Robert Cook

Robert Cook points to two guitars he still owns that he built. It is a hobby he has not pursued in a while, but one he is being encouraged by family to get back to as he nears three-quarters of a century in age. Mechanical work tends to take its toll on his body, but he believes stopping will take a far worse toll.


ALTAMONT — Robert “Bob” Cook pulled out a rolling paper, dropped tobacco down the center and rolled it with practiced fingers.

He put the cigarette to his lips, lit it and took a drag. A smile emerged from his gray stubble and wrinkles appeared at the corners of his eyes.

“I run my mouth a lot. I’m bipolar, one,” he said laughing. “Being manic is a hell of a lot better than being depressive all the time.”

Being idle for any long period of time is not his strong suit. 

“All my life I’ve been bipolar, but nobody knew that until I was 46 years old,” he said. “Menninger’s decided I was what they call a risk-taker. I am and I know that, but it’s a calculated risk …. If you use your head, it’s not that risky.”

Those risks often involved vehicles because Cook is a mechanic.

“That’s what I was interested in,” he said. “Even when I was a little kid, I was building go-karts and built my own motorcycle out of a 26-inch pedal bicycle. I put an engine on it and it would do 35 mile an hour,” he said. “I was around 8 or 9 years old and I had a go-kart that was one by 12 and a had a quarter-horse Briggs engine on it doing 30 miles an hour down a gravel road.”

No risk in that, right?

Flicking ashes from his cigarette, Cook walked between the black semitruck and fire truck parked in front of the shop attached to his house.

“I have a need for speed. That black truck right there, I’ve got that truck mathematically geared where it is capable of 149 mile an hour, in a semi. The most I can get out of it is 128 mile an hour. That’s because of gravity, friction and mass, you know. … They told me that was way above the speed limit,” he said, chuckling.

Like the semi, the fire truck has undergone transformations during the last year, including a temporary conversion to a fully equipped camper to attend a bluegrass festival.

“When we got home, I took the camper off. I took the bed off and shortened it up 38 inches overall and then I turned the bed around backward and put it on in the reverse of what it originally was and just use it as a service utility truck. I carry tools and gas and what have you in it,” he said. “It’s just a big toy. It’s something to do.”

Being 74 hasn’t slowed Cook down too much.

“You know, if you’ve got toys, you’re supposed to play with them. I’ve had that black truck for 13 years. It’s been a lot of different things, too,” he said. “When I run out of things to do with it, it will go away.”

That is how it goes, Cook said, explaining he has had more than 400 cars, trucks, tractors and motorcycles since he and his wife, Opal, were married, a total of 55 years ago today.

“I couldn’t wait to get away from home. I enlisted in the Army when I was 17, but they wouldn’t take me to basic until I was 18. I went to junior college in Parsons one year, just not to be at home every day. My year at junior college I majored in pool hall,” he said, laughing. “But it kept me out of the house.

“Then I got to ship out to basic training and I loved the Army. The reason I enlisted was basically to get with her,” he said, nodding to Opal. “She was patient enough to wait until I was done with basic training for us to get married. I was 19. She was 17. I got out April 24, 1964. She graduated May 5, 1964, and we got married June 27, 1964, and we’ve been that way ever since. Poor girl.

“She’s very tolerant. She’s my anchor point. You’ve got to have a stabilization point when you’re bipolar or a little bit nuts. You have to have something to look to judge where you are and she’s always in touch with reality. It’s got to be somebody you can depend on and count on to know they are not going to lie to you and they are going to tell you how it is. That’s her and my son, Mike.”

Some say there is a fine line between crazy and genius.

Cook carries his Mensa membership card in his wallet and a Mensa sign hangs among other certificates and memorabilia on the north wall of his living room. He only went to one meeting and found little in common with the geniuses there. He keeps the card and plaque more for a conversation piece than anything else. Mensa is called the “high IQ society.”

Constantly needing to be challenged mentally, Cook moved from one job to another long before job hopping became popular among millennials.

“As long as it is new and exciting and you’re actually learning something on that job, it’s very interesting and you’ll do your very best. When you’ve got it all figured out, and you’ve got it all learned, and you can do it in your damn sleep, it becomes boring, and I don’t do boring. When it ceases to be a challenge, then I’m done with it.

“I’ve had 39 jobs since I was 13 years old, and seven of them since I retired,” he said. “Retirement is pretty much nonproductive. You know when you get to be old and retire from a job you really can’t retire from life, and if you don’t feel productive and like you are doing something that benefits someone else, that is not good.”

When he is not rebuilding or tinkering with something, Cook serves as a stabilization point for others coping with bipolar disorder.

“In 2001, Kansas social welfare department sponsored what they call a CAP program, Consumers As Providers. It was consumers of mental health care that they were trying to make providers of mental health care. So I went to that school and graduated. … I pursued it after that. They kept having schooling and meetings. I’ve got a stack of certificates in there where I’ve attended. As a result I’m a certified peer support specialist.”

Being bipolar has definitely made life interesting.

“My son, Mike, wants me to write a book so bad. I’ve already got a title, ‘Too Much Altitude And Not Enough Runway,’ but I’ll never get that done,” he said, chuckling again.

There are always other jobs, other goals and other challenges.

Sitting together at their dining room table, Opal said her husband built their home with no plans or jotting anything on paper.

“He was the only one that knew what he was going to do next,” she said. “And sometimes he didn’t know.”

“I don’t tolerate help much, because help gets in my way and if you want it done right, you do it yourself,” Cook said. However, he did accept help from his son to put up rafters and sheetrock.

“He’s a good carpenter,” he said of his son. 

The house was completed in 90 days.

Cook said he is constantly inventing tools or devices to help him accomplish tasks. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, he said. Such things allow for creative thinking.

Creativity does not stop with him, he said, proudly talking of his grandchildren. Matthew is a singer and works for a luxury cruise line. Megan is a graphic designer. He sees bits of himself in both of them. He is musically inclined. He started a band in 1984 and toured. They started out as Border Country and wound up as Rick Cook and Seminole.

“He’s my nephew. He’s a singer and lead guitar picker. We toured on a bus for four years,” he said.

Not only does Cook play guitar, but hanging on the east wall of his living room are guitars Cook built from scratch.

“I’ve built four or five. One of the last steel guitars I built showed up on the front cover of Dire Straits. I built it and traded it in to Hille Music Company when they were in Independence. He had an outlet for lap steels in Kansas City, so  he took it along with some others and sold them up there. The next time I saw it it was on the album cover of Dire Straits and their steel picker was standing there holding that guitar.”

“I bought a brand new band saw and I’ve built two guitars on it so far. I need to get back to it. … I’m getting old enough and decrepit enough I need to start doing lighter things, according to my stabilization point,” Cook said, looking at his wife and grinning. “Same with my son. He wants me to slow down. I’m pretty high geared. I don’t slow down very well.”

Cook plans to stay mentally and physically active until he can’t.

“But, you know, that’s going to be 20 years from now,” he said.

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