Metro

Tom Cooke, 78; ‘Sesame Street’ books illustrator

After a stroke in 1994, Mr. Cooke changed his approach to art, unleashing a new creativity.
Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/File 2002
After a stroke in 1994, Mr. Cooke changed his approach to art, unleashing a new creativity.

For more than two decades, manuscripts for new “Sesame Street” books arrived by the mail at Tom Cooke’s Manchester-by-the-Sea home, where he made Big Bird spring to life.

First, he captured each story’s action in a series of thumbnail sketches and sent them to New York, where editors reviewed his drawings. Then he added color to the illustrations, finishing one book while creating the pencil sketches for the next.

Though his studio at home was distant from the offices where the editing and final production took place, Mr. Cooke was as punctual as if he punched a clock. “I work a regular office day,” he told the Globe in 1991. “I have to work on a schedule because I’m on deadline. Otherwise, I’d goof off.” The results were never routine, however, and at book fairs, admirers were amazed at how quickly he conjured “Sesame Street” characters.

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“They can’t believe the ease with which I can draw a Muppet,” he said in that interview. “I love children, and to talk to them. It’s rewarding for me to find out how much they like my work. It’s a real high. You know, when you work at home, you don’t realize how many fans you have.”

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A former principal artist for the “Sesame Street” children’s books, illustrating considerably more than 100, Mr. Cooke was 78 when he died, apparently of a heart attack, on Sept. 17 while sleeping in his Newburyport home.

He moved there in 1994, two weeks before a stroke changed his approach to art. Home from an evening at the theater that October, his left arm felt limp as he was hanging up his clothes. His wife, Onalee, found him lying on the bed, and doctors diagnosed a ruptured artery in the right, front part of his brain.

His intellectual, special, and visual faculties were intact, but the stroke enhanced some aspects of his relationship to art while closing off others.

“I was amazed how much you need two hands to do illustrating,” he told the Globe in August 1995, about 10 months after the stroke. “And I find I don’t have the patience now to do the little details which are so important to my illustrations.”

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At 58, Mr. Cooke turned to a kind of art he never had time for during the years he kept up a hectic pace illustrating “Sesame Street” and “Care Bears” books.

“The stroke unleashed a whole new creativity in me,” he said in the 1995 interview as he sat in his Newburyport home amid paintings he had completed after becoming ill. “It’s made me freer and I see color differently.”

Always a dedicated traveler, Mr. Cooke had gone to Europe and the Mediterranean many times with his wife, though their favorite places to stay were Venice and Switzerland. Freed from his illustration duties, he switched to acrylic paints. Using broad strokes, he created scenes from places such as Burano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon that is memorable for the brightly colored exteriors of its houses.

“I always enjoyed painting,” he said in 1995. “But there wasn’t enough time in the day to actually do it.”

The youngest of four children, Thomas I. Cooke was born in Hamburg, N.J. His parents, Elmer Cooke and the former Caroline Maxwell, were singers, though neither performed professionally. Mr. Cooke’s father was a supervisor at a nature preserve.

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An older brother lived in New York City and was a theater set designer. “I was always in New York seeing shows,” Mr. Cooke said in 1991, adding: “Back then, I thought I wanted to be a theater set designer.”

“When he was 14, he worked in a small hotel restaurant playing piano with the orchestra,” his wife said, That gig ended when managers found out he was so young, and could not let him work late because of child labor laws.

He went to the Vesper George School of Art, staying initially with his older sister, who lived outside of Boston, because family finances could not cover room and board.

After graduating, he worked initially in advertising and won an award for his work. At the ceremony he met Onalee Schell, who was with another agency and also had won an award.

“We won each other, we’d say. We never would have known each other otherwise,” she said.

They married in 1958 and traveling was always a significant part of their lives, even after their two sons were born.

“That really bound us together,” she said, recalling that they visited Venice annually for many years. “We lost track. We think we went there 16 times.”

They stayed in many European hotels decades before they became prohibitively expensive, and Mr. Cooke always brought along a water color set to paint scenes in places they visited, including in Bermuda, where he and his wife spent part of each year, and where he painted studies of the dance of shadows and light.

Before starting to work with “Sesame Street” in 1972, he illustrated educational books for Houghton Mifflin and other publishers, and he designed game boards for Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley.

After the stroke, Mr. Cooke struggled at first to return to painting and playing piano.

“It was scary,” he told the Globe the following year. “I had to keep telling myself I could really do it again. I just wanted it to come right back. I was impatient. But I kept at it until it started to flow again.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Cooke leaves two sons, Scott of Gloucester and Todd of Baton Rouge, La., and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in Central Congregational Church in Newburyport.

While some readers might think illustrating “Sesame Street” books amounts to little more than drawing Big Bird over and over, Mr. Cooke insisted in 1991 that “it’s not just sitting down and drawing Muppets every day.”

“I love to do backgrounds. It must go back to my stage-set days,” he said in that interview, adding that his work often required research because “if there are animals or something like that, they have to be based on fact. You can’t fool the kids.”

Other readers, he noted, also paid close attention, and were rewarded for doing so: “Like the TV show, there are often little jokes in either the illustrations or the text for the adults to enjoy.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.