Watching vote returns of the 1956 presidential election captivated 10-year-old Merrill Cook, sparking in him a fascination for politics that eventually directed his life.
After following the path of politics for 12 years and through 10 campaigns, he won his first final election Nov. 6, 1996. He is now Utah's 2nd District Republican Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives.The Sunday School president of the Ensign 5th Ward, Salt Lake Ensign Stake, he has served as gospel doctrine teacher, and counselor and instructor in an elders quorum presidency.
He and his wife, Camille, attended a recent meeting in Washington held by the Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, of the freshmen representatives and their spouses.
"We all had a turn to go up and speak, including the spouses," said Sister Cook. "We were so impressed with the patriotism and desire to serve of the freshmen representatives. When Merrill stood up, he talked about the many races he's been in and how grateful he was to finally win. He ended, in front of all these people, by saying, `I want to thank my Heavenly Father for giving me this wonderful opportunity to serve.'
"I appreciated him being that candid about his faith."
Merrill Cook's opportunity to serve was a long time coming. In 1984 and 1985, he ran and lost as a non-partisan candidate for the Utah State School Board and mayor of Salt Lake City, respectively. In 1986, he ran and lost as a Republican candidate for Salt Lake County Commission. In 1988 and 1992, he ran and lost as an independent candidate for governor of Utah. In 1994, he ran and lost as an independent candidate for U.S. Congress. He also directed three unsuccessful initiative campaigns.
During each campaign, he and his family went door-to-door seeking votes. For the family, it was both a unifying and enlightening activity.
"Even though we lost, our kids have never forgotten that experience," he said in a recent interview. "They have often talked about meeting people different from them, people in tough circumstances, people who really needed help. The humanity and emotion involved in that was a wonderful family experience that made them all want to be involved in various causes."
So great was the impact on the children that all four who have gone to college have used that experience of "getting up and walking a voting district" as the subject of their college entrance themes.
"They didn't realize how other people lived," said Sister Cook. "This experience humbled them and made them more mature."
Losing time after time, however, took a toll.
"It was very discouraging," Brother Cook said. "It is a hard thing to lose, but if you really believe in what you are doing, and if you don't look at yourself as a loser, you can bounce back rather quickly.
"The attitude that I had
to continueT was probably unusual - and it was very painful - but I was sustained by my family and my religious beliefs. When you work on what you believe and are surrounded by friends, you are sustained in those losses." He added that he'd won several primary elections and those victories were uplifting.
Sister Cook said, "We spent a lot of time on our knees in those elections asking for help, and we spent a lot of time on our knees after the election after we lost to recoup and try again."
It was from his father that he learned to face controversy without backing down. His father, Melvin A. Cook, is a former professor at the University of Utah who often debated science and religion issues. For his defense of scriptural truths, the scientist was often at odds with the academic community.
Now 85, Melvin A. Cook is a metallurgist who won international awards for his inventions of slurry or liquified explosives widely used in the mining industry. His inventions led to the founding of IRECO, an explosives company he led until it was sold in 1974. He has dozens of patents and awards for his work, including the first ever 1968 Nitro Nobel Gold Medal from the Swedish Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences.
It was while Melvin worked for DuPont Corp. in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1946 that Merrill was born. The Cook family returned shortly after to Salt Lake City where Melvin joined the faculty at the University of Utah.
"My father was in the bishopric of the Garden Park Ward," said Brother Cook. "One thing that always sticks out in my memories of childhood is how rigorous my father was in keeping the Sabbath Day holy. We were known in the neighborhood for not being able to play baseball on Sunday. But when I think of my Dad, one thing I think of is how rigorously he believes in that."
He said his parents spent nearly every evening with the children. "The evening meal was a always a big thing in our home," he said. "We always spent time talking about what each of us was doing, and debating things.
"I really did grow up in a warm, wonderful family. There wasn't an evening meal where we weren't on our knees to pray."
Debating politics at the evening table was only one of many kinds of discussions at that family forum, but one that particularly interested young Merrill. As some boys memorize baseball batting percentages, he memorized election results of those years. "I could almost recite every presidential election result, two-thirds of the House races and every governor's race," he said.
The Church was also a part of his life. "I remember my father conferring upon me the Aaronic Priesthood. I particularly remember when my oldest brother, Garfield, went on a mission to Germany. From the moment Garfield went on a mission, I knew that I wanted to go on one."
Brother Cook said he has fond memories of attending the "wonderful" Garden Park Ward. Among those who attended the ward were such members of the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency as President Hugh B. Brown, Elders Joseph Fielding Smith, Richard L. Evans and Adam S. Bennion.
Young Merrill attended public schools, becoming an Eagle Scout and graduating from East High in 1964. He served in the British Mission in 1965, where he was a branch president in Canterbury, and a district and zone leader. "I enjoyed my mission very much," he said.
After his mission, he returned to the University of Utah. There, his father continued to be a somewhat controversial figure in academic circles, always entering debates about science and religion.
"The feeling was that my father took the gospel too strongly. Some wondered how he could be a great scientist if he was so committed to everything that was in the scriptures.
"But he said that science has never shown him how the scriptures are anything but correct. He believes that true science corresponds with true religion."
The mission to England had a softening effect on Merrill, who changed his studies from science and math to economics and political science, which focused more on people.
"It was the human element of my mission - the personal interaction with so many people, the discussions and the love for people - that made me feel more excited about studying social studies instead of just science or math. I took a lot of political science classes and ended up graduating in economics."
During this period, he also met and married Camille Sanders in the Salt Lake Temple. She was a French and music student who has since become an accomplished operatic soprano. Both graduated from the University of Utah in 1969.
The following year they moved to Boston, Mass., where he attended Harvard University. While there, he taught the gospel doctrine class in the Cambridge Ward. He graduated in 1971 with a master's degree in business, and became a consultant but returned to Utah in 1973. In Utah, he continued consulting work with his father, who had by then left IRECO. In 1977, they jointly founded Cook Slurry Co., with products based on new patents of cold slurry explosives invented by Melvin and a delivery system that Merrill helped develop. The company flourished and Brother Cook remained at the helm until his recent victory at the polls when he resigned, trading his occupation from businessman to Congressman.