Once a Torchbearer…

Class of ’65 Torchbearer Joseph C. Cook Jr. still lights the way

CookEnterprising engineer, successful entrepreneur, dedicated philanthropist, devoted husband and father—these are just a few of the ways to describe Joseph C. Cook Jr. (’65), alumnus of the College of Engineering and current chair of the COE Board of Advisors.

Cook was the first member of his family to graduate from high school, let alone go to college, but the highly motivated Chattanooga native worked his way through UT as a co-op student. Alumni scholarship also helped support him as he earned a B.S. in industrial engineering, receiving the top honor of Torchbearer along with his honors diploma.

“I could not have attended UT without that scholarship,” Cook says. “It meant that somebody cared enough for me, and others like me, to give me a chance to go to school. I remember thinking that the beneficiary of that generosity should feel a duty to repay that and more so that there will always be funds available for people who are deserving but cannot afford the cost.”

Cook’s career is a wonderful example of what gifts toward alumni scholarships can do.

He joined the Indianapolis–based pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly & Company after graduation, and in his 28 years there he has served in a number of senior positions, including head of engineering, vice-president of production, and group vice-president of global operations, before he retired in 1993.

But a true Torchbearer can’t drop the torch, so Cook then began a second high-powered career as a strategy consultant to the biotechnology industry, working out of his home in Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he and his wife, Judy, had settled.

In March 1998 Cook accepted a 1- to 2-year stint as chairman and chief executive of San Diego–based Amylin Pharmaceuticals, a small publicly traded biotech company that was then in clinical trials of its diabetes drug, Symlin. The cross-country commute necessitated by this position seemed doable in the short term, but then unexpected results the clinical trials sent Amylin into a tailspin.

“Our stock plummeted, and we had only ninety days of cash left,” Cook says. “We had to downsize by eighty percent to only thirty-seven employees in order to keep our research and development going. But we did manage to hold career fairs and got almost all of our displaced employees jobs before their severance pay ended.”

Cook, other members of the Amylin board, and a significant outside investor wrote personal checks to keep the company going, and his short-term commitment turned into more than 5 years of crisscrossing the continent.

Armed with positive results of two new clinical trails of Symlin, in late 1999 Cook began rebuilding Amylin, which had continued to work quietly developing a second diabetes medication, Byetta. He helped hammer out a collaboration with Lilly in 2002 to further develop and commercialize Byetta, and in 2005 both Symlin and Byetta were FDA approved and are now on the market.

Amylin is now a 1,200-employee company with “two products on the market that are truly helping people with diabetes live better lives,” says Cook. “In February 2010, we held a ribbon-cutting for Amylin’s first biotechnology manufacturing operation, a $150-million facility near Cincinnati. It’s a rare but very satisfying turnaround.”

Cook “retired again” in 2003 to join his son and son-in-law in forming Mountain Group Capital, which focuses on acquiring controlling interests in manufacturing and value-added distribution companies located primarily in the Southeast.

Now settled in Nashville, the Cooks divide their time between their Tennessee and North Carolina homes, enjoying their family of two grown children and five grandchildren. “It is a blessing to be able to return to your home state, work with your family, and be close to your grandchildren,” Cook says.

Cook’s college honored him with its prestigious Nathan W. Dougherty Award in 1999, and he has served on its Board of Advisors since 1987, assuming the role of chair in 2005. “The most dramatic transformation that I’ve seen in the college is in changing from a department focus to an integrated curriculum,” Cook says. “It has responded well to changes in the cultural and business environment.”

The Cooks have been part of the college’s progress, establishing the Judith E. and Joseph C. Cook Jr. Engineering Scholarship Endowment at the UT College of Engineering in 1997 to help deserving students, and they are pleased with the state’s commitment to its best students in the Tennessee HOPE Scholarships.

“We should all commit to making the University of Tennessee a key component of the fabric that supports the economic growth of Tennessee. By developing an outstanding educational institution at UT Knoxville, we contribute to providing future working professionals and entrepreneurs, and we are creating a win-win situation,” Cook says.

“We can no longer assume that the government taxing agencies will pick up the full burden of operating our institutions of higher learning,” Cook stresses. “I believe that we must be good stewards of our resources, and higher education is one important area where we must reinvest these resources. Those of us who are in a position to support education must remember that we have a responsibility to make sure that the generations that follow us have the same opportunities that we enjoyed. The scholarship is my way to provide for others, just as someone did for me more than forty years ago.”

Comments are closed.