Joe Cook, the cowboy hat-wearing American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana leader who battled school-sponsored prayer by quoting Jesus and rebuilt his organization after Hurricane Katrina, died Tuesday in Virginia. He was 73.

The cause was complications from surgery, said Steve Clayton, a friend.

Cook led the ACLU group based in New Orleans as executive director from 1994 to 2007. An Arkansas native with a tall, lanky frame, Cook was known for his Southern drawl and uncompromising stance on constitutional rights, especially the separation of church and state.

“Joe was highly principled,” said Ron Wilson, an ACLU of Louisiana board member and longtime friend. “He was fearless, and he never backed down from anyone or anything.”

Cook attended the University of Arkansas, worked in the electronics industry and led the ACLU’s branch in Dallas before he came to New Orleans, according to a 1994 article in The Times-Picayune.

Within a year he made a splash in the Louisiana Legislature with a speech against a bill that would have allowed student-led prayers before school events.

“And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men,” Cook said, quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Cook rapidly expanded the staffing of an organization that previously had only an executive director and an office administrator to include a staff attorney, a fundraiser and a contract lobbyist.

He mounted battles against drug testing for school students, restrictions on panhandling in New Orleans, and a “dog cage” that the Abbeville Police Department used for holding suspects.

Although not a lawyer himself, Cook was known to cover drafts of legal briefs with suggestions written in red ink, said Katie Schwartzmann, a civil rights attorney who worked for the ACLU in Cook’s final years there.

Marjorie Esman, his successor at the ACLU of Louisiana, said his uncompromising positions turned off some while attracting others.

“He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Let’s put it that way,” she said.

His greatest challenge may have come after Hurricane Katrina. While other New Orleanians were concentrating on getting back to their homes, Cook was fixated on recovering the ACLU’s records, Schwartzmann said.

In early September 2005, the pair slipped into the quarantined city with the help of a friend’s Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office badge. They drove to the organization’s headquarters building on Loyola Avenue, which had been devastated by wind and rain.

“Joe and I parked his pickup truck out in front, and walked up and down nine flights of stairs in the pitch black for hours, carrying out the ACLU hard drives and the ACLU files and everything else we could salvage from the office that hadn’t been ruined,” she said.

Afterward, they retreated to Molly’s at the Market in the French Quarter for beer.

For several months, Cook ran the ACLU out of a temporary Baton Rouge headquarters. He also contributed to a report on the dismal conditions in the Orleans Parish Prison during and after the storm.

Upon retirement, Cook moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where his wife, Hueiwang Anna Cook, was a professor at Old Dominion University.

Wilson said his friend would return to New Orleans every spring for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. In Norfolk, he became an outspoken Sierra Club activist.

“He just kept raising hell everywhere he went,” Schwartzmann said. “He was a real firebrand.”

Clayton said he is survived by his wife; a son, Clay Cook, of Tokyo; a sister, Sylvia Higgs, of Arkansas; and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending. 

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msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432