Canberra Citizen of the Year
Charles Herbert Cook (1930-2007)
SOURCE: Author photograph in Cook, Chas, Where's that bloody rabbit?: a book on the training and employment of Australia's youth, Wanniassa, ACT, Solar Techniques, 1996
Chas was born at Rankins Springs, a small town about 50km north of Griffith in central western NSW, on 27 November 1930. His parents died when he was about eight, and he and his two older sisters were made wards of the state.
The elder girl asked to be allowed to care for the younger ones at home, rather than have them put either in an orphanage or with foster parents. Permission was granted and she received a carer’s allowance from the Welfare Department. Chas was unaware that he was a ward of the state until some years later, when their landlady reported them for being neglected children and was told they were already in the care of the Welfare Department.
Chas trained as an electrical mechanic in Wagga Wagga and by 1954 had set up in business. He moved to Yass soon after and established an electrical contracting firm. He also married Valerie Wicks, a schoolteacher and daughter of Victor and May Wicks, and they had one daughter. The child was deaf, so Chas moved the family to Canberra in 1962 so that she could attend a school that offered support for deaf students.
At that time NSW offered five classes under an experimental scheme called Opportunity Deaf Classes – four in Sydney and one in Wollongong. Chas was a foundation parent, member and representative of the Canberra Opportunity for Deaf Children’s Parents Group. The aim of the Group was to integrate deaf students into mainstream schools, and in his daughter’s case it was a great success; she not only learned to speak English, but later French as well.
Chas initially operated his electrical contracting business from his home in Ainslie, opening premises at Whyalla Street, Fyshwick in 1970. By 1965 he was using the name Chas Cook Electrics, and in 1971 was appointed a sales and service agent for Dishlex dishwashing machines. The business expanded through the 1970s but struck trouble in 1978 and collapsed in the following year.
His marriage had also collapsed in the early 1970s. Chas then married Beverley Joan, who had two sons, and they lived firstly at Pearce and later at Wanniassa.
In 1980 Chas began a new business, Ethos Lamp Clean Pty Ltd, intending to service the fluorescent lights used in commercial and government buildings. However, he found that there was a stronger demand for electrical services such as wiring commercial and industrial premises and houses, and designing switchboards, all undertaken by Chas, four electricians and two apprentices. Beverley handled the administration. After a second financial failure in late 1992, Chas and Bev ran a coffee shop and catering business in Phillip, called Bev’s Place.
From 1954 Chas had been training apprentices. He felt that he had been treated badly during his own training and he took great pains with his apprentices. Ironically, as his first business was failing in 1980 one of his apprentices was a finalist in the ACT Apprentice of the Year competition.
Industry pressure to improve trade training was mounting, and in 1982 the Evatt Foundation was given a government grant to establish the Work Skill Australia apprentices program. The main objective of Work Skill Australia was to raise the standard and status of the skilled trades by conducting competitions for apprentices throughout Australia.
Chas jumped at the opportunity to be chairman of the Canberra Regional Committee. He had attended the 27th International Skill Olympics in Austria with twelve young people chosen from regional and national work skills competitions to represent Australia. After only two weeks specialised training for the Olympics they had achieved two fourth placings. Chas used this example to help promote the first Canberra region Work Skill Australia competition in 1983.
Seven trade areas were offered in the first competition: carpentry, bricklaying, industrial wiring, electrical welding, fitting, turning and women's hairdressing. Section winners would go to Melbourne for the national competition in May, and the winners there would compete in the Work Skill Olympics in Austria in August. Ten years later there were over 40 different occupational areas in the competition, ranging from the automotive, building and metals engineering industries through to the design and food and hospitality trades.
The competition resembled a jobs expo, with school students and trainees invited to watch the competition held at the School of Engineering at Fyshwick TAFE. Local businesses and industries supported the competition with donations of material and equipment while the TAFE provided both supervisors and facilities.
During the 1970s Chas was a member of Rostrum, a public speaking club, and Federal Golf Club. For many years he was president of the ACT Electrical Contractors Association, and was also made a life member of the International Vocational Training Organisation.
In 2001, when debate was raging over saying sorry as a path to reconciliation, Chas was moved to write an article explaining his thoughts on saying sorry, the stolen generation, becoming a republic and redesigning the Australian flag, set against the background of his own life.
He concluded: “I should note that I am torn between three factions: my affection for the Queen, my English heritage, and my desire to have the reconciliation process implemented. Perhaps, like me, others also voted for a republic knowing that the reconciliation process would exist only on the committee agenda while the Union Jack remained part of our symbolic heritage. … Changing our flag and reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters go hand in hand.”
Chas was nearing the end of his term as Canberra Citizen of the Year, and was about to enter the last stage of his own life. He lost his five-year battle with cancer on 30 September 2007.
Awards and Distinctions
2000 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his work with Work Skill Australia in encouraging apprentices to showcase their work
1996 Cook, Chas, Where's that bloody rabbit?: a book on the training and employment of Australia's youth, Wanniassa, ACT, Solar Techniques
1986 'Find it in Fyshwick.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 23 May, p. 6 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT TO THE CANBERRA TIMES, viewed 16 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131705473
1992 'Region's skills go on display.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 7 September, p. 1 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT TO THE CANBERRA TIMES, viewed 19 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126941107
2001 We Need To Flag Path To Reconciliation, The Canberra Times, 27 January.