Judi Cook

Position Held: Board Director, Lower Platte South NRD, 1976 - 2000

Interviewer: Gayle Starr

Associated NRDs:

Lower Platte South


MR. STARR: This interview is being conducted by the Natural Resources District oral history interview project. The interviewer is Gayle Starr. The interview is being conducted with Judi Cook at her home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Judi was a member of the Lower Platte South NRD Board for several terms. So, with that, Judy, how about a little of your personal history?

MS. COOK: Okay. I was born on a Nebraska farm, in -- right along the Colfax County/Dodge County line, and went to a rural school, went to Schuyler to high school, and then went to Midland College for teacher education training. I went two years and then taught in a rural two-room school at a little place called Webster, Nebraska, and then, during that time period, continued working on my final two years to get my bachelor's degree in elementary education. So, I grew up with a lot of interest and participation in farming. Right around the transition era when my father, who had been so proud of his straight rows going up and down the hill, was learning that that was not a good idea. We -- one of the things that we did was to have two farm ponds put in. We were in kind of a rolling hill area where we often joked that there was a cork in the sky because it didn't rain very often and, yet, we'd travel a few miles farther down and see the people in the Maple Creek area who seemed to get more rain and have all that wonderful black top soil that would wash down there with erosion. I had a lot of interest in science. Took a lot of science courses in college. Then, after teaching two years in the two-room school, moved to Lincoln and began teaching primary grades here in Lincoln, and was recommended to be a teacher at the laboratory school, Clare McPhee School, doing demonstration teaching. And one of the programs I worked with was something called Triple AS Science. It was a hands-on kind of science teaching with lots of participation by children in doing things, an experiential program. I also took some classes in environmental education that impressed me, affected me. I really found that to be an area I wanted to focus on in education. After teaching in Lincoln for several years, we moved to -- I was married at that time and we moved to Vermillion, South Dakota, where my husband was going to work on his Ph.D. program with a scientific expedition to Antarctica, and I was teaching fourth graders in Vermillion and then, also, moved to a position as a media specialist for K-12 in Vermillion schools, where I was on the cutting edge of what seems so antiquated now, using videotape to video activities, using overhead projectors. I had kind of a desire to show that women could do things that were often reserved for men to do. Something in my heritage of having two older brothers, I think, inspired me to say, “I can do it, too.” So, I got my master's in elementary education and administration from the University of South Dakota and then we moved to the Gary, Indiana area, where my husband was teaching at IU Northwest in Gary, Indiana, and I became involved (indiscernible) not working. I had been teaching and working full-time prior to that. I took a year off and became active in the League of Women Voters, where there was a lot of attention to the fire on the Cuyahoga River, the pollution in the Gary, Indiana area. I became a member of the Save the Dunes Foundation and learned so much about the value of the dune grasses for saving soil and sort of tied that into the value of the native grasses in Nebraska as I spent time there. I did some teaching and became a media specialist there, but resigned prior to the birth of my daughter. It was about the time of the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. Very active in any environmental interests group going on in that area during that time and it was a great learning for me to see similar but very different environmental issues in the highly industrialized urban area. We then moved back to Nebraska to be near family after the death of my mother-in-law, and I discovered something new that had happened while I was gone called the Natural Resources Districts. I liked the idea of urban and rural working together. It was something that I was so aware of, I think, in the larger cities that there seemed to be a lack of connection between what was needed for rural areas and what was perceived needed in urban areas, and yet it was all the same water. We were talking about the same streams and rivers, the same beaches along Lake Michigan. So, I was impressed with it and connected with the League of Women Voters here in Lincoln. Had some wonderful mentors with Helen Boosalis, Elaine Hammer, Sue Bailey, people who lifted up the idea that women could participate in government and learn the terminology and be effective in that role. One of the things that I did for League, drawing on my educational experiences, we had a grant after the Clean Water Act had been signed into law, a grant for the League of Women Voters to do an education process to explain what the Clean Water Act was about, and it fit right into my area because of seeing the not-so-clean water along Lake Michigan, and the media specialist, so I worked with a little newsletter and put together a slide show about what the Clean Water Act was about and the value of it, and found myself presenting it to community groups in Lincoln, finding that teaching, even though I had taught college-level students, teaching was a different experience than going in front of a group that you didn't know at all and making a presentation, but did several of those. And I think it's