In 2009 Julian Cook’s powerful baritone voice won him recognition as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts (IL). Today he still sings, but it’s his voice as a scholar, innovator, educator, and community leader that’s earning him center stage.
Julian grew up on the south side of Chicago, a grandson of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Illinois in the 1940s. He always sang, but he didn’t recognize his artistry as anything special because he thought everybody could sing. His mother, grandmother, and sister always sang, and music was a big part of his church life.
Only in high school did he begin to see that his musical ability was exceptional. He won first place in Chicago competitions sponsored by Classical Singer magazine and the Society of American Musicians. His high school voice teacher, Mrs. Gaye Klopack, suggested that he pursue a career in classical music and opera, and she encouraged him to enter the YoungArts competition. Other family members praised and encouraged him, but his mother’s voice rose above the rest: “You should do this and you’re going to do this,” she said.
They will never select me,Julian thought. But they did. As a Presidential Scholar Julian received his medal from Vice-President Joe Biden and sang “American the Beautiful” at the Kennedy Center. He says the most meaningful part of his National Recognition Program was being honored by the first African American president, Barack Obama. The association was particularly meaningful because Julian had followed Obama’s early rise in Chicago as a community organizer and political leader. One of Julian’s high school friends was the Obama family’s babysitter.
Julian attended Houghton College, where he majored in music and Biblical studies and minored in African American studies. In April, 2013, he was named to Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.Growing up, he had always liked history and philosophy, and he dreamed of becoming a minister. That dream was soon realized after his college graduation. At age 23 he was named senior pastor of the historic St. Mark Congregational Church, United Church of Christ of Boston, MA. Founded in 1895, St. Mark is the city's oldest black Congregational Church. He served there for four years, leading numerous innovations including a food bank and a community garden.
In 2016 Julian graduated with a Master of Divinity degree (magna cum laude) from Boston University (BU) School of Theology, where he was awarded a full scholarship as a Dean’s Fellow and Mary McLeod Bethune Scholar. He was inducted into the BU School of Theology’s Student Leadership Society, an honors guild for theology students who have demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership, and social engagement.
Reverend Cook’s powerful voice for innovation is now being heard in Buffalo, NY, where he is leading Houghton College’s initiative to bring a two-year associate of arts degree program to Buffalo’s east side. Julian explains that, about five years ago, the west side of Buffalo experienced an influx of refugees from Thailand, Somalia, Uganda, and the Congo—few of them speaking English. Houghton College recognized a need and an opportunity and started a degree program that provided daily tutoring and one-on-one support for students. Nationally community colleges achieve a completion rate of about 30 percent; Houghton achieves 85 percent in its Buffalo west side program. Julian’s efforts on the predominantly African American east side will attempt to replicate that model and attain a comparable success rate. The new degree program will launch in September, 2019, supported by a generous grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation.
While leading Buffalo’s new program, Julian is also working toward a PhD in religion, philosophy and social ethics at Drew University. “I am energized by this work,” Julian says. His wife, Sirgourney Cook, is a gifted opera singer and teacher. She marvels at her husband’s ability to manage work and study simultaneously. She says to Julian, “You go and do and then you ask yourself later how you got it all done.”
Despite his ambitious pursuits in both theology and education, he still sings and never strays far from music. He says he integrates the arts into his analysis of the human condition. “The arts for me [are] one of the best . . . means of talking about what people are feeling and thinking and imagining,” he says, while praising his mother’s gifts in music and acknowledging the centrality of his family’s story in his life. “Anything I am or hope to be is because of my family. . . . I am incredibly humbled.”