The Rev. Willie P. Cooke, an influential Sacramento minister who was a former pastor of historic Shiloh Baptist Church, died Sunday at 94.
A charismatic man of quiet strength, the Rev. Cooke was a pivotal leader in the history of Shiloh Baptist Church, which was founded in 1856 and is one of the oldest African American congregations in Sacramento. He served as senior pastor from 1957 to 1983 and returned as interim pastor in 1991 and 2002.
He broke ground in 1958 on Shiloh's present landmark sanctuary at 3565 Ninth Ave. in the Oak Park neighborhood. After vandals attacked the construction site and knocked down signs, burned lumber supplies and slashed tractor tires, he persevered.
"We had to survive," he told The Bee in 2003. "We had to make do with what we were faced with."
When financing bogged down, the Rev. Cooke got congregation members to donate sacks of cement, lumber and other materials. An electrician by trade, he rolled up his sleeves and joined other volunteers in completing construction of the church, which was formally dedicated in 1963.
"He was a man of many talents, and the title of pastor was not something that he held up high," said his son David. "He would get in and do whatever needed to be done. He was a humble man."
Shiloh's congregation grew from about 800 to more than 1,500 under the Rev. Cooke's leadership. Members included a young Cornel West who grew to be a Harvard University professor, philosopher and author who wrote in one of his books that his former pastor exemplified "so much of the best of Christian faith and black struggle."
The Rev. Cooke oversaw construction of an educational building and Shiloh Arms Inc., a housing and child care center. He formed a church council and organized a political and social action committee in 1975. He was active in community groups, including the NAACP and advisory committees to the mayor of Sacramento and UC Davis Medical Center.
The only child of a Baptist minister and a schoolteacher, Willie Phillip Cooke was born in 1917 and raised in Brookhaven, Miss. He studied electrical engineering at American School of Electricity in Chicago and was believed to be the first licensed African American electrical contractor in Oregon. He owned and operated Cooke's Car Clinic in Pendleton, Ore.
He moved to Sacramento and worked for Weismer and Becker Electric Co. before starting his ministry at Shiloh Baptist Church. He earned a bachelor's degree in theology from Conroe Normal and Industrial College in Texas and an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Andrew Baptist College and Seminary.
He was married since 1969 to his wife, Alveda, and had three sons. He served as interim pastor at other Northern California churches after stepping down as the longest-serving pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church.
"He taught me how to be a pastor before either of us knew I would be a pastor," said the Rev. Anthony Sadler, Shiloh's current pastor, who first attended the church as a 2-year-old. "He was a man of great humility who always pointed you to God."