John Cook, Sr., lived to innovate, educate, and inspire
Words by Paige Townley
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has guided John Cook, Sr., through many achievements in life. When he unexpectedly found himself at the helm of his family’s pest control business, he approached his new role as he would anything else: with a curiosity to find ways to innovate, educate, and inspire. While at first that curiosity was displayed in a rather unique way—a bug collection to benefit the company’s technicians—it culminated in the Cook Museum of Natural Science, the cornerstone of downtown Decatur, Alabama that is positively impacting generation after generation.
Opened in June 2019, the Cook Museum of Natural Science is a state-of-the-art, 62,000-square-foot nonprofit museum that provides kids and adults alike with immersive, hands-on experiences with nature and opportunities to learn completely under the guise of fun and excitement. The educational museum offers these experiences through numerous interactive galleries, live animal exhibits, and a renowned 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium that serves as home to one of the museum’s favorite residents, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Rounding out the facility—which won the USA Today Best New Museum award—is a restaurant, retail shop, meeting and event rental space, and even high-tech labs for education classes.
The Cook Museum of Natural Science was never part of John’s master plan, but it certainly lives up to everything he sought to achieve in life. No matter what he was doing or planned to do, it always included an aspect of how it was going to help others. “John had a vision and drive, one that required him to push himself but also to encourage everyone around him,” says Scott Mayo, the museum’s Executive Director. “He had a way of making an impact on everything he touched.”
Though known for its spectacular space today, the museum got its start in a warehouse decades ago after John had an unexpected change in profession and wanted to learn more about bugs. His dad had passed away, so John put his career as an architect on hold and moved back home, for what he thought at the time was to wrap up his dad’s termite business. “That was John,” says Scott. “He could have simply shut down the business immediately and continued on with his own plan, but his dad had made guarantees on termite contracts, and John was going to see that everything was done honorably. The rest, as they say, was history.”
John started the bug collection with two ideas in mind: to learn more himself and to better educate and equip the company’s technicians. But perpetually curious, John quickly began adding to his collection—things such as mounted wildlife, rocks, minerals, fossils, corals, and even seashells—to the point that he had his own private museum that was so large it required storage in a small warehouse. “As with everything he touched, when John started something and went to work, great things happened,” Scott adds. “Everything he did was to the utmost excellence, so the collection really took on a life of its own.”
Word soon got out about John’s collection, and he began receiving phone calls from individuals, schools, and community groups to come see it.
“John was such a people person that he of course opened it up to them,” Scott says. “He was wired to impact people and make a difference.”
The continued interest in the collection planted the seed for John: he saw a way to positively impact others. In true John fashion, he began looking for ways to make his collection more accessible, and soon plans were underway to construct a larger building to house the Cook Museum of Natural Science. In 1980, it opened its doors—just down the road from the museum’s current location.
From its opening day until it closed in 2016, the museum welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors. But John’s impact didn’t end when its doors eventually closed due to the need for heavy renovation. Knowing the important role the museum had played in the community over the years, the Cook family chose to construct a new facility, its current location, to honor all that John worked so hard to create. “John was all about ingenuity, hard work, generosity, and drive,” Scott says. “He made other people around him better and see the bigger picture. He always found a way to raise the bar, and that’s what his family chose to do with the new museum.”
The new Cook Museum of Natural Science opened in 2019, and though John didn’t get a chance to see it—he passed away in 2009—it’s a true testament to all he accomplished, even though it was never supposed to be his life’s work. “John was a luminary,” Scott says. “He always looked for ways to build up those around him, not just his family, but his community. The museum is a way for his legacy to continue on for generations to come.”