because of that that a friend of mine came to me and said that someone had told her that the NRD representative for our area of Lincoln, the incumbent, had not filed and someone had suggested to her that she might want to run because she was very involved in the recycling program, which I was also a member of, Citizens for Environmental Improvement, and I thought about it a little bit and thought, “Hmm, this is something that I can do as a stay-at-home mom that would continue to work on environmental education, environmental awareness,” and so I took my children with me one day up the elevator in the Terminal Building and turned in some signatures from neighbors and said that I would like to run for the NRD, and thinking, “Well, gee, I don't have an opponent. This is going to be interesting. I think maybe this will happen.” Well, it wasn't too much later that the incumbent filed and I sort of dismissed the whole idea and thought, “Well, I've got plenty to do. I've still got the things to do with the League and with my volunteering in the schools, et cetera.” But I still remember the newspaper article headline where it said, “Housewife defeats incumbent for the Lower Platte South NRD Board” and thought, “Oh, this is it.” A fun little highlight -- and the only -- we did not run for office in those days, in the early days. This was in the 1976 election. Was the -- there was a gathering in Antelope Park, where people running for office were to come and be there if anyone wanted to talk to them about what they were running for. And, as I recall, it was on a Sunday and I was teaching Sunday school, but hurried home and used a couple of pieces of poster board and my daughter drew a sandwich board that said, “Vote for Mom,” and I had to do the one for my three-year-old son because he couldn't write yet, but he drew some pictures on it and I put it over -- so he was holding it on his chest and tied with a cord. Went to the park and the -- there was a photographer there who took a picture of my son that I think he still has somewhere with his little Vote for Mom sign, which he regretted sometimes later when Mom was going off to NRD meetings and -- but other times, really appreciated. It was -- the first few years when I was at home with the children and doing other volunteer work, I had a schedule where I could go on the inspection tours. I could learn a lot about the NRD. People were very helpful. I remember Dave Landis gave me access to minutes of meetings so that I could read them and learn about it. Val Bohaty invited me in -- and since I was very familiar with soil conservation service as a farmer's daughter, was helpful. But a person who was really helpful to me was Marie Arnot. She was an excellent mentor for me as a woman who taught classes in community planning and chose her words very well at board meetings to present ideas. It -- at times it was a challenge for me as a woman to feel that I would be heard and that -- it took time to convince people that I had read all the materials, that I understood it, that I understood the things related to the agricultural community but also an urban community, and I think I was labeled pretty early on as the one who really pushed for environmental education. That was one of the charges of the NRD that I was really excited about. Let's see. Hal Schroeder was the manager. Harold Sieck was the president. As kind of a typical thing, it wasn't too long after I was on the board that I was -- it was suggested that I be secretary and I found that a challenge to keep notes and still participate. Oh, I also remember getting to know Paul Amen well, Bruce Kennedy, Art Knox. There were -- and there were farmers who were very warm and receptive once they understood that I had a rural heritage. And when we would -- that was what was especially good when we would go out to sites, like to see pipe tile outlets or to look at the -- something related to a watershed, where there were -- there was a recognition of common experiences and that was helpful. I remember Ed Janicke as someone who was just a great person to get to know. He -- one thing that will stand out in my mind is my little son, who wasn't in school yet, came along on a tour and Ed Janicke made him a willow whistle, and in turn I can remember one time putting a flower in -- a wildflower in Ed Janicke's pipe to convince him that he should quit smoking. So it wasn't always all -- just the environment, but there were relationships and appreciation for people's fields and backgrounds that made being on the NRD board a very important part of my life. I took it very seriously. Even worked with something at Rousseau school, where we had an opportunity to encourage an outdoor classroom and to do some tree planting and, there again, formed some great relationships with other parents at the school as we used PTA funds to plant trees on a totally sterile, baron playground. Actually had some shade for the children and an opportunity to notice different things growing. At my mother's death, we planted a memorial cottonwood, the state tree, at the playground. And so Heather and Adam saw some of the benefits of my interest in the Natural Resources District reaching out in the community. They heard a lot of terminology about erosion, flood control. Flood control was probably the area that I understood the least because our Nebraska farm -- we never had enough water. I hadn't ever experienced flooding, but it didn't take long to learn about that as we reviewed the history in the Lincoln area. Let's see --

MR. STARR: Let me stop you there. Let's talk about -- I don't know if you were the first, but you were one of the first women on an NRD in Nebraska. I don't know if you were the first, but you were one of the first.

