John Cook has assumed the role of board chairman at the BASE. Cook is a financial adviser and veteran Republican political fundraiser, having served as finance director for Charlie Baker’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. A Belmont native, he now works for UBS’s private wealth management office in Boston.
It was through Baker and his friendship with BASE founder Robert Lewis Jr. that Cook first heard about the program. Before long, he was asking Lewis how he could help, regardless of whether Baker won election or not.
“I told Robert, forget the campaign,” Cook recalled, speaking at his downtown office. “What you’re doing for urban kids is amazing. I want to do this. Me. Now.”
Cook traces his interest in the BASE back to his own high-school years, when he captioned the Belmont High wrestling team. His schoolmates included a sizable number of Metco students bused to school daily from Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods. As Cook tells it, the interaction between urban and suburban kids was overwhelmingly positive, their mutual interest in academics and athletics overshadowing any racial or socioeconomic differences they might have. Their parents hung out together, too.
“Later on in life, you realize how disconnected you are from a place like Roxbury when you live in Belmont,” he noted. “Then you realize how lucky you are, and you look for ways to help.”
As a blue-chip fund-raiser, Cook is often approached by local nonprofits eager to enlist his services. Why join The BASE team? One reason, he said, is that an organization still in start-up mode gives him more room to make a real difference. Also, Robert Lewis can be very persuasive when it comes to selling the BASE and its mission.
“Robert really didn’t need to make his sales pitch as hard as he did,” said Cook with a laugh. “I was already there.”
As board chair, Cook will focus on implementing the 2020 strategic plan drafted last year. Updating data bases and budgetary systems will be another priority of his. Raising the money needed to keep the BASE growing will be the biggest challenge, he conceded, yet one he’s prepared to tackle head on.
“I’m more of an operational guy. That’s what I do,” Cook said. “But the fundraising piece is fun, too. On occasion, I can put on that hat as well.”
Cook recognizes that achieving measurable outcomes will be crucial for the BASE to become a true game-changer nationally.
“Ultimately, our impact will be measured by the number of kids served and the percentage that get into college,” Cook acknowledged. “Those are the two biggies.”
Harder to quantify, he agreed, is the culture surrounding the BASE and its student-athletes. Getting prospective supporters to visit the Roxbury clubhouse “is a huge sales pitch for us,” he said. Few if any walk away uninspired — or unwilling to help – once they see the place in action.
“Robert puts these kids in a position to really think outside what their own neighborhoods might tell them they can do,” said Cook. “I was lucky, I grew up in a different world.” BASE kids gain the confidence to walk up to a CEO and not be intimidated, he noted. If they can do that, they are well on their way to acquiring the tools needed to succeed in the classroom and workforce.
How does he describe the BASE to friends and colleagues unfamiliar with the program? Cook smiled at the question.
“I’ll say, I want to tell you about this organization that uses athletics to engage urban kids in academics and get them into college,” he replied. “These kids may be drawn in by the baseball teams and batting cages. Once they’re involved, though, it’s about a whole lot more than just baseball.”
- Joe Kahn