That Pioneering Spirit

Portrait of alumnus and statesman Dave Cox '61


Daylight is fading on a brisk November day as McKenzie “Ken” Cook ’60 drives down a country road near the small mountain town of Welches, Ore. McKenzie Farms – Cook’s massive Christmas tree operation – is in the frenzied grip of the holiday harvest, but work can wait.

“I always have time to talk about Dave Cox,” Cook says, pulling to the side of the road. “Having the opportunity to know him was a blessing.”

Many would echo that sentiment. David Cox ’61 was surrounded by loved ones at his home in Fair Oaks, Calif., when he succumbed to a 13-year battle with prostate cancer on July 13. On Aug. 5, hundreds of mourners packed into the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in downtown Sacramento to remember a doting family man, exceptional statesman and dear friend.

“If politics is the art of compromise, he was the Picasso in the capital,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

Cox, who worked in the insurance business, opened his own agency in 1981 after moving with his wife, Maggie, and three daughters from San Diego to suburban Sacramento. In 1988, his life took a public turn when he was elected to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board. His political career quickly snowballed. He joined the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in 1992, the California State Assembly in 1998 and the State Senate in 2004. He first rose to statewide prominence in 2000 as the Assembly Republican Leader and cemented his reputation as a tenacious legislator.

“Dave could disagree with people without being disagreeable,” says Jonathan Brown, a family friend and president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. “He had a set of core principles that he believed in deeply.”

Cox hosted bipartisan gatherings, was a convivial fixture in the Senate lounge (officially decreed “Cox’s Clubhouse” after his passing) and was known for his punctuality, fashion sense and dry wit as much as for his no-nonsense style.

“Yes, Dave Cox was gruff, cantankerous, curmudgeonly and he had high expectations,” Kevin Bassett, Cox’s longtime chief of staff, said at his memorial service. “The same Dave Cox could also be one of the most caring and thoughtful individuals that you have ever met.”

Along with his devotion to family, Cox had a deep affection – and commitment – to his constituents. He was respected as a fierce advocate for those he represented and was hyper-attentive to their thoughts and concerns, hosting more than 700 “community cabinet” meetings throughout the region.

“Humble probably isn’t the right word,” Maggie Cox says, “but his Oklahoma roots served him well in understanding different personalities and perspectives.”

Born on Feb. 20, 1938, in Holdenville, Okla., Cox spent his formative years in Tonkawa, a tiny wheat-farming town near the Kansas border. He enrolled at Antelope Valley College and found a mentor in his football coach, Bob McCutcheon. When McCutcheon was hired at USD – offering his protégé a scholarship to join him – Cox didn’t hesitate.

In August 1957, the USD football team gathered for the start of two-a-day practices at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Players were told to find a roommate for the week and Cox introduced himself to Ken Cook with a firm handshake.

The pair quickly struck up a friendship. Cox found work – and living quarters – as an apprentice embalmer at the Ryan, Sullivan, Bradley and Woolman Mortuary in San Diego, and coaxed Cook into joining him. The friends roomed together at the mortuary for the next two years, spawning a lifetime of tales in the process: “You can imagine us taking girls out for a date in the hearse,” Cook says, laughing.

Cox played football and baseball at USD, though he was better at the latter than the former. “Dave was not a good football player,” Cook groans. Cox earned the teasing nickname “Big Blue Leader” for the practice jersey he wore as quarterback of the scout team. “That name stuck with him forever,” Cook chuckles.

“USD was very special to him,” Maggie Cox says. “That was his entrance into everything. It opened all kinds of doors for him. The friendships he formed were life-lasting.”

On Sept. 4, those remaining friends and teammates gathered with the Cox family in the Warren Room at Jenny Craig Pavilion for a remembrance of their own. They laughed, cried, told stories and reminisced about the “Big Blue Leader.” They attended that day’s USD football game against Azusa Pacific where Dave Cox was honored in a halftime ceremony. “It was wonderful,” Maggie Cox recalls.

On a gusty November evening, Ken Cook has just finished describing how he and Cox golfed together every chance they got, even though Dave was a terrible golfer. Just then, there’s a loud crack, and a tree crashes down across the road.

“I guess that was Dave getting back at me,” Cook says with a laugh, surveying the splintered remnants.

“Whatever you asked of Dave, he would always give more than he took,” Cook says.

Cook wavers over the last few words. He pauses to take in a long, deep breath.

“I tell you, it brings tears to my eyes thinking about the love I had for that man,” Cook says, voice quivering. “He was one of a kind.” — Nathan Dinsdale