Hot Springs resident always changing, always the same

By Wayne Bryan Published September 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Bruce Cook, a former Marine and a Cold War-era intelligence operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, taught himself to paint following his retirement and currently has an exhibit on display at the airport in Hot Springs.

— The terminal at Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport is filled with majestic mountains, stone cliffs and valleys filled with lakes and streams. The scenes are paintings by Bruce Cook, a self-taught artist who likes rocky landscapes.

“I like the texture and concreteness, no pun intended, of landscapes,” said Cook, who has had more than eight showings of his paintings in places like the airport terminal, a local bank lobby and the Garland County Library.

“Landscapes are both permanent and ever-changing, and you have to deal with both of those facts in painting them.”

A duality of perspective always appealed to Cook during his career.

“In the spy business, it was the same. There were always variables at play all the time, and you have to work with those,” he said.

For around 20 years, Cook, who has lived in Hot Springs since 1996, was an intelligence operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War.

In the lower level of his home on Lake Hamilton, there are awards and medals he received for service to his country that he really can’t talk about in detail.

Perhaps it is Cook’s ability to observe what others might miss that makes his paintings more interesting. He also has a way of making an alternative reality with his art.

“I met a local artist here named Howard Murphy, and he taught me a great deal about painting before he died,” Cook said. “He told me, ‘Don’t let the facts ruin the picture.’ All my paintings are based on a real place, but I want a nice picture.”

Cook’s latest show at the airport in Hot Springs is one in a monthly series by the Traditional Art Guild of Hot Springs. Cook has been president of the guild several times. This latest exhibition opened Aug. 18, five days after Cook’s 80th birthday.

“His art is really worth seeing, and

certainly, his life makes a good story,” said Nina Louton, current president of the Traditional Art Guild.

Cook’s story is set against the backdrop of some of the biggest events in the 20th century. In many of those events, he has played an active role.

He was born in 1932 in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. His mother was a nurse, and his father was an engineer.

“He designed gas furnaces before the war,” Cook said of his father. “Then during the Second World War, he began to work on rockets for the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, that became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Working in laboratories in Cleveland, Cook’s father went from developing artillery-type rockets used in World War II to designing some of the elements of the American space program before he retired in the mid-1960s. Even then, Cook learned there were secrets to be kept.

“I didn’t really know what it was he did until I was in high school, after the war,” Cook said. “He only breached his security twice. Once he told me we had broken the sound barrier. It was kept secret for a long time. And he told me that they had started the research on how to take a rocket to the moon back in 1944.”

The long-term project led to the success of July 1969 with the Apollo XI landing on the moon.

World War II, which began in late 1941, when Cook was 9 years old, was a major factor in his life.

“We were all shaped by the war,” Cook said, “as a people, and me as an individual. We were fighting for our lives in a very true sense. Our values were at stake.”

Soon after the war began, Cook said, he remembers crying when he heard that Manila, the capital of the Philippines, had fallen to the Japanese.

The 9-year-old then wrote to the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and asked if there was anything he could do to help win the war.

“He sent me a nice letter that said I should go to school and then join up when I could,” Cook said.

That is what he did. After winning a scholarship to Columbia University in New York, Cook joined a program called Platoon Leaders, similar to ROTC, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines when he graduated with a degree in English literature in 1954.

“I was in active service for three years and was in the field artillery,” Cook said. “We were learning how to be in the field during a nuclear war. We found out it didn’t work out very well.”

Cook said he agreed that the only way to win that kind of war was not to fight one.

When his active duty ended, he returned to Columbia, where he studied Slavic languages, including Russian. He attended an institute for advanced studies in all things Russian, then was given a fellowship with the Ford Foundation.

Leaving the service in the 1950s, he said he understood the dangers of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union.

“I knew that we were going to win the Cold War in a literal and geopolitical sense,” Cook said. “I had to do something to make sure we won.”

Cook said he believed the key weapon of the conflict would be information, and he decided to work for the CIA.

“I walked into the agency recruiting office in Washington,” Cook said, “but I found that if you volunteered for the job, you were under suspicion. You had to be talent-spotted.”

Returning to Columbia University, he said he planned his first operation in hopes of being recruited by the agency. Cook was noticed by CIA officials and was brought into the agency, first as an intelligence analyst, then in operations.

He joined the unit of the CIA that worked against the Soviet Union, and he helped send spies into communist-held territory in Europe. Cook rebuffed several questions, saying he could not talk about that much.

In 1967, he and his family moved to Holland, where he would go on missions himself. Asked if it was dangerous, Cook replied after he thought for a moment.

“Yes,” he said. “That is why I got some of those awards.”

He said he always went into communist lands openly.

“You don’t have to be invisible,” he said. “You just have to make sure you are not detected in the moment you are in action. You want to sneak in and do something and sneak out. You hope you have done something useful and not made a mess of anything.”

Cook’s wife, Diana, was in Holland with her son while her husband was involved in what he calls spy craft. She said she knew what he did, without knowing the details, but that she also understood how important his work was.

“He was part of the thinnest blue line keeping this country safe and free,” she said. “At that time, there were only about 150 people doing this work worldwide, but he enjoyed his job. He is the biggest Boy Scout.”

After time in operations, Cook was moved to the part of the CIA that developed new technologies for intelligence gathering.

“In the world of James Bond, I worked for Q,” Cook said with a smile. “I told the technicians what was needed in the field. Once something new was developed, I would tell the field people what was available to help them and how they could use it.”

He left the CIA in 1985. He said he learned something in his work there.

“You can’t keep secrets forever; it will all come out,” Cook said. “It helps you remember not to do anything you would be ashamed of when it comes out.”

From James Bond, he moved to stocks and bonds, becoming a stock broker in Washington, D.C.

“I had been buying stocks for myself, and I worked mostly with friends,” he said.

Asked if understanding intelligence gathering helped him in his new profession, he said it did not.

“But I was accustomed to risk,” Cook said. “I felt I could know what was too much of a risk and what was an acceptable amount of risk for something to be a good investment.”

He was an investment counselor and broker for 10 years but retired because he said people became more greedy and yet wanted no risk.

“Everybody wanted to find the magical sure thing,” Cook said. “Those folks were hard to work with because they were never satisfied.”

Cook and his wife found Hot Springs after visiting with friends who had retired there.

“My son lives in Longview (Texas), and this is close without us being underfoot,” Cook said.

Diana, a native New Yorker, said she likes the friendly, welcoming atmosphere of the Spa City.

Cook has been interested in photography for a long time, and when he retired to Hot Springs, he decided to take up painting. He met fellow painters and volunteered with the Hot Springs Arts Center and got involved with the Traditional Art Guild.

Each painting takes about 20 to 30 hours, Cook guessed and he said he has created more than 150 paintings since taking up the hobby.

“Now I want to teach myself to work in pastels,” he said.

After giving it a try, it might be possible to see some of his new work being shown somewhere in Hot Springs. After all, nothing is a secret for long.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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