Jack Kent Cooke, of Redskins, dies Washington's owner had opposed NFL team in Baltimore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jack Kent Cooke, the courtly but iron-willed owner of the Washington Redskins, who amassed a vast fortune from a humble start peddling encyclopedias in his native Canada, died yesterday. He was 84.

Paramedics were called to Cooke's Washington residence at 10: 45 a.m. yesterday, and they rushed him to George Washington University Hospital. He died about 30 minutes after arrival and was pronounced dead at 12: 09 p.m., hospital spokeswoman Merle Goldberg said.

A statement from the team attributed the death to congestive heart failure resulting from heart disease. With him when he died were his wife, Marlena; son John Kent Cooke Sr.; his son's wife, Rita; and their son, John Kent Cooke Jr.

The National Football League team owner had been in poor health for some time. He had a heart attack in 1973 and was known to suffer occasional bouts of angina, or chest pains. On the advice of doctors, he skipped the final Redskins game at RFK Stadium in Washington in December.

Mr. Cooke was building a stadium for the Redskins in Maryland, but that was the only pro football team he'd wanted in the state. Mr. Cooke had opposed efforts to return the NFL to Baltimore.

"He was a piece of Americana -- a self-made man. He was a great doer and achiever and very aggressive in achieving his goals. He made certain that his goals were realized," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the Democratic president of the Maryland Senate and one of Mr. Cooke's earliest and strongest allies in state government.

"I've met a lot of public figures like the queen of England and the pope. But they were people of great reserve. Jack Kent Cooke had a persona all his own. He was a showman. He was meticulous in his dress and in the way he enunciated his speech. But he could be very demanding with people," Mr. Miller said.

Ravens owner Art Modell, who entered the league the year after Cooke first acquired shares in the Redskins, said: "He was one of the first real, multisport owners in sports. I think he'll be remembered as a genuine sportsman."

Mr. Cooke's death robbed him of the chance to see perhaps his most enduring monument, the $180 million football stadium now going up in Prince George's County in the Washington suburbs. Mr. Cooke, who privately financed the stadium, ordered construction on a record-setting pace and spoke often of his eagerness to see the massive and, at times, frustrating project through to completion.

It is scheduled to open this fall. "That stadium is nearing completion and certainly an expression of Mr. Cooke's determination and drive," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"Mr. Cooke spent much of his life working hard to build an NFL franchise that brought pride to the entire region. I know he looked forward to his team playing in his new stadium," Mr. Glendening said through a spokesman.

Under Mr. Cooke's ownership, the Redskins made four trips to the Super Bowl, and the owner's box became a gathering spot for the rich and famous. Invitations to rub shoulders with the likes of political commentator George Will or members of Congress were coveted. Television cameras often caught Mr. Cooke waving regally to the crowd below, like a king recognizing his subjects.

Mr. Cooke also developed a reputation for getting his way, sometimes by ruthlessly brushing aside opposition. His impatience with the pace of negotiations over his stadium plans sent him on a nine-year search for a place to build the project, taking him through Washington, Virginia and several sites in Maryland. Community groups fought him at every turn.

Among those he crossed was former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer, who tirelessly strove to return the NFL to his city. Mr. Cooke opposed a competing team 30 miles north of his own, and, Mr. Schaefer says, helped dash the city's chances of getting an expansion team in 1993.

"He was very polite and well-mannered. He liked to talk about his youth, about growing up in Canada. But when we started to talk about football, the atmosphere changed," Mr. Schaefer said.

"He was very egotistical, which is fine. I liked the guy. He was an interesting guy," he said.

Mr. Cooke's death ends a colorful story of success and perseverance. He was born in 1912 in Ontario, the son of a picture-frame maker. As a youth, he was an avid hockey player and fan and learned to play the clarinet and saxophone. For a time, he played in bands in Toronto, including one that included Percy Faith, the orchestra leader and composer.

During the Great Depression, Cooke began his business career selling encyclopedias.

By the age of 26, he had entered an industry destined to be more profitable for him: He joined a Canadian-based broadcasting and publishing firm and was part-owner of a chain of newspapers. His publishing holdings eventually included the Los Angeles Daily News.

A millionaire by 32, he made much of his money in real estate. Among his best known-properties was New York's Chrysler Building. He also dabbled in horse racing, raising thoroughbreds on a farm he bought in Lexington, Ky. The most recent annual ranking of America's richest people by Forbes magazine estimated Cooke's net worth at $825 million. In addition to his Washington home, he had a 640-acre estate at Middleburg, Va., and at one time had homes in Bel Air, Calif., and Acapulco, Mexico.

Mr. Cooke's sporting career began in 1951 with the purchase of a minor-league baseball team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1965, he bought the National Basketball Association Los Angeles Lakers for $5.2 million.

He joined the National Hockey League in 1967 by paying $2 million for the expansion Los Angeles Kings. He moved the team, and the Lakers, into the Los Angeles Forum, an arena he built himself in record time.