MS. COOK: Marie Arnot was there, yeah.

MR. STARR: When you started? Okay.

MS. COOK: Yeah.

MR. STARR: And there were maybe one or two elsewhere in the state, I don't remember for sure. I know there was one out in the Tri-Basin. But, anyway, how was that -- how did that work for you, the -- joining the boys' club, so to speak?

MS. COOK: You know, I'd had some practice with that earlier with proving that women could run projectors and I was sort of -- and the audio visual field was primarily male-dominated before. But I -- it was interesting and there were certain personalities where -- and certain leadership situations where, if I really wanted an idea to fly, it was prudent to discuss it with one of the male members beforehand. And if he presented it as a motion --

MR. STARR: All the better.

MS. COOK: -- all the better. And then on the -- I was representative to the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts, the NARD, and the same thing would exist there. The -- it was -- but what it really boils down to is some personalities are more open to listening to others, whether you're male or female, and it was interesting too -- and I guess part of it was, perhaps it was a little bit safer in that I was sort of carrying the flag of education. And since women were in a teacher role, it was something that worked, more with some people than others, but I felt that I could communicate -- women vote and women are concerned -- you know, you can't stereotype it because not all, but in general women are concerned about the environment and what kind of world they're leaving behind for their children, and so it worked.

MR. STARR: On the NRD board, was you the only woman on the board at the time you got on there or were there others on the board? I know there have been since, but --

MS. COOK: Right. There was a time period that I was the only one, but that was a short time. I certainly reached out to others who were there. There were times, for instance, in visits to Washington, D.C., or whatever -- or meeting -- going to a seminar in another state that I would look around and see -- especially when it was, like, soil conservation districts, there were so few women from other states involved and --

MR. STARR: Basically none.

MS. COOK: -- and I think it just made me feel all the more strongly that I needed to be well-informed. I needed to try to be articulate and then -- and work toward it because the investment of women in caring for the environment is an important thing.

MR. STARR: When you first got on the NRD board, were there -- what were the surprises? Anything, “Golly, I didn't know the NRD did this. I didn't understand this.” What were the surprises for you?

MS. COOK: I think I was surprised about the air pollution, that was an area that my husband was working with. That was so much on my mind because of being in the Gary, Indiana area, you know, where we couldn't see the stars at night. I expected the erosion. I was glad to see solid waste on there after working with -- volunteering with CEI. I was really pleased to see the effort to show that we're all in this together and wanted very much to work with education on that. I remember going with -- going to Norris School -- going to various schools in the NRD and presenting ideas. I could -- when I was -- at first, I began teaching at a preschool so I had some time off so I could do that, so I could go during a school day to meet with people in the school and talk to them about it. I was just so glad to see that was a component and I knew that the majority of the members came in with a focus on soil conservation and flood control.

MR. STARR: What were the -- how many terms did you serve on the NRD?

MS. COOK: I was elected in 1976 and served through 2000.

MR. STARR: Quite a while.

MS. COOK: Sometimes I had opposition and sometimes I did not.

MR. STARR: So, when you started on the NRD, Hal Schroeder was the manager --

MS. COOK: Right.

MR. STARR: -- and then he retired --

MS. COOK: And Glen.

MR. STARR: -- and then you had to hire a replacement and you hired Glen. Were you involved in that process of hiring?

MS. COOK: Right, I was. I also remembering the hiring of Paul Zillig, where Hal said something about, “These are people who will be able to do my job some day,” and I grew to really appreciate the -- there was sort of that difference from Hal being more acquainted with the old ways of doing things and then seeing, with a more recent education and the reading of the entire -- all of the things the NRD were to do that Glen had done, that the types of things -- the types of organizations that we -- and agencies that we partnered with grew. And I had a lot of respect for the planning for -- well, I was -- I remember some very important meetings in terms of the Antelope Valley project and the whole system of saying -- understanding that, if somebody just focused on transportation and didn't think about water drainage, and somebody else, then, didn't even think about what happened to the people there, it was -- the holistic approach is something that I felt so strongly about and I have a lot of pride in the NRD in doing that and really becoming an essential part of things going on in the city. Work out at Pioneer Park Nature Center, helping children be able to go out there who couldn't afford it otherwise. Working with the schools with outdoor classrooms. And the trails. I think that's an area that was extremely important to me. I realize the advantage I had growing up on a farm, seeing seasonal changes, being able to get out in all kinds of weather. And perhaps part of it was affected by all of the concrete in the urban areas where I was, but I really wanted to have trails. And I think the establishment of the MoPac Trail was something that I put a lot of energy in.

