After traveling back to the Mountain State from South Carolina, one of West Virginia's "Rocket Boys" spoke to Buckhannon Rotarians at last week's meeting.
Roy Lee Cooke is a founding member of the Big Creek Missile Agency and one of the original Rocket Boys. A character in the movie "October Sky," played by William Lee Scott, attempts to portray Cooke in his youthful years growing up in Coalwood.
"The movie sort of presents the idea that no one ever supported us," Cook said. "But that's quite untrue, because in Coalwood, from the time that you were born, you were taught to serve other people, encourage other people."
The Inter-Mountain photo by Melissa Toothman
Roy Lee Cooke, one of the well known ‘Rocket Boys’ of West Virginia, visits the Buckhannon Rotary Club from South Carolina last week.
Cooke said that if anyone had a project, the community would get involved. He said that if a miner was injured, he was taken care of.
"It seems to me that what was central to the town (of Coalwood) was our little school, that little school on the hill," Cooke said.
When he heard about the movie, Cooke said he thought there wouldn't be anyone on earth that would be interested in a group of boys making rockets.
"The truth is, Coalwood, West Virginia in McDowell County, as impoverished as we think that it is today, was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful place to live," Cooke said, adding there were roads, sidewalks, ball parks, playgrounds, a couple schools, a couple churches, a newspaper and eventually, a swimming pool. "We had an ideal place to live in an unideal world."
Cooke began his college education at Concord College in Athens, but he didn't stay in West Virginia much longer. He transferred to and graduated from the University of Maryland. He said that when he left West Virginia, he left "practically forever." He said the things he learned in Coalwood are still with him today.
The problem with youth leaving the state after graduating from high school existed when Cooke was young, he said, adding that it hasn't changed. Every one of his friends also left the state, Cooke said.
Cooke and his friends Jimmy "O'Dell" Carroll, Homer Hickam Jr., Billy Rose, Sherman Siers and Quentin Wilson formed the Big Creek Missile Agency when they attended Big Creek High School together.
"We don't think one person can change a person's life, but one person in Coalwood changed six young men's lives in many ways," Rotarian Stephen Cain said about Cooke.
Cooke said people often talk about the country "going over the hill," but that another thing that hasn't changed is opportunity. Cooke said it doesn't matter what a person's background is or where they came from when it comes to opportunity.
"If you will get an education, or if you want to become a welder, if you get that training and apply it and have good work ethics, you have the same opportunity to get a piece of that American pie," he said.
Part of Cooke's piece of the "American pie" is the businesses he owns in West Virginia and South Carolina. He owns The Cooke Company, a company devoted to bringing new businesses and venture capital into West Virginia, according to the Rotary program.
He also owns The Empire Company LLC, a hotel developing business.
Cooke also graduated from the American Institute of Banking in Washington, D.C. He is now retired from banking after spending 25 years in the profession. He has been the president of Carolina Domestic Coal since 1986.