Filed Under Buildings

Who was Isaac Joel McCook?

The original inhabitant of the Old Field House in its original location, before it was even just the Field House.

Isaac Joel McCook (usually referred to as I. J. McCook) was Southwestern’s Business Manager (later Vice President of Finance) from 1929 to 1968. He also served on the Executive Committee for several years, acting as its Secretary for many of those years. He served the University during some of its most turbulent financial times, most notably during the Great Depression and World War II.

I. J. McCook was a highly respected figure on campus who was popular among both students and faculty. Students regarded McCook as a warm and modest man; the Executive Committee considered him to be one of the most capable business officers in Southwestern’s history.

I. J. McCook was known by everyone as tightfisted. He saved money wherever possible and disagreed with spending on anything he deemed unessential to the university. But because of his very conservative budgeting and knack for finance, McCook is remembered for playing a central role in salvaging Southwestern from bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

McCook’s strict financial views were the brunt of a joke made in a senior skit held at the chapel in 1932. McCook was not in attendance at this performance when it was assumed he would be there. To explain his absence, students joked that “somebody dropped a nickel behind the piano just before he was scheduled to go on the stage and spent the rest of the hour hunting for it.” This highlights both the idea that students knew McCook could take a joke and that McCook was very conservative with money.

McCook arrived at Southwestern only two months before Black Thursday in 1929. He came to Southwestern University at the request of his colleague Ernest L. Kurth on a “salvage operation” to manage the university’s enormous debt. The reported debt in 1928 totaled $554,950.49, equivalent to 9.87 million dollars in 2023. Prior to McCook’s time at Southwestern, under President Hyer, a lot of borrowing occurred to construct and operate the campus, and when the market crashed, the University’s financial situation went from bad to worse.

According to To Survive and Excel, I. J. McCook did four main things to reform Southwestern’s finances during his time. First, he initiated a strict budget system. He also ensured that the endowment fund would not be tapped to take out more loans. McCook transferred investment responsibility away from the Board of Trustees to the Financial Committee and lastly changed Executive Committee membership from Georgetown locals to representatives of the entire state.

The pin for this entry is located at the site where I. J. McCook, his wife Maymie, and his three children resided in the 1920s-30s, right in the middle of campus today. Information that I could not find regarding the building prior to 1940 was whether the McCooks owned the home or if Southwestern University owned the home. Megan Firestone, Head of Special Collections and Archives, hypothesized that Southwestern may have owned the residence and rented it to faculty.

Either way, we do know from census data that the McCooks lived here for some time before 1940. By the 1940 census, however, records indicate that they had moved. This is because, in 1940, the residence was moved as part of the University’s Campus Plan, which broke up the original Georgetown city grid overlaying the campus and re-oriented the campus around a central horseshoe street called Rutersvillle Drive. Therefore, this address, 409 E. 10th Street, no longer exists.

Jim West Gymnasium was built in 1940 on the site of the old McCook house. West Gym itself was demolished in 1994. Today the F.W. Olin building stands in this location, with the cornerstone of the West Gym installed in the ground in front of Olin as a reminder of the previous building, but no marker exists to commemorate the location of the McCook house.

The McCook home was relocated to where it stands today at 1005 Maple Street and converted into the Snyder Field athletic field house. There, more recently called Old Field House, it has had multiple uses since 1940, but most recently, it is the home of the Southwestern University Police department.

The McCook family name is also physically memorialized on campus by the McCook-Crain building on the east side of campus. However, the name attached to this building was not given in honor of I. J. McCook himself, but rather his son Charles Woodruff McCook, known informally as “Woody.” Woody was a Southwestern graduate who later joined the Army Air Corps and tragically died in combat during an overseas assignment to Burma in 1942. Although the McCook-Crain building does not directly memorialize I. J., it does signify the importance the McCook family had to Southwestern University’s history.

Images

I. J. McCook Source: Sou’wester 1938 Creator: Sou’wester staff Date: 1938
McCook Residence, later Field House, in its original location Source: Sou’wester yearbook Creator: Sou’wester staff Date: circa 1930s

Location

Metadata

Max Colley '24, “Who was Isaac Joel McCook?,” Placing Memory, accessed May 23, 2024, https://placingmemory.southwestern.edu/items/show/46.