Influential Women of the South Okanagan
Virginia Cook: Community Dynamo
by Maureen Parriott
A sense of adventure and a deep commitment to community are complementary aspects of Virginia Cook's character. You might say they were embedded in her DNA.
In the 1930s, Virginia's father, Sydney Baker, threw over a successful accounting career in London, England, for an uncertain future as a farmer in the wilds of British Columbia.
With no experience, he took the precaution of signing up for an agriculture course before departing. At the dawn of mechanization, "They taught him how to drive a six-horse hitch!" Virginia laughs.
Once he arrived in Lytton, then a town of 1,000 First Nations and 250 Euro-Canadian residents, Sydney fell in love with Rose Pudney, a member of one of Lytton's pioneer families. She included among her forebears members of the Lytton Band and an equally adventurous father, grandfather and great-grandfather who had emigrated from Britain as well. Virginia twinkles, "It was a family tradition. I guess they kept importing them to refresh the gene pool."
Virginia was born on the eve of WWII, the middle of five children. They all grew up working in their grandmother's tea room, their parents' cafe, and helping out on relatives' farms. "I can still milk a cow, ride a horse, and manage a restaurant," she says proudly.
Virginia recalls the Lytton of her youth as almost an extended family. People automatically pitched in to help each other. Although the Bakers moved to Vancouver during the War while father served in the armed forces and mother ran a boarding house for other service wives, they promptly returned. Virginia's father found time between farming and running the café – and later a drive-in movie – to become a long-serving member of the school board. His proudest accomplishment, she says, was the construction of Lytton's Kumsheen High School.
The Bakers appreciated culture and often drove to Vancouver for music and theater. They also valued education and encouraged their children to attend university. But when it was Virginia's turn, they learned she had suddenly been swept off her feet by Walter Cook, a dashing, guitar-strumming young highways engineer who was working in the Fraser Canyon. Although Virginia dutifully agreed to attend Pacific College in Vancouver for a year, the minute it was over, she bounced back to Lytton to wed Walter. Then the young woman with deep roots in her community became a nomad.
In eight years, the Cooks lived in ten towns while Walter built roads all over the province. Virginia enjoyed the constant change of scene, and says she could pack up children and a household in the blink of an eye. "We met such nice people wherever we went," she adds. They were posted to Osoyoos in 1965 during the construction of the highway to the top of Mt. Kobau. After a year of taking their daughters swimming in the warm lake, they were less than happy to be transferred again. Not only did their new community have 'real' winter, they realized that daughter Julie had attended three schools in a single year. It was time to settle down. They were back in Osoyoos a year later, launched on an entirely new trajectory.
Walter became a realtor with a local firm and a few years later bought the business. Virginia handled the books. Daughters Julie, Kathy and Gina enjoyed continuity in their school and social lives. Virginia became a realtor herself in 1987. The family's roots deepened. Community service beckoned.
A natural cause for the mother of figure skaters was the drive for a local skating arena in the early 1970s. After the whirlwind of organizing, volunteering and fund-raising resulted in construction of the facility, Virginia applied the skills she'd acquired to the community's long-felt desire for its own high school. Students at that time were bussed to the Oliver High School, which made it difficult for them to participate in extra-curricular activities. Virginia ran for the school board, got elected, and served from 1975 to 1985. She had the satisfaction of seeing Osoyoos build its own high school in 1981. During that process, she helped raise funds and stage a referendum for the construction of the school's mini-theater, which instantly became an essential part of the community's cultural life.
Virginia's devotion to public service next took her to election to the Town Council, where she served from 1996 to 2000. She continued to use her vision and political savvy to, among other things, lobby for a skate park for young residents and vacationers, and to preserve the shoreline at the foot of the main street as a park after the old packing house that had occupied the site was torn down. The skate park eventually came to fruition, but the dream of a waterfront park was defeated by a condo development. As resilient as she is, she confesses to being discouraged by that event. But she rallied and continues to be active on many community fronts as she grows closer to retirement. She has served on the board of Okanagan College, is currently a director of the Osoyoos Soroptomist Club, and belongs to the Osoyoos Water Quality Society, the Chamber of Commerce, and Osoyoos Now, a group that advocates for public dialogue about development.
She proudly looks back on a successful business career as well as her years as a fervent community supporter. Long before the establishment of a formal business and tourism promotion organization in Osoyoos, she and Walter founded their own 'economic development' program to encourage small businesses to locate in Osoyoos. They mailed out thousands of brochures lauding the advantages of life in the South Okanagan. They were also active in planning several housing developments over the years, and she says it has been rewarding to see generations of families live in them. And she is particularly pleased that so many of her real estate clients are also close friends.
What will retirement hold, once Virginia makes the leap? Aside from enjoying her lakeside home, roomy enough for all the daughters, spouses and grandchildren to visit at once, Virginia wants to use her formidable talents to raise funds for a new home for the Osoyoos Museum Society. Dubbed the 'Best Little Museum in BC,' the organization is presently housed in an ancient Quonset building that "doesn't do justice to the Town or to the Museum Society," she says firmly. Being Virginia, she already has a strategy in mind.
Another 'retirement' goal is to revitalize the remaining downtown waterfront.
"I want to see this part of our lake be the 'hub' of our history, our festivals and our community lakefront activities," she says. "With the Sailing Club, the Museum Society, the Seniors' Centre Society, the Lawn Bowling Club, the Gyro Bandshell Committee, and other interested Osoyoos-ites involved, we could create a fabulous 'Town Square' that showcases our appreciation of our history and our lake. It could rival Victoria's Inner Harbour! All of us would have ownership of a part of our lake, and could share our activities proudly with our visitors."
Asked to summarize the philosophy that drives her, the energetic woman who has expanded upon the legacy of her risk-taking, community-building forebears, and whose vision encompasses the past and the future, smiles. "Live and let live, but do something while you're here." She pauses. "And have fun while you're at it!"