Kevin Cook, the first Indigenous head of Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney, died on 25 July 2015, Kevin, or Cookie, as he was known to everyone, never gave up fighting for what he believed in, the rights of Aboriginal people, the working class, and the oppressed of the world.
By definition a funeral is a day of sadness. But it was also a farewell for the members of his extended family, his comrades, his union mates, his friends, former students and staff of the Tranby Aboriginal College, and the many people he had touched all over the world.
But nobody who knew the one-time union activist and first Aboriginal head of his great passion, Tranby College, in Sydney, could reflect on his life without also celebrating. For Cookie reached out to many people and many people reached out to him in the farewell and celebration of his life and achievements.
Inside the chapel there was the mournful sound of a didgeridoo, outside, a sudden wind had sprung up and was roaring down the Illawarra escarpment under a lowering sky. Kevin, Cook, ‘Cookie’, had been brought home, the Wandandian man had returned to his people and the place where he was born south of Sydney.
Everyone who met him had a story to tell of his involvement in virtually every social and political issue involving Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islander people since the seventies, of his support for liberation movements throughout the world, his immense skill in bringing together disparate people to work for a common good, his sense of humour, his modesty, his internationalism.
There was a telling reminder at the time of his death that what he had dedicated his life to — the fight for equality for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people — is not over.
A national battle was taking place in defence of Australian Rules footballer and Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes following his racial vilification by some fans. The usual media and political voices lined up to condemn Goodes for his angry and despairing response, urging him to “cop it”. Goodes, as an elite athlete with a high profile, was being attacked because he would not “cop it”.
Cookie also gave a voice to those who would not “cop it”. In the early days of Tranby College this voice was heard in the fight for an education for those Indigenous Australians who had slipped through the net of the mainstream system.
He gave it through his support and remarkable organisational abilities to the Deaths in Custody battles, the Long March for justice, freedom and hope, which forcefully reminded the nation and the world during the official bicentenary celebration of British invasion and settlement, that for Indigenous Australians this was not something to celebrate. It culminated in a massive gathering in the centre of Sydney.
He also gave his voice and skills to innumerable other organisations. The many things he achieved were with the support of other dedicated and talented people, because that was his greatest gift, the ability to bring different men and women together in common cause.
I think Cookie would have been gratified by the many voices, black and white, that were added to the chorus in defence of Goodes, what he was for, and what he was against. Cookie knew that the fight was not over, but he also knew that in his lifetime progress had been made and everyone who knew him is aware of the immense contribution he personally made to this.
His voice is now silent, and too soon. But other voices are being raised.
Cookie was no more a saint than any other man or woman, but throughout his life he waged a principled fight for those who haven’t rather than those who have. He is mourned in his passing and celebrated for what he achieved and how he lived his life.
Professor Heather Goodall, in introducing Cookie’s story to readers of Making Change Happen said, “He was well-known as a unionist, as an advocate of innovative, Aboriginal-controlled adult education, highly respected as a nation-wide land rights organiser, a key player in transnational links with liberation movements and a man of exceptional integrity and dynamism.”
But Cookie’s book is not in the normal meaning of a biography. Heather went on to say, Cookie was not interested in searching for the meaning of his own life. Instead, he has always focused on what he grew up calling ‘sticking fats’ – sticking together with fellow activists, sharing the good and the bad in everything he was involved in – sharing not just the hopes but the hard work to reach goals and the scarce resources you had to live on to get there.”
He is a much missed, friend, comrade and inspiration. Cookie has always been, and always will be, the heart and soul of Tranby College.