Santa Barbara has long been influenced by generous, multi-talented spirits who add vibrancy to our collective community. We lost one of the most unique of these with the passing of Jim Cook – always witty and worldly, sometimes cynical, and beloved by so many individuals with widely divergent enthusiasms, backgrounds and areas of expertise.
Jim’s passions and interests were many – fine food and wine, great music (especially opera), theatre and dance, literature and book design, politics and people. Generous to a fault with his time and talents, he donated them to numerous performing arts projects and literary endeavors as well as to social justice causes.
Jim was raised in Palos Verdes and came to Santa Barbara in the late 1960s, attracted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He learned design and typesetting and hung out his shingle in the old Fithian Building on State Street – and became widely known as a vital part of Santa Barbara’s publishing community.
He designed and typeset the Santa Barbara News & Review, and was typesetter for the Independent in its early years. Editors regularly streamed back and forth from the offices on lower State Street to Jim’s crowded space trailing long typeset galleys, repro paper rife with the odor of the chemicals then necessary for production. It was sometimes difficult to find him in the room filled with paper hanging out to dry. When cut-and-paste evolved to computer-based technology—Jim adapted his skills, but not without lamenting the lost art of typography, or losing his appreciation for it.
In the 1980s Jim was a major force behind the literary magazine Connexions. From 1989 to 1992 he worked with the Society for Jazz and World Music, doing all graphic design, and was instrumental in financing the legendary Day of Music at multiple venues around town. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Jim served as editor-in-chief of The Bulletin, published by the Pacific Pride Foundation and a primary source of information and resources for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community throughout the Central Coast. Jim designed fiction and nonfiction titles for Capra Press, Daniel & Daniel, Fithian, Olympus Press, and many other Santa Barbara-based publishers and authors.
He brought an elevated and artistic sensibility to every publication, from fine cookbooks to student newspapers, from literary works to catalogs. Most recently, he served as pre-press manager at Western Web. Several of the books he designed are now housed at the Gledhill Library at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
If, like me, you lacked a classical music education, you got one while working with him over the years. When he designed and produced books, Jim always listened to classical music – often opera. And he seemed to have memorized every note ever written. While seemingly engrossed in the project at hand, he would stop, look up with a smile of pleasure and say, “Wait, just listen to this.”
The master of multi-tasking – before it was even a word – Jim was known to play the piano (barefoot) for a dance class while reading the New York Times. He sat on the board of directors for South Coast Contemporary Dance Theater, and could often be found there playing piano for a class or a performance, or assuming the role of stage manager. Occasionally, he could be convinced to play a solo piece for an audience.
Jim’s theater career started in Los Angeles with the Cabaret Concert Theatre and the South Bay Association of Little Theaters. Here locally, he directed many plays at The Timbers and at the Circle Bar B.
While he had no use for accumulating wealth, this Renaissance man appreciated quality, as reflected in his small cottage, where he lived for many years. He cultivated orchids, and had fine Turkish rugs, and bookshelves lined with a collection of books ranging from classics to cookbooks. His kitchen was stocked with exotic herbs, spices and cooking utensils – from gleaming Italian pasta machine to a well-used Moroccan tagine – that reflected his interest in world cuisines.
Jim lived out his last days in quiet dignity and was treated with great compassion at Sarah House. His first wife, Nicole Le Roux, commuted daily from Lompoc to visit him and to manage his care, along with longtime friend and fellow master book-designer Eric Larson. He passed peacefully with “Ave Maria” playing in the background.
Jim leaves behind sisters Joanne Rodasta Wilshin, of Anacortes, Washington, and Cecelia Nielen of Austin, Texas; a niece and nephews; and former wife Robin Ferry, now living in British Columbia. Daughter Amy DuBois, who grew up in Santa Barbara, now lives in Connecticut with her husband, Curt DuBois, and three daughters, Cory, Rachel and Emily.
Amy recently hosted a well-attended celebration of Jim Cook’s life at the Circle Bar B Ranch. Actors spoke of how he both terrified and delighted them with his knowing direction, writers spoke of literary lessons he taught, and co-workers spoke of how he inspired their success by allowing them the opportunity to fly on their own.
That would have suited Jim just fine. From directing theater to producing publications, he delighted in helping others look good. I remember the time I referred to him as an artist and he corrected me in no uncertain terms. “I’m no artist,” he insisted. “At best, I’m a craftsman, a tradesman. I support writers and artists and musicians.”
Even at the Sarah House hospice facility, near the end of his days, Jim was thinking of how he could use his craftsmanship to help others. He contemplated how best to design books for digital delivery and eagerly examined a new typeface designed for individuals with dyslexia.
“Sorry, I won’t be around to help anymore, kiddo,” he said.
So are we, Jim. So are we.