Catching up with UNITY Founder J.R. Cook
UNITY began through the efforts of J.R. Cook, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, who has worked with Native youth in leadership development for more than three decades. The organization grew from a small group of interested Indian youth in southwestern Oklahoma in 1976 to a national organization today with affiliated youth councils operating in 35 states and Canada. J.R. stepped down as Executive Director in 2013 to focus on writing about UNITY’s history. J.R. agreed to share more about himself and answer some questions about UNITY.
Tell us about yourself (please include tidbits about your ancestry, childhood, education and past employment).
I was born and raised in northeastern Oklahoma. I grew up on a farm, raising sheep and hogs. A neighbor gave me orphan lambs. I sold grasshoppers to a Michigan company to raise funds to buy a hog. Before UNITY, my goal was to become a successful college basketball coach. Coaching experiences included High School girls and boys basketball coach at three schools. Also, coached a state championship softball team at Sperry High School and was a Graduate assistant basketball coach at the University of Tulsa and Assistant basketball coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
In addition, career highlights include being a Math teacher, assistant director, and project director of Upward Bound at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma and directed an Indian Education project (focusing on dropout prevention and cultural retention) at Southwest Indian Cultural Center, serving 10 western Oklahoma schools. UNITY was an outgrowth of this project. Youth representatives from these schools met regularly. At one such meeting, they debated a name for the organization. All agreed that the name should stand for something. Larson Simmons, a young Choctaw activist, convinced the youth to choose UNITY – United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc.
Education background includes Coffeyville “College, University of Oklahoma and a Masters from Southwestern OK State. University.
What are some little-known UNITY facts? (How UNITY’s name evolved, original board members, etc.)
Early trustees included Sammy Tonekei White (columnist and emcee), Dr. Robert Wise (a pastor), Yvonne Cannon (educator), Millie Giago (director of Native American Center in Oklahoma City), Dr. Jerald Walker (president of Oklahoma City University), and Bill Barnett (educator).
Little known facts about UNITY: One of the early conferences was held at Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico. Many of the attendees stayed in tents. The late Wendell Chino, Chairman of the Mescalero Tribe, was the keynote speaker.
1980 was a big year for UNITY. Willie Nelson and Family offered a benefit for UNITY in Norman, Oklahoma. The proceeds were used to pay off UNITY’s debts and to provide a music scholarship at Oklahoma City University. The late Paul Harvey, the famed national radio commentator, shared a commentary about UNITY on his radio and newspaper network.
What does wellness mean to you?
To me, wellness means being fit spiritually, mentally, physically, and socially. It pertains to the whole person – just as the UNITY logo does.
What is your favorite pastime?
Therapy Dog visits! (You may read more about Jake, J.R.’s therapy dog, and how together they are touching lives, click here.)