ND again a few years ago, with Mike Fitz and Seamus. Good friends of mine in South Bend were glad to see Jack again. They were praying for him since he had his first stroke in November 2013, were happy to hear he was recovering.

I was happy to see Jack this past summer up at Galway Lake, at Dick and Kathy’s camp, with Katie and her kids and Jack (Baxter). He was a wobbly but getting better.  We panicked at the sight of a water snake down by the dock, he lost his footing, fell in the water, but was fine. “What the hell ya’ doing going swimming?” I said to him, “you just had a stroke.” That was the last time I saw him, but we’d talk on the phone every week or two. He said he wanted to come to Colorado to get out of the cold; we talked about February or March.  In one of his last texts, he said he wanted to try running a 5K this summer.

This has been a sad time.  And I don’t think I’ll be able to shake the sadness for a while, in some sense, never.  And I’m not alone.  As Mike Fitz wrote in a text this past Monday, “At approximately 8:40 am on February 23, 2015, Jack Cookfair passed away. He was comfortable and peaceful to the end.  Part of me died also.”  So too did a part of each of us die this week.  What makes it so hard, I think, so sad, is that there is a natural, unavoidable element of self-interest when someone we love dies.  We not only mourn for Jack; we mourn for ourselves—without Jack.  Without his voice on the phone. Without his visits, his funny birthday cards. Without his award-winning Eddie Munster costume. Will Halloween ever be the same?  Will Father’s Day ever be the same without Jack teeing up a golf ball on Cookie’s grave? Without Jack at SPAC, or the track, or strolling the summer afternoon streets of Saratoga, or mulling through the Thursday-night crowd at Swifty’s.  Also without Jack able to listen to the things we think and feel about him, all the things we would say to him as a co-worker, a nephew, a friend, a brother, brother-in-law, uncle, son.

As a lifelong friend, what I would want to say to Jack has become clearer in these last few weeks, as people have told me how he looked up to me, something that surely goes back the old neighborhood days with me one of the older kids. What I would want to say to Jack, now, is that it is me who looks up to him—for the way he loved and reveled in other people, for the good friend he was to me and to so many others.  It is all too easy to spend our lives striving to make our mark in the world, to relate to other people as if they are an extension of our own life-projects and egos, and thus find ourselves isolated in a prison of superiority that looks down on others. But it is also possible—and this is how Jack lived—that we can spend our lives reveling in other people; taking interest in them, being delighted to see them, befriending them, reminiscing with them, making them laugh, making them cry.  I’d want to convey to Jack how good it has been to have him as a friend and how much I look up to him as the kind of person who befriended others so naturally and spontaneously, how he was a gift from God.

A famous French Catholic author by the name of Charles Peguy, wrote that when we go to heaven, God will ask us, “where are the others?” We can be consoled at the thought that Jack will be able to say—perhaps is saying now—“there they are,” and is pointing to all the people who came to the wake last night, and to us her.  And we can take hope in the thought that, with the help of his example and his irrepressible spirit, we too may be able to give a similar answer, having spent our lives like Jack spent his, loving and befriending others.

Local DMC President Passes Away But Spirit Remains

Jackie Tower RunJohn “Jack” Cookfair, 54 of Delmar, NY died on Monday, February 23, 2015. He was the son of Joan (O’Brien) Cookfair and the late William Cookfair. In addition to his mother, Jack is survived by his brothers, James, Timothy (Melissa) and Mark Cookfair, and his five nieces, Laura, Jacquelyn, Olivia, Amy and Shannon. He is also survived by many relatives and dear friends. Jack attended St. Thomas Grammar School and graduated from Bethlehem Central High School and SUNY-Brockport. He worked in sales with DeGenero Insurance Company for several years. He was well known throughout Delmar and was president of the “DMC.” A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, February 27, 2015, at 9:30 a.m., in St. Thomas the Apostle Church. Relatives and friends are invited and may also call on Thursday, February 26, 2015, from 4 to 7 p.m., at the Daniel Keenan Funeral Home Inc., 490 Delaware Ave. Burial will take place in the spring. In lieu of flowers, those who wish may send donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of NENY, 455 Patroon Creek Blvd., Suite 108, Albany, NY 12206 – See more at: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/timesunion-albany