MR. STARR: What about the urban/rural -- and this district probably has as much of a urban influence as about any district in terms of the population distribution and number of rural directors. How did you see that playing out, that urban/rural interaction?

MS. COOK: I think, there again, there were some good things that happened. There were some where I found myself biting my tongue when people were very critical of Wilderness Park as something wasted when I had grown to admire what I thought was an ingenious flood control thing and realizing, you know, that, in the past, we'd erred in making the straight line drainage of Salt Creek. It's like learn from -- just like my father had to learn that going in straight lines up the hills wasn't a good idea. There were times when I wanted to say more than what I said about things, but I tried to find effective times to do that. I think a wise thing was having facilitators for planning, where we would go through and -- when we would do our planning and we would do the paired waiting. That was a good time to talk about some of the pluses of some of the things that I believed in. And I was always there to support conservation measures and whenever I could point out my farm heritage, I did. It -- there were -- but I also felt, for the main part, that people were -- as they got to know people as people and understood why we -- why someone whose family had been involved in a flood would feel so strongly about flood control, and why someone who proposed having something done that would take his land -- probably the hardest rural/urban one was talking about trails because the sense that they wanted -- they didn't want that going across their land.

MR. STARR: During your years on the board, what -- outside of the urban/rural, what were the controversies that the board faced and the close votes you had? Were there any? Was everything pretty much unanimous or near unanimous?

MS. COOK: Close votes on -- sometimes on trails. Probably the one that affected my duration as a director was the one on 7G, where the idea of creating a recreation area was supported by some, but not by others. And there was a very active process to work at defeating people who supported that project and supported trails in general. That's as far as -- sometimes there would be discussions about funding things. I remember someone joked once that we always had a lot more animated discussion by directors when we were talking about purchasing a new van or vehicle because everybody felt that we knew a lot about that. But, perhaps -- let's see, I'm trying to think of sometimes when we may have disagreed about the planning process and including something in the budget. Budgets are always where the chips are counted.

MR. STARR: During your tenure on the board, there was a transition of how we subdivided into sub - districts and so forth, and that became a real challenge. And I think it was probably as big a challenge in this district as any in the state to go from, “We don't worry about how many people live in the sub - district” to a “ one-to-one process.”

MS. COOK: I have kind of an interesting legacy on that. When I was elected the first time to the NRD Board, I was a member of the League of Women Voters, which was currently suing the District for the way lines had been drawn and that probably didn't help my acceptance on the board for a while either. But, then, my exit from the board occurred after I spearheaded a one-person/one-vote kind of thing where, instead of electing at-large, we were elected by the sub - district we represented and that was the year that I lost the election, whether it was related to that or not, but you work with what your values are and I did believe that the number of population represented was important. Partly because I had been on the board as long, I hadn't gone in with the campaigning as part of what you did. It just wasn't part of the early years. And now it's known that you do campaign and then you represent your district so you talk to your constituents. That was a change that came and I think it's an important one, I just didn't do it. But, as it turned out, I have wonderful memories of the time on the board and felt like some of the things that I believed strongly in were carried out. I met some great people, others who worked with us, engineers and other people whose dedication I grew to appreciate. I'm going back to being one of the only women on -- it worked in my favor at one point because I think, as a token woman, I was appointed to a committee that worked with LB450, Bereuter's bill, and that was a real learning experience for me. I had already learned to watch legislation closely, that's one of the things that I had done as a volunteer in League of Women Voters. We would go to hearings and sit and listen and monitor, but then to actually work with a bill in its implementation was a piece I hadn't worked on before so I liked that.

MR. STARR: What do you consider the significant accomplishments during your tenure, not necessarily the ones that you liked, but the significant accomplishments of the board?

