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Innerviews: Musical heritage shared in Youth Symphony role

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometimes, life has a way of just falling into place.

How else do you explain the perfectly appropriate job, a meant-to-be marriage and the unbeknownst family connections to the new home that stole her heart?

Sounds like fate working behind the scenes.

Marjorie Cooke grew up in North Carolina in a house filled with music. Like her mother, she plays the harp, "a natural fit." Today, that cultured background inspires her work as general manager of the West Virginia Youth Symphony.

In college at Davidson, she met her future husband, a prospective lawyer from Charleston, another "perfect fit." Later, she learned about familial ties to the state she would embrace as her own.

She's passionate about mothering her two sons, equally passionate about her role as mother hen to 115 Youth Symphony students. Like most working mothers, she struggles daily with achieving that elusive thing called balance.

She's 43.

 

"I was raised in North Carolina, but I was born in New York City. It was funny. My parents were on a trip to see five nights of opera. I came early.

"My father was a law professor at Duke for 41 years. I'm from a family that cared a lot about education and the arts. I remember going to Duke Artist Series performances of the North Carolina Symphony and my father would carry me out asleep over his shoulder.

"My mother played the harp. I knew all her music inside out and backwards. So it was this subtle undercurrent. The harp was just part of my life.

"NPR music was on in the house, so if it wasn't my mother playing the harp or my brother on the drums or my other brother playing the violin, there was always music in our world.

"I don't remember having a dying love for the harp, but music education was a high priority, and there was a wonderful instrument in our living room, so the harp was a natural fit.

"So many children start on violin and cello and piano, but I had a harp in my home, a huge blessing and unusual. Taking advantage of it was the key.

"I took lessons for 11 years, practiced 30 minutes every day. I started at age 7 and played mostly solo pieces for recitals. Only when I was older did I play with an ensemble.

"The harp is the second hardest instrument to learn to play, second to the organ. Harpists are hard to come by.

"The harp is a glorious sound. It can be soft or big and bold, and my teacher was not a soft kind of harpist. She was powerful and strong and played modern as well as classical, so she was an inspiration.

"I was not playing harp to be a professional musician. I was just growing up in a house where you tried new things and you learned and you grew.

"Music was part of what my mother wanted to bring to our childhood. I'm trying to do the same thing for my own children and through my work with the West Virginia Youth Symphony. I feel like I have 115 children, all exploring music.

"Our children, Will and Hayden, are musicians. Will is six years on piano. Hayden is five years on violin.

 "Choosing Davidson for college is one of the greatest decisions I've ever made. It was a fabulous education in a smaller environment where I felt I could made a difference, and it was a perfect fit in terms of the friends I made and the wonderful husband I met, a West Virginian, Andy Cooke. He recruited me to this state.

"Andy has been a lawyer here with Flaherty, Sensabaugh and Bonasso for 19 years. He's the son of Bill and Ann Cooke who were proprietors of Latimer's.

"I majored in history to learn how to critically think. It was a liberal arts education. I did not have a career focus. I thought about pre-med, and I had some strengths there, but I quickly moved more into history and English. I stumbled into art history later and loved it. Music education or performance was not where I was.

"I was thinking corporate management and ended up moving right into a bank management training program with First Union and living in Atlanta. I started managing branch banks.

"Andy and I dated long distance for four and a half years after Davidson. He went to law school at WVU. As he was getting ready to graduate, he decided to see if I would come live in this great state. I'm a happy import.

"I love the outdoors. We love to fish and hike and bike and ski, so that was a nice draw for us, West Virginia's outdoor world.

"First Union was not in West Virginia, so I moved into the world of community foundations. That's where I got the basis of my nonprofit knowledge for what I do now. I got to be part of distribution committee, helping to give away money for the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.

"All nonprofits wanted to get money from the foundation, so people would come to me trying to get funds. I was a matchmaker in the community foundation world. Connecting a donor with a good cause was fun. It was a great way to learn the nonprofit world in Charleston.

"From there, I moved to Charleston Renaissance to work on downtown development. It was a challenging time because I was working with a new baby.

"I had my first son, Will, in 1998, and became executive director of Charleston Renaissance just as I was adjusting to the first year of motherhood. I loved the work and loved being a mother, and one of the challenges of my world is keeping that balance between contributing to this community and maintaining the home life that I cherish.

"I worked some from home doing free-lance grant writing then took some time off. Tom Beale recruited me for the West Virginia Youth Symphony Board. Then the general manager quit, and they asked if I'd be interested in the organization. That was 2008.

"I work on the administrative side to keep the operation going. We have 115 students from a seven-county radius. We have two students from Ohio.

"We teach these kids orchestral music ensemble skills. They have to audition. We have weekly rehearsals. They range in age from 7 to 20, so we've got little kids who run in hall and serious kids who want to pursue music as professionals.

"We have four concerts each year. I just held my 20th concert. It's a thrill every time.

"We graduated 23 seniors last year. It was tough to say goodbye to so many, but half the group got to travel with us to Eastern Europe this past summer. We were gone for 10 and gave three performances.

"They had to bring their skills and be ambassadors for West Virginia. I was so proud of them for the beauty and response they created.

"In Budapest, Hungary, we performed in the military museum to a standing room crowd. There were cheers at the end. It was thrilling to see musicians from West Virginia getting that kind of reaction in a foreign country. It was my proudest moment as a West Virginian. I've been one now for 18 years.

"It was an incredible experience, especially in Slovakia where we visited Charleston's sister city of Banska Bystrica. The city rolled out the red carpet for us. Twenty-four of our kids got to experience a home stay for two nights.

"You should read the write-ups some of the students wrote for Flipside. They said the trip was life-changing, that their world-view had changed. I'm grateful to have a part in that. The role was so right for me.

"I was moving to North Carolina to marry this West Virginian, and my father started telling me all these connections. My paternal grandmother was a new bride in West Virginia, as I was. She was in Morgantown where my grandfather's first teaching job was at WVU Law School. My husband went to the WVU Law School.

"My great grandfather, Alexander Napier Perryman, was a minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Ronceverte. I am a lifelong Presbyterian. He was raised by the president of Davidson College. He ended his career in Wheeling. My father has memories of going to see his grandfather in Wheeling.

"We also have a Bishop Havighurst, my maiden name. There was a Bishop Havighurst at Christ Church United Methodist. It's creepy. I told Andy I was so meant to meet him.

"I love it when people are able to give of their skills and time and make a difference, but it's a huge struggle between being a mom and my job. If I could say anything to all those working mothers, it would be, 'Keep it going, sister.' I've tried to get the best of both, and I know I have sacrificed on both ends.

"There are lots of chapters ahead for me. I'd love to keep traveling. I want to continue to learn. I like to cook and garden and see art and architecture. Growing and learning, that is key. I'm pretty excited."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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