Bankruptcy judge playing retirement tune

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John Cook turns 65 today and, after 28 years on the bench, will retire on Tuesday.

Four days a week for the last seven months, before he took the bench at the historic courthouse on 11th Street, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John Cook drove to the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and slipped into a music theory class.

He's always prompt, his professor said. And he's the best-dressed student in the room because he often heads straight to court after class.

"It's clearly the first sitting judge that I've had in a music class," said Kenyon Wilson, Cook's music theory professor.

Cook, who turns 65 today, will retire Tuesday after 28 years on the bench. His two terms have seen high-profile cases like the bankruptcy of the Read House and Krystal Corp., taught him the ins and outs of more businesses than he can count and established him as a strong and fair presence in Chattanooga's legal community.

"He means a tremendous amount to all of us," Chattanooga Bar Association President Paul Hatcher said.

"He's just such a fine man," said Susan Hart, who has worked as Cook's courtroom deputy for a decade.

But on the eve of his retirement, Cook says he's looking forward to seeing more of his wife, children and grandchild and to dedicating more time to the hobby that means the most to him.

He performs on piano, accordion and guitar. He's learning the fiddle. He plays with a band called Raspberry Stopwatch and, at the piano, likes to lead what he calls "live karaoke."

"He was a big hit at the National Bankruptcy Judge's Conference," Hart said. "They always came to his room to have a big jam session."

As a child he took piano lessons for nine years, but said he mostly plays by ear. So last fall Cook, who holds a degree in philosophy and psychology from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Tennessee, enrolled in a music theory class at UTC. He's not pursuing another degree, just digging a little deeper, he said.

"It's really different, being in this class with all these young music majors," Cook said.

Music theory presents a new challenge, just as bankruptcy law did nearly three decades ago.

Cook began his career as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Frank Wiley Wilson.

"He taught me about the law, about the court, about what the judgeship was like," Cook said.

After three years with Wilson, Cook took a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1978. He primarily handled criminal cases, but has never worked in state court.

"I've been bouncing around in the federal building for 40 years, but never have been in the state system," Cook said.

When the bankruptcy judgeship opened, he thought the opportunity could present a new challenge. He was appointed by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987. He says he had no experience in bankruptcy court at the time, but was determined to learn the case law. What he discovered, he says, was a job that allowed him to learn about businesses he never dreamed he'd come to know.

"The witnesses educate you about the business, and you see how the business operates from their testimony," Cook said.

And though it can be complicated, Cook said bankruptcy law is, at its heart, about finding solutions.

"You're dealing with people problems, whether you're creditors or debtors," Cook said.

Those people mean that, far from being dry, bankruptcy court can actually be a charged environment.

"When you're about to lose your house, or you're going to go out of business because a debtor hasn't paid you, emotions can run high in a bankruptcy case," Cook said.

That understanding has made him all the more appreciative of his colleagues.

As he looks at the office he'll soon vacate, he thinks about his mentors, his co-workers, the men and women he's presided over and worked with since his early days as a law clerk.

"That's what you think about when you retire, the relationships and the people that you've worked with," Cook said. "I just have a feeling of gratitude for all those people that have made my job so interesting and enjoyable over the years."

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.