There are several things for which Discovery Church Pastor Jon Cooke could be remembered — his love of golf, music and ice cream, to name a few. But the aspect of his personality that stands out the most was his love of people.
This is the trait most shared with the Press & Dakotan by those who knew Cooke following his passing on Sunday.
Discovery Church elder Jeff Herron met Cooke in 2005 when the pastor and his family moved to Yankton.
He said that from the start, Cooke stood out as both a pastor and a person.
"He remembered people’s names like no one I’ve ever met," Herron said. "He cared for people, both those in his congregation and in town."
Cooke used this passion to serve on the Pathways Shelter for the Homeless board and was also instrumental in allowing 1 Million Cups to host meetings at Discovery, Herron added.
The only thing that seemed to rival Cooke’s passion for people was his passion for preaching about God.
"The ministry was his calling," Cooke’s wife, Pam, said. "Being a pastor was all he was ever meant to do."
As the son of a pastor, Cooke understood what he was getting himself into, she added.
"He knew that being in ministry wasn’t an easy life, but when God calls you to preach the word, you do it," Pam said. "You trust that God will sustain you with His grace and strength for all the ups and downs."
Though Cooke had been a pastor since 1987, Pam recalled him saying that the last four years, in which he ministered through Discovery Church, were his favorite years of his career.
That statement never rang truer following Cooke’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2016.
Rather than slip into a depression about his prognosis, he chose to see his cancer as a blessing that helped him better his ministry to people, Cooke’s son, Caleb, explained.
"As someone who had walked through numerous cancer diagnoses of people in his other churches, he had a better understanding and grasp on it to use with people despite what he was going through," he said.
Pam said many people told her that Cooke’s best preaching had been done in the last two years.
"The cancer really instilled the intensity of his call in him," she said. "He knew his time was short, and he wanted to use it well."
She heard from people telling her how amazed they were at Cooke’s positive attitude.
"He was a testimony of when you face hard times, you can trust that God’s in control and will guide you through whatever is brought your way," she said.
Cooke himself echoed a similar sentiment in a 2017 interview regarding the PurpleStride 5K for pancreatic cancer awareness. While speaking with the Press & Dakotan, Cooke stated that he wanted to be a source of encouragement for people on similar journeys.
"The Lord has given me strength I didn’t know I had," he said. "I have confidence that God is in control of this, and I want Him to be glorified."
Another aspect to being a minister is learning that God’s plan may not fit your plan. The Cookes learned this after a church split led to the creation of Discovery.
"We didn’t want that to happen, but sometimes God uses hardships in the ministry for good," Pam said. "Discovery Church has been a definite good in the community. It’s reached a lot of people who have been ministered to. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone through the heartbreak of the ending of another ministry."
No matter whose feathers Cooke may have ruffled, he wasn’t lacking in support when he received his cancer diagnosis.
"It makes the journey a lot easier knowing you have support, and I have a tremendous amount of support through the people in town," he said in his 2017 interview. "It’s been very strengthening and uplifting, even though this is a hard journey."
In the list of things that mattered most to Cooke, golf fell short behind ministry and people. In a way, Cooke was able to make all three fit together. Golf enabled him to socialize with people who shared a similar interest, and if the topic of religion came up in between holes, he wasn’t afraid to have a conversation.
Caleb, who grew up golfing with his father, witnessed this firsthand.
"If you were to ask him what he cherished most about golf, it wasn’t the tournaments or the time he got a hole-in-one, but the people he met on the course," he said.
He noted that Cooke had even helped as a groundskeeper at the Fox Run golf course for a time simply because he loved being out there.
Herron recalled that possibly the worst time Cooke had on the golf course was an instance in which the ball he hit landed in a very bad spot. Despite this, Cooke determinedly struck the ball to move it back on course, only for the ball to bounce off a tree, come back and hit him square in the eye.
Herron noted that Cooke seemed to take it well despite his eye and the area around it appearing battered.
"He was a good golfer, but everyone has their off days," Herron remarked.
However, if Cooke ever was having an off day, it seemed that ice cream could always make it better. His love of ice cream was duly noted by his family, whose love of the treat helped him win free ice cream for a year after he won a contest to name Dairy Dock when it first opened.
His love of ice cream extended to his love of eating out, with his daughter, Courtney, noting that he would always run into people he knew on these excursions.
"He was very intentional with getting to know the people that were around him," she said. "He accepted anyone for how they were and whoever they were."
Herron saw Cooke exercise this through his ministry, even helping a young man become a Christian.
"I remember Jon being so diligent about praying for him, never pushing him, but not letting him forget that he cared about him and his spiritual life," he said. "(That man) is a different guy today because of Jon."
Pam expressed thankfulness that God spared Cooke the worst of the pain that comes with pancreatic cancer, enabling him to pass away peacefully.
"Jon knew he had two options: he could be angry and bitter, or he could embrace what God had planned," she said. "He knew that God would work good through it, even though it would mean ending his life here."
The funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Discovery Church with visitation taking place today (Wednesday) from 5-7 p.m. at the same location.
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