The Morganton Humanist Alliance is honoring the life of local educator Ronno Cooke through the newly created MHA Ronno Cooke Memorial Scholarship.

Cooke died Jan. 4 at the age of 57 following a three-and-a-half year battle with cancer. He was an OSHA Safety Instructor for several community colleges in western North Carolina, including Western Piedmont, which is the designated school for the scholarship. Aside from teaching, Cooke was a master craftsman in woodworking who built custom furniture and cabinets. He was known as an advocate for the environment and social justice. His passions included hiking, mountain climbing, kayaking, music and socializing, according to his obituary.

“It seems that everywhere Ronno went people knew him, no matter how distant,” his obituary read. “Ronno was loved by so many and it seems he made them all feel special because he really thought we are all so special and he genuinely wanted to know people. He loved so large and it was a real and reciprocal love we experienced with and from him.”

Rusty Harrison, who is a member of Morganton Humanist Alliance and taught with Cooke at Western Piedmont, spoke to The News Herald about Cooke and the scholarship.

“I started following him on Facebook when he got sick … and he started chronicling his experience with cancer and it was so damn beautiful and uplifting and moving,” Harrison said. “By the time of his death, he had over 500 people following his posts on Facebook.”

Harrison attributed Cooke’s benevolent nature and love of others as reasons he is being honored by MHA.

“His irrepressible optimism and boundless love and appreciation for life and all living things inspired literally hundreds of readers who followed his posts,” Harrison wrote in a press release. “Mr. Cooke was a humanist in the truest sense of the word and he touched everyone who he came in contact with.”

The initial fundraiser for Cooke’s Scholarship took place in October of 2016 when Brown Mountain Bottleworks agreed to donate $1 for every pint of beer they sold in a day to the fund. In addition to proceeds from sales, Brown Mountain had a bucket for direct donations.

“I really wanted to expedite the scholarship fund so that Ronno would be alive and know that he was being honored,” Harrison said. “It was profound. Tracy (Cooke’s wife) said it moved him to tears.”

Brown Mountain will hold a second event, Pints for People’s Fundraiser, Feb. 13 from 2-10 p.m. where they will donate $1 for every pint sold to the scholarship fund. A representative from MHA will be at the event to provide information about the group.

“Every penny that is raised goes to the fund,” Erica Schwarting with the MHA said. “So, it’s nice pairing that with Brown Mountain because there is no overhead for us. There are no marketing costs, so that way, all of what you give goes into the pot and the more we get, the more we can give.”

Donations may be mailed directly to the Morganton Humanist Alliance for Cooke’s Scholarship, and Harrison asks that contributions made in that manner be noted that it should be earmarked for the scholarship fund.

The amount of money raised will determine how many scholarships are awarded in a given year, with the first scholarships being awarded in the 2018-19 school year.

“The amount is set tentatively at $500 apiece so if we have $1,000, then we will award two scholarships,” Harrison said. “That money will go directly to Western Piedmont in the name of students awarded.”

A committee comprised of five volunteers from members of the MHA will award scholarships after reviewing applications. The scoring process will be “single blind so we won’t know who we will be scoring for,” Harrison said.

The committee will award scholarships based on financial need, employment status, academic performance, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, reference letters, and an essay addressing how humanism relates to the applicants future goals.

The MHA will distribute scholarship applications to Burke County High School Guidance Counselors in April of 2017. Those applications are to be returned beginning in August of 2017 and the first scholarships will be awarded July of 2018.

The Ronno Cooke Memorial Scholarship will continue Cooke’s passion for giving back to the community.

“We never had a lot of extra money but, even then, he tried to create with his woodworking talent’s pieces that could help the causes he believed in,” Tracy Moss, Cooke’s wife, said. “His biggest contributions were to the Foothills Conservancy. He also regularly bought food and brought it to the House of Refuge, which is a men’s homeless shelter in Morganton.”

Cooke donated fine woodworking pieces, including tables and a unique chair, to the Foothills Conservancy’s Flavors of the Foothills, a fundraiser and auction.

“Because he cared so much for forests and lands and waters and the Blue Ridge Mountains and the South Mountains, he wanted to support Foothills Conservancy and the work we do to protect the places that so many people love around here like the South Mountains and Lake James,” said Susie Hamrick Jones, Foothills Conservancy’s executive director. “What is really striking about Ronno is how many lives he touched in all of the things he did. Because he loved so deeply the area that we live in, he used his talents to help the Foothills Conservancy protect more of the things that he loved by donating these gifts to the Foothill’s Conservancy auction.”

Cooke was known to consider others even before himself. His giving was often reflected by educating himself and in turn educating others through discussion.

“He was highly motivated to help create a more educated society and to be educated himself in that teaching,” Moss said.

Memories of Cooke’s seemingly ethereal nature continue to circulate among family and friends and throughout social media.

“I went to see him about three days before he passed away at Ronno’s request,” Harrison said. “We had this real kind of philosophical discussion. He never talked about his illness at all. All he cared about was other people. (He was) just a sweetheart of a man.”

The Morganton Humanist Alliance is a certified nonprofit agency formed in March 2016. To date, they have organized a supply drive for the homeless, donated and planted trees in the city, adopted a stretch of Sanford Drive through Adopt-A-Highway, donated funds to the local LGBT group, donated to veteran Joseph Pritchard for his journey to Standing Rock, North Dakota, and created the MHA Ronno Cooke Memorial Scholarship.

“We never want to hold onto any money,” Harrison said. “We want to get rid of it as soon as we can. So our goal in all of our fundraisers is to disperse the money out to people who need it.”

To learn more about the Morganton Humanist Alliance, visit their Facebook page. They can also be reached at morgantonhumanistalliance@gmail.com. Donations to the MHA Ronno Cooke Memorial Scholarship fund can be mailed to Morganton Humanist Alliance, PO Box 321, Morganton, N.C. 28655.

Staff Writer Christy Traylor can be reached at ctraylor@morganton.com or 828-432-8939.

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