In 1979, he sold the two teams, the arena and some Nevada real estate for $67.5 million and headed east. That same year, he divorced his wife of 42 years and landed a spot in the "Guiness Book of World Records" with a $41 million settlement. The judge: Joseph Wapner, who would later preside over "The People's Court" on television.

Subsequent romances were less costly, thanks to prenuptial agreements, but also less successful. His second marriage lasted 10 months, the third only 73 days, reportedly failing when wife, Suzanne Martin, refused his demands to have an abortion.

His final marriage, to Marlena, a Bolivian-born woman 40 years younger than he and who had served time in prison on drug charges, had its moments as well. Police arrested her a few years ago after she was stopped while allegedly driving through Georgetown with a male acquaintance on the hood of her Jaguar convertible. Mr. Cooke briefly contested their marriage -- declaring it void on a technicality -- but they eventually patched things up.

Last week, attorneys for Mr. Cooke were in court arguing against attempts by the Justice Department to deport her.

Mr. Cooke fathered three children: Jacqueline, the daughter who was the subject of the dispute with his third wife; John Kent Cooke Sr., and Ralph, who died in 1995. Mr. Cooke commemorated his sons by officially naming the area under his new stadium Raljon, Md.

He is also survived by five grandchildren.

Mr. Cooke began acquiring shares of the Redskins in 1960, when the team was controlled by George Preston Marshall. That year, Mr. Cooke obtained his U.S. citizenship through an act of Congress.

Mr. Cooke purchased additional shares of the Redskins until, by 1974, he was the majority owner. In 1979, he took over day-to-day operations from Edward Bennett Williams -- who sold his Redskins shares to buy the Orioles -- and, in 1985, Mr. Cooke acquired sole ownership. He spent an estimated $15 million in total for the team. The franchise today would likely fetch more than $250 million if it were sold.

A spokesman for the team, Mike McCall, said no sale is expected, however. The elder John Kent Cooke, an executive vice president of the Redskins, will become owner and chief executive of the team, Mr. McCall said.

Under Mr. Cooke's control, the team had a 207-145 record. The Redskins played in four Super Bowls, winning three of them.

Mr. Modell clashed over the years with Mr. Cooke. Most recently, Mr. Cooke rejected Mr. Modell's suggestion that their two teams schedule an annual exhibition game in the state.

"He could be difficult. He and I had divergent views on subjects. He was tough and at times tough to deal with," Mr. Modell said. "I'm sorry that he couldn't see that stadium of his completed."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Cooke chronology

1912: Born in Hamilton, Ontario.

1934: Started selling encyclopedias across Canada.

1938: Became one-third partner in Thomson Cooke Newspapers.

1951: Purchased Toronto Maple Leafs minor-league baseball team.

1965: Bought the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers for $5.2 million.

1966: Acquired an NHL expansion team, the Los Angeles Kings.

1967: Built the Forum for his Lakers and Kings.

1971: Promoted the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden.

1974: Became majority owner of the Redskins.

1979: Set a world record for largest divorce settlement, $41 million, to his first wife. He eventually married five times.

1979: Sold Lakers, Kings and Forum to Jerry Buss for $67.5 million, then the largest sports transaction in history.

1979: Took over daily operation of Redskins from Edward Bennett Williams.

1983: Redskins won first of three Super Bowl titles.

1984: Bought Elmendorf Farm, a 503-acre horse farm in Lexington, Ky., with the goal of someday breeding and owning a Kentucky Derby winner. His only Derby horse finished 12th in 1989.

1985: Bought the Los Angeles Daily News.

1987: Announced plans for a new Redskins stadium.

1995: Son Ralph Kent Cooke died.

1996: Reached agreement to build football stadium in Prince George's County.

1997: Died at 84 with an estimated net worth of $825 million.

Cooke chronology (APPEARED IN THE ARUNDEL AND CARRROLL EDITIONS ONLY)

1912: Born in Hamilton, Ontario.

1934: Started selling encyclopedias across Canada.

1938: Became one-third partner in Thomson Cooke Newspapers.

1951: Purchased Toronto Maple Leafs minor-league baseball team.

1965: Bought the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers for $5.2 million.

1966: Acquired an NHL expansion team, the Los Angeles Kings. 1967: Built the Forum for his Lakers and Kings.

1971: Promoted the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden.

1974: Became majority owner of the Redskins.

1979: Set a world record for largest divorce settlement, $41 million, to his first wife. He eventually married five times.

1979: Sold Lakers, Kings and Forum to Jerry Buss for $67.5 million, then the largest sports transaction in history.

1979: Took over daily operation of Redskins from Edward Bennett Williams.

1983: Redskins won first of three Super Bowl titles.

1984: Bought Elmendorf Farm, a 503-acre horse farm in Lexington, Ky., with the goal of someday breeding and owning a Kentucky Derby winner. His only Derby horse finished 12th in 1989.

1985: Bought the Los Angeles Daily News.

1987: Announced plans for a new Redskins stadium.

1995: Son Ralph Kent Cooke died.

1996: Reached agreement to build football stadium in Prince George's County.

1997: Died at 84 with an estimated net worth of $825 million.

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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