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Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke dies

April 6, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Jack Kent Cooke, the crusty entrepreneur whose Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls and whose personal life was the stuff of tabloid headlines, died Sunday. He was 84.

The NFL owner collapsed at his estate in northwest Washington and was taken to George Washington University Hospital at 11:34 a.m. He died 35 minutes later.

``He didn’t complain of chest pain, and he suddenly collapsed,″ said Dr. Robert Shesser, the hospital’s chief emergency room physician. ``When the paramedics arrived on the scene, his heart was not beating. ... We went through every possible scenario to try to revive him.″

Cooke, who had a heart attack in 1973, had long been bothered by angina pain and breathing problems. Last Nov. 10, he became ill in his RFK Stadium box during a game. He spent the next five days in the hospital, where he was found to have osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition found in the elderly.

For Cooke, image was nothing _ success was everything. And during his 23 years as majority owner of the Redskins, his success could be measured by his vast financial holdings, his NFL championships and the parade of celebrities that came calling to his stadium box.

``Nobody’s going to write a book about me (50 years from now),″ Cooke told The Associated Press in 1995, ``because nobody’s going to find anything worth writing a book about.″

It was that no-nonsense mindset that helped Cooke become one of the most successful American sports owners.

``He was a tough negotiator,″ said D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who haggled with Cooke for several years over a new stadium. ``He wouldn’t have made all his money if he had been a softie. ... I regret that he didn’t live long enough to see the stadium completed. It was one of his dreams. In fact, he was almost obsessed with it.″

President Clinton said Cooke’s ``straight-shooting style and love of the fans earned him respect and admiration throughout the sports world.″

Born Oct. 25, 1912, in Hamilton, Ontario, Cooke sold encyclopedias during the Depression before making his fortune in radio and television companies, real estate and newspaper publishing.

His net worth when he died was estimated at $825 million, earning him the 170th spot on the most recent Forbes Magazine’s 400 Richest Americans List.

Cooke’s box at RFK was a bipartisan mix of Capitol Hill’s most noted _ from presidents to generals such as Colin Powell and much of the U.S. Senate.

``He combined promotional flair, management skill and financial strength to turn the Redskins into a Washington institution, a national attraction and one of the most successful franchises in sports history,″ NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. ``Jack Kent Cooke loved the game, loved to win and knew how to field a winner.″

He became majority owner of the Redskins in 1974, took over daily operation of the team from Edward Bennett Williams in 1980 and began his dogged pursuit toward making the Redskins an NFL power.

``He was one of those rare people who was a tough guy, a super-smart guy, and he was always better when things were at their worst,″ said Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins from 1981-1993.

Cooke’s first sports venture came in 1951 when he purchased baseball’s Toronto Maple Leafs of the International league. That paved the way for the city to land the Blue Jays in 1977.

Next came Los Angeles, where he purchased basketball’s Lakers and hockey’s Kings. In 1967 he built them the Forum, a showplace arena favored by Hollywood stars. He also owned a horse breeding farm in Lexington, Ky.

As the Kings failed to draw, he grew tired of hockey.

Once he noted that he had purchased the franchise because he’d heard there were a half-million Canadians in southern California. Then he added that those half-million must have left Canada because they hated hockey.

So he turned to football, and his relentless effort to build a winning football team was matched by his determination to build a new stadium.

Despite offering to pay for the building, he endured nearly a decade of rejection by citizens’ groups and local governments before reaching agreement last year to build a $160 million, 78,600-seat complex near Landover, Md. It is to open this season.

Cooke wanted the stadium finished in time for the 1997 NFL season. For that to happen, a Washington beltway interchange was built on the tightest time schedule. Cooke even coined a postmark for the venue _ Raljon _ after his two sons, John Kent Cooke and the late Ralph Kent Cooke.

Cooke also bucked two stadium trends. He refused to charge personal seat licensing fees for season tickets, a practice that essentially forces fans to pay twice for seats. He also resisted the temptation to move his team from the Washington area.

``These things can be done if you put your will to it,″ Cooke said. ``This was proved when I built the Forum, which they said would take 78 weeks; it took us 52 weeks.″

But Cooke’s business prowess was often overshadowed by a personal life that smacked of scandal.

He was married five times, and his first divorce, from the former Jeannie Carnegie, made the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest settlement at that time ($49 million in 1979). The presiding judge was Joseph Wapner of People’s Court fame.

Bride No. 2, Las Vegas socialite Jeanne Maxwell Williams, lasted just 10 months. Then came Suzanne Martin, who claimed their 1987 marriage was contingent upon her aborting a fetus conceived by Cooke. After the wedding, she decided to have the baby and the marriage was dissolved after 73 days.

Years later, Cooke fought for custody of the girl, Jacqueline Kent Cooke. Though he lost, he won visitation privileges and would proudly drive her around Redskin Park in a golf cart to watch practice.

Cooke then was married _ twice _ to the former Marlena Remallo Chalmers, who has served 3 1/2 months in federal prison for conspiring to import cocaine into the country. The first union, which lasted 3 1/2 years, was declared void because her divorce from a previous husband was invalid. They were married again in 1995, and just last week, attorneys for the Justice Department were in court arguing for Mrs. Cooke’s deportation because of her drug conviction.

Cooke had far more success with the Redskins. Their rise began in 1981 with the hiring of Gibbs. He and general manager Bobby Beathard built a team that played in four Super Bowls and won three _ in 1982, 1987, 1991.

Cooke had a meddle-free philosophy that remained in place with current coach Norv Turner and general manager Charley Casserly. Both recently received long contract extensions despite a four-year absence from the playoffs.

``I almost invariably agree with them,″ Cooke said of his coaches and executives, ``because they know these things better than I do.″

Cooke did not openly discuss his personal life, and such questions elicited a standard reply.

``What kind of question is that?″ Cooke would say. ``It’s like asking me what kind of tree I’d like to be.″

Cooke is survived by his wife Marlena, daughter Jacqueline and his son, John Kent Cooke Sr., who is the Redskins executive vice president and who is expected to assume control of the team. Cooke’s other son, Ralph Kent Cooke, died in 1995. Cooke also had five grandchildren.

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