If you ever sat across from him in a meeting and received that intense stare you'd know what I mean.
Milton Cook had a way of looking at you and staring with a nuclear-powered intensity, gazing right into your thoughts. One time, I had just said something at the board meeting of the New London Community Meal Center, and when he gave that stare, I felt like a little kid in the principal's office.
"What?" I asked, defensive. "Did I say something stupid?"
Everyone else in the room kept silent, tense. My heart stopped. And then his face cracked into that beautiful grin, his eyes twinkled and he turned his head with a scrunched up chin.
"Not at all, not at all, doc. I agree with you," he said. The whole room laughed.
Being a doctor means, all too often, that you are privy to awful foreknowledge. And so my heart sank when I read the report that Milton Cook had a pancreatic mass. The doctor in you goes into a focused, work-mode, but the friend in you gets angry, scared, hopeful and sad all at once.
No one in my life has so inspired me to community service as Milton Cook. As his lovely wife recently told me in her gentle way, it was his talent and his calling, and he did it so well. And so, every night after work and in spite of being on virtually every board of directors for every do-gooder society in New London, Milton sat in the middle of the soup kitchen in New London to make sure New London's poor could sleep with full bellies. If a fight broke out or if someone used bad language, all he had to do was perk his head up and stare with that intensity and the fight would stop.
I remember a young woman came in with a black eye, and Milton knew exactly how it happened. He took her aside and gently chided her for being with the man who beat her and encouraged her to get back on her feet again. Milton knew who was homeless and why, and he knew their stories - who was just down on their luck; who was drinking; who was sick. He never judged, but when they were ready for help he was generous. He got them medical care and legal assistance. He gave them fatherly advice. Sometimes he was stern, but he was also a big softy. And most of all, he was always there.
I remember one night we were talking and a man came up and asked for help with a bus ticket to visit his mother who was dying in Hartford. The man was down on his luck but had begun to turn his life around; he had a job and an apartment, but he was broke. Milton reached into his wallet and gave him some money. A few minutes later, someone else asked him for money, but the person was intoxicated and Milton quietly lectured her, told her to get some food and to come back sober. A few minutes later, someone else asked for a bus ticket to get to New Haven to check into a drug rehab center. Milton reached into his wallet and gave what he had, which wasn't enough, then he looked at me sheepishy and asked, "Doc, do you have a few dollars so we can get her a bus ticket?"
Milton was an extraordinary man because of his tireless devotion to the poor. And he was stubborn. After he had heart surgery several years ago, I told him to rest, to take it easy.
"OK doc," he said, but he returned to the soup kitchen long before his chest incision healed. Milton had the talent and skill to own and run a successful restaurant chain or Fortune 500 company, and with even half of the effort he directed to the poor, he could have made himself an extremely wealthy man.
Milton Cook was one of the greatest men I have known in my life. We will never be able to replace him, but hopefully his life will inspire the rest of us to give to the poor and to our community.