MS. COOK: Of the board? Really showing that the culture of the NRD was urban and rural was a -- that we worked together. That, to me, was -- and it was exciting because you could be creative. The NRDs were new so you didn't have to feel, “Oh, we can't do it that way.” I loved that sense of creativity and I think we had staff and people who -- I think the Antelope Valley Project, the trails, those -- but just changing the culture so that natural resource districts reached -- were really important to everybody in the community no matter what your gender, what your profession, what your age group. I think -- and, oh, did I ever try to talk to people when I went to other states about what a good idea NRDs were, but you'd see somebody worried that some turf might be lost or something -- well, and the other thing that was so great with the NRD was that we could plan our budget and plan things. When I went to others and talk to people from other states, especially if I was visiting with one of those rare women who would be out there at a national meeting, they had to rely on the County Board and they never knew. And this was kind of like my transition from never knowing what we'd get on the farm for an income to becoming a teacher where I knew what I'd get every month. It's a good feeling to know that you've got a budget that you can work with that you can make some Long - range plans and you can do what is the best in the long run because you've got everybody's input and taxation coming into it.

MR. STARR: Looking from the other side, what things did the NRD do or decide during your tenure that you think was a mistake?

MS. COOK: I think it's probably what hits everyone who's elected and there's that thought of, “If we do this, we won't be elected and it might not happen,” or -- I think that, especially when it came to a reluctance to do water quantity and quality control things, it -- this was -- it was great to plan and “Look what we thought was best,” but sometimes it required a courage to go into a place we hadn't gone before to do that. And I just know, in drawing up our water plans and some other things, there were some realities that maybe we took up more slowly. But, for the main part, I obviously am very proud of natural resources districts.

MR. STARR: Since -- and really since you were on the board, the NRDs have moved more to doing regulatory and management type things as opposed to building things. Do you see that as good, bad, or indifferent?

MS. COOK: I think that's part of what NRDs were created to do. That's part of our mission. It's more difficult and it takes a lot of education to bring people with you. And so I think it's -- someone needs to do the tough things. And we do have -- although we are so fond of our aquifer and some of our water supplies, we do have limited supplies and we do have contamination and waste on a global scale. We were -- for the main part, people originally, when I was elected, were ones who wanted to do things to save things on a small scale right where you were or in the area that you were and make them better, and it was harder to think across the state, across the -- you know, globally, to do -- a lot of our personalities were not comfortable with regulation, but I believe in it as a voter. And I remember when EPA was first created, the statement of, “How can anybody in Washington know what we really need in Nebraska?” And I guess I feel like Nebraskans need to let them know -- we need to say, “This is unique. This is different.” It was interesting, also, in this state, to be at the point of the Platte River where we are versus up in the upper reaches of it because, you know, we want quality water down here. And so I -- and, yet, I needed to understand, just like my dad getting angry with all of the weed seeds flowing in from the neighbors, that it was good that there were some rules other than just my dad saying, “I'm getting tired of all your bind weed,” to --

MR. STARR: Sediment and Erosion Control Act.

MS. COOK: Right. So they -- it's interesting how parts of your life connects with others and experiences just take on a different meaning.

MR. STARR: One of the -- talking about the regulatory things, and I'm sure you've read the papers and probably know more about this than I do, but the NRD has just recently put in controls up in Brainard, Valparaiso, in terms of groundwater pumping and new groundwater wells and so forth, as has the Lower Platte North NRD on their side of that area. Those have to be tough decisions for NRD board members. Did you face those types of things in your tenure?

MS. COOK: I'm thinking that some of our projects affected landowners who were on our board, which leads to another thing, is, that whole, sometimes cloudy, area of conflict of interest of it. But the rules related to domestic water and private wells -- when cities or small towns are experiencing lowering of the water -- my brother convinced me to help him -- he did a process where -- on the farm that he had many years ago, the bricks would -- something that was used to measure how much water he was getting when he -- we couldn't really irrigate on our farm at first, it was so hilly, but he role-modeled for me, “I want to be responsible for what I'm doing. I'm going to measure this.” And I think that's where some things have to go, you know, if we -- I feel the same way when I go by a lawn in Lincoln and the wind is blowing away the water from a sprinkler system. Waste is something that we address at every level and at all scales, but we also need to grow food, so it's a constant balance and requires a lot of communication.

MR. STARR: Not everything is clear black and white.

MS. COOK: No. It's incredulous that I was actually supportive of 7G when I was opposed to some of the other structures that had been proposed that I did not think were justified.

MR. STARR: Well, Judy, I've about run out of my questions for you. Do you have anything else you'd like to add?


MR. STARR: Very good.

MS. COOK: I just -- thanks for doing it. It's caused me to remember some good times.

MR. STARR: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your willingness to help us out.

MS. COOK: Okay.