Rev. Payton B. Cook and his wife Mary were instrumental in serving underrepresented Georgia College students and members of the community for more than 30 years. Although Payton and Mary are gone, their robust legacy lives on inspiring countless students and citizens through their good works.
All three daughters emulated their parents’ passion for making their community a better place. So, they can attest to the magnitude of their parents’ outreach.
Mary loved working with students. She was a hard-working student herself—becoming valedictorian in both high school and college. Years later, she became the first African-American on Georgia College’s faculty serving as a professor of nursing from 1969 until 1984. She also played vital roles in her community.
Mary became the first advisor of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) at Georgia College from 1977 until 1984 and was instrumental in chartering a chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a national public service organization, at Georgia College. She nurtured many African-American students—most of whom were first-generation college students. Mary also served on the Lyceum Committee, where she helped choose speakers and programs for the college to sponsor.
“The speakers she helped bring to Georgia College were Alex Haley, author of ‘Roots;’ Nikki Giovanni, poet; Wilma Rudolph, Olympic champion in track and field and Rosey Grier, actor, singer, Protestant minister and former professional football player," said Pamela Cook, attorney, public librarian, Baptist preacher. “My mother was a family genealogist. She had read Alex Haley's book and decided to meet him.”
Giovanni gave Pamela her first book of poetry. Years later, when Pamela became director of Minority Affairs at Georgia College, she coordinated another visit by the poet.
Her mother served as an officer in the Georgia Association for Nursing Education and was a member of the Baldwin County Board of Education and the Affirmative Action Committee and Delta Sigma Theta’s Macon Alumnae Chapter. She was also instrumental in chartering the Georgia College chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. Mary was president of the Flagg Chapel Baptist Church Benevolence Committee. She was a 4-H leader. Mary was also a Girl Scout troop leader from 1968 until 1986, when cancer claimed her life.
“I don’t know how she did so much considering she had three little girls under the age of five,” said Pamela. “Mom would take the Girl Scouts camping at several parks—one of which they were the first African-Americans to swim in a particular Putnam County lake. She also created opportunities for members of the sororities and BSA to help with Girl Scout activities.”
Mary also found a way for everyone to participate in their Girl Scout troop’s ventures.
“The money from cookie sales went not only to support our trips to the Juliette Gordon Low house in Savannah and other places in the United States and Mexico, but we also used it for other kids in the community who couldn’t afford the trips,” said Dr. Lisa D. Cook, associate professor of economics at Michigan State University. “These included students who may have come from low-income households. So we learned from her determination and entrepreneurship that to whom much is given, much is expected, and that we also should be altruistic and generous.”
After her mother passed, Pamela became the advisor for Georgia College’s BSA and chapter of Delta Sigma Theta from 1988 until 1992.
“I carried on some of the work she started at Georgia College,” said Pamela. “That made serving in those positions very special.”
Like her mother and father, Pamela was committed to serving underrepresented individuals when she worked at Georgia College from 1988 to 1992. She sought to have more programs reflect cultural diversity. She was responsible for getting Black History Month and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday program. She also initiated the SOAR peer-mentor program. In addition, Pamela was recognized by the Board of Regents for her contributions to the Minority Advisement program.
Melanie Cook McCant, Esq. and former trustee on the Georgia College Foundation Board from 2006 until 2010, has many fond memories of her mother’s acts of kindness, as well.
“Every month, my mother would set up a table outside a local grocery store to provide free blood pressure checks,” she said. “We spent countless hours taking homemade baked goods and toiletries to nursing homes and elderly people, often singing Christmas carols and other songs to them.”
Those good deeds made an impact on Melanie’s life. She now tutors and mentors foster children, and much of her free time is spent preparing bags and collecting clothing for local women and children’s shelters. She is also chairperson of the Fulton County City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, which has a mission to improve Atlanta's neighborhoods by revitalizing abandoned properties and insuring housing affordability.
Reflecting on her mother’s community outreach makes Mary’s second daughter Lisa incorporate similar good works on a national scale. She is director of the American Economic Association summer program, where she tries to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the field of economics, and she has served in the White House working on economic policy. It is not surprising that Pamela and Lisa were selected for the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship for commitment to public service and scholastic achievement in college, and the first winners who were siblings.
After his wife’s passing, Payton created a scholarship at Georgia College for minority students, who are committed to impacting their community.
Learn how you can follow Payton's lead and create your own scholarship. Visit http://www.gcsu.edu/foundation/methods-giving.
“I’ve served on the scholarship selection committee for several years, and I’m just so impressed with the caliber of students who have applied,” said Pamela. “It’s a very small way to encourage and really, in some cases, make a difference in students continuing at Georgia College.”
In addition to being the first African-American senior administrator at Central State Hospital and a mentor to employees there, the sisters’ father was also heavily involved in service. Payton was president of NAACP, where he worked on racial conciliation in the community. He also served as a foundation trustee at Georgia College and on the Human Relations Committee. Payton was a member of the Oconee Area Planning and Development Commission, Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a 4-H leader, as well as a member of the board of directors of Baldwin County Hospital.
“My father fought for human rights—not just for civil rights for African Americans, but also for women, the disabled and for people around the world,” said Lisa. “This was an ideology he championed at work, at home, at church, in the community and in everyday life.”
Like her father, Lisa serves as a board member for a local university-based arts organization. She’s keen on protecting voters’ rights. Like her mother, Lisa tries to help students and faculty by promoting more diverse participation in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“My parents gave me the infrastructure and the tools,” said Lisa. “So, I do what I think needs to be done to help change the world.”
And changing the world he did. Even after he died, Payton’s work in the community continued to be felt. Melanie was awestruck at what she observed at her father’s funeral.
“People tried to repay loans my father made for them to prevent their electricity from being turned off, or if they needed help getting a child out of trouble,” she said. “My father’s kindness didn’t stop there. Some single mothers told me how he encouraged them to go back to school, so they could take care of their families. Then, he encouraged and helped them get into college and offered them jobs when they graduated.”
The legacy of Payton and Mary’s good deeds live on.
“Our parents thought it was our responsibility to give back and be concerned about the community,” Pamela said. “They showed us how we look at issues to see how they’re going to affect the citizens—especially those people who are marginalized in the process.”