From the mid 1940s through the mid 1960s, Eugene "Gene" Cook served as the Attorney General of the State of Georgia. His twenty years as Georgia’s lawyer exceeds all of the terms of his predecessors and successors. As the Attorney General, Cook was called upon to advise the governor and the legislature on many of the divisive issues in Georgia’s history.
Julian Eugene Cook was born on April 12, 1904 in Wrightsville, Georgia. The son of James Monroe Cook and Ida Preston, Gene attended the public schools of Wrightsville. He entered Mercer University in Macon, where he was the editor of the school annual, the Mercerian. While at Mercer, he was President of the Junior class and a member of the Phi Kappa and Blue Key honorary societies. Following his graduation, Cook was accepted into the university’s law school, from which he graduated in 1927 with first honors.
Eugene Cook returned to his native Wrightsville, where he entered the practice of law. In 1932, he was easily elected over William Pope as Solicitor of the City Court of Wrightsville. As solicitor, Cook prosecuted misdemeanor cases in what was actually a state court. After serving a four-year term as solicitor, Cook served a four year term as Judge of the City Court of Wrightsville.
Gene Cook launched a campaign for the post of Solicitor General of the Superior Court of the Dublin Judicial Circuit. After easily defeating W.W. Larsen, Jr. in the Democratic primary in 1940, Cook took office on New Year’s Day in 1941. Since the seat of the circuit was in Dublin, Cook moved to his new home on Woodrow Street. During the first two years of World War II, Cook prosecuted cases in Laurens, Johnson, Treutlen and Twiggs counties. On February 18, 1943, Cook took office as the Revenue Commissioner of Georgia under an appointment from Gov. Ellis Arnall following a reorganization of the department.
Eugene Cook had withdrawn from the 1942 Attorney General’s race but realized his dream of becoming the top lawyer in Georgia, when on March 18, 1945, he was appointed to the post by Gov. Arnall. Attorney General Cook found himself mired in the middle of one of Georgia’s most explosive political controversies. The iconic Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge was elected to the office of Governor in the 1946 general election, but died before he could take office. Three men claimed the right to hold the vacant office of governor. Ellis Arnall, the retiring governor, claimed that he should remain in office until a new election could be held. M.E. Thompson, the victor in the race for Lieutenant Governor, claimed that since the office of the governor was vacant, he was the rightful holder of the office. Gov. Talmadge’s son Herman claimed that it was his inherent right to succeed his father in office. As the state’s legal advisor, Cook was called upon to render an opinion as to whom should be governor. He ruled in favor of Arnall, who had appointed him to the post nearly two years earlier. After weeks of debate in the halls of the legislature, newspapers throughout the state and at the bench of the Supreme Court of Georgia, M.E. Thompson was declared to be the rightful occupant of the position as governor. Though Cook and Talmadge were bitter enemies at the time, they later became good friends until Cook’s death.
The most electrifying legal issue of the 1950s was the desegregation of public schools in the South. Though he led the fight to eliminate the KKK in Georgia, Cook, a self described political moderate, was a fierce opponent of integration of schools and other public facilities. As Attorney General of Georgia and in accordance with the prevailing policy of the state, Cook joined other attorneys general of the southern states in opposition to the position of the court in the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. In 1957, he ruled that President Eisenhower’s use of Federal troops in integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was constitutionally void. His opinion led to a resolution of the Georgia legislature condemning the act. In the early 1960s, Cook engaged in a pivotal ruling in representing the State of Georgia against the rights of black students to integrate the University of Georgia.
In addition to his service to the state, Gene Cook was an active member of the Lions Clubs of Georgia, serving as a District Governor of District 18-B from 1939 to 1940. He was also a leader in the Boy Scouts. A member of the Baptist Church, he served on the Board of Directors of his alma mater, Mercer University, as well as Brewton Parker University near his hometown. Cook was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention on three occasions and never lost a political contest. He was appointed as an honorary citizen of Texas, Mayor of San Antonio and a Kentucky Colonel. In 1954, Cook served as president of the National Association of Attorneys General of the United States.
In one of his last most notable acts as Attorney General, Cook sided with most states in opposing the Federal court’s decision to provide, at state expense, funds for indigent defendants in the 1963 case of Gideon vs. Wainwright.
On June 14, 1965, Cook, the dean of the nation’s state attorneys general, was appointed to a vacancy on the Bench of the Supreme Court of Georgia by Gov. Carl Sanders. On the day of his swearing in, Cook began hearing cases vital to the people and government of Georgia. Upon taking office, Cook became the first Johnson and Laurens Countian to hold the office of Attorney General and the Supreme Court of Georgia. Eugene Cook was the last of only six Georgians to hold both positions. Cook succeeded Justice Grady Head, whom he also succeeded as Attorney General.
Among his appointments as Assistant Attorneys General were Marmaduke Hardeman Blackshear of Dublin and Rubye Jackson of Brewton. Jackson was the first female to serve as an Assistant Attorney General.
Just two days after his 63rd birthday in 1967, Justice Cook, despondent over the loneliness following the death of his wife a few months earlier, ended his life with a self inflicted gun shot wounds. His birthday presents were found nearby. He was eulogized by his friends and former political foes as a great public servant of Georgia.
Gov. Carl Sanders told reporters, “Gene Cook was one of the finest, most able and dedicated public servants that I have ever known. He was one of the kindest and finest men I knew.” Eugene Cook was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.