Wantagh resident Mary Wagner says she’ll never forget when her good friend Ellen Cook tried to persuade her to join the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which encourages women to preserve their family history.
“We were in King Kullen, and she got so excited talking about the DAR and harassed me about the organization while walking up the aisles,” Wagner recounted with a giggle. “She got so worked up that she left the store without her groceries!”
The Herald is proud to name Cook its 2017 Person of the year. A longtime Wantagh resident, she is well known for her lively personality and passion for history. Recognized as the hamlet’s unofficial historian, Cook, 77, has family generational ties going as far back as the Revolutionary War, when Wantagh was just a small farming village.
“She knows the history of anyone in Wantagh, has a crazy photographic memory and doesn’t forget anything — so be careful!” Wagner added with another laugh. “When she goes, a lot of deep history will go with her.”
Cook, who holds monthly meetings with her fellow members of the DAR, can remember almost anything about Wantagh and its rich past. At one meeting, she rattled off surnames of her revolutionary relatives — Conklin, Nickel, McGee — before her friend Sandy Leonard jokingly said, “Where’s the key to turn her off?” while stirring her tea.
“It was always talked about in my family — the history,” said Cook, who has been a member of the DAR for 57 years. “People don’t realize how much the war affected Long Island.”
The DAR was founded in 1890 in Washington, D.C. by Mary Smith Lockwood, after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to allow women to join their group. The society now has more than 3,000 chapters around the world. Since 1968, leaders of the local Jerusalem Chapter have encouraged women from Wantagh, Seaford, Levittown and surrounding communities to preserve their family history by sharing stories with neighbors and friends.
In addition to offering historical presentations, Cook and other members also take part in Wantagh’s Fourth of July parade and local ceremonies commemorating Sept. 11, Memorial Day and other events. Cook, the chapter’s first vice regent, keeps a notepad in her car, and jots down the addresses of homes displaying American flags so DAR leaders can send them thank-you letters for taking pride in the country.
Wagner said she got to know Cook when Cook invited her to her home on Bunker Avenue for her daughter, Alison’s, birthday party. Wagner’s son was in the same grade as Alison at Mandalay Elementary School. The two women bonded, and before long they got involved with the PTA, and took charge of local Girl and Boy Scout troops. Their friendship has lasted 45 years.
Wagner joined the DAR in 1998. “She fought for me for years,” she said of Cook. “And she always fought for the DAR.”
Cook graduated from Wantagh High School in 1958, and began a career in the medical field. While many women she knew were getting married and having children right away, Cook decided to learn radiography, the science of X-rays, at what was then Nassau Hospital and is now NYU Winthrop. While there she met her future husband, Robert Cook.
The two were married on July 6, 1962, in Greenville, Miss., where Robert, a member of the Air Force, was stationed. She lived there with him for a few years, but, said her daughter, Alison Lorch, “It was the only time when she was away from Wantagh, and she absolutely hated it.”
Soon after they were married, Ellen and Robert moved to Wantagh and raised Alison and her brother, Robert Jr.
“She always used to say that Wantagh was like Mayberry from the Andy Griffith show,” Lorch said with amusement. “I have so many memories with her — everyone used to think she had, like, five kids because there were always so many children running around!”
While raising her children, Cook decided to join the Wantagh Preservation Society, which she has been a part of for more than 40 years.
“She always makes sure that money is donated to the society,” said Bob Meagher, the group’s president. “When it came to programming, Ellen always knew what to do.”
In 1966, when Cook was 26, the Wantagh Long Island Rail Road station was relocated. The little red house at the original station, built in 1885, was slated for destruction as the Babylon branch was being elevated throughout the mid-20th century. But thanks to the efforts of Margaret Aiken — whose new civic group, the earliest incarnation of the Preservation Society, was colloquially known as Margy and her Steamrollers — the station was donated to the organization and moved a few blocks north, to 1700 Wantagh Ave.
Cook can be seen in a photo hanging in the house, which is now the Wantagh Museum, with her now 52-year-old son, Bobby, in a stroller beside her. She recalled that the peculiar sight of a building being driven on the back of truck interested everyone in Wantagh. “It was just pure Mayberry,” she said. “Everyone came out and stood on the corner to watch it go by . . . I’m just so glad that we saved it.”
The station, which opened as a museum in 1982, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
“She is a community-minded individual, and always does more than she’s supposed to,” Meagher said of Cook. “She’s always a key player. She’s someone I can always count on and go to for advice and opinions regarding the society.”
In 2015, Cook was honored by the Miss Wantagh Court at the first-ever “Women of Wantagh” event for her contributions to the community. The event coordinator, Ella Stevens, said Cook was a fitting choice for the recognition because of her dedication to the town and her fascination with history. Her family, including her three grandsons, was there to applaud her.
“She has a very colorful personality, and she can tell a story like no one can,” Lorch said. “She’s so dramatic, and really makes you feel like you’re right there in the moment. She just knows everything, too — if my mother was on ‘Jeopardy,’ she would definitely win!”
Lorch said she can still recall her upbringing in Wantagh like it was yesterday — making snow forts during blizzards, helping her mother bake cookies, adopting puppies from the nearby shelter and, most of all, just listening to all the fascinating things her mother had to say about their community.
“She’s a storage house of information … She has the biggest heart, and would give away her last penny to anyone who needed it,” Lorch added, choking up. “I truly had an incredible childhood, and my mom made that happen.”
Julie Mansmann contributed to this story.