James Cook, the Grain Valley Citizen of the Year at Saturday's Truman Heartland Community Foundation Toast to Our Towns gala, is being honored after more than 40 years at a job he took because a friend didn't want it.
Cook, a founding member of the Kansas City law firm Berkowitz, Cook, Gondring & Driskell, has served as Grain Valley's city attorney and prosecutor since 1976.
At that time, he was working with a firm in Independence, two years removed from earning his law degree at UMKC.
“A buddy of mine was friends with the mayor. My buddy took the job, but he didn't like working at nights,” Cook said. “He asked if I might be interested. I didn't have kids at the time, and I needed the money.”
Cook remembers that for a few years he also worked a side job in landscaping with that same friend, to make a few extra bucks.
Since 1976, whether it be for Board of Aldermen meetings or municipal court sessions, Cook has spent most Monday nights in the community that has grown from about 1,000 people then to more than 13,000 now.
“I found that I really liked working with the people, the city staff, working with the lawyers,” said Cook, who practices family law. “I like trying to make the people whom I work with feel a little better about the process. Ninety-nine percent (of citizens), if they're not treated well and with respect, they have a bad taste in their mouth.”
Cook said the amount of work hasn't increased much even as the city's population multiplied, although board meetings aren't in the library anymore, and rather than one or two defense lawyers in a court session he now sees 30 to 40.
In nominating Cook, Grain Valley Mayor Mike Todd also noted Cook's work with Grain Valley police to design youth diversion programs and his involvement in various city fundraisers.
Cook also hosts an annual luncheon for city employees in December.
“I was one of the original ones who helped with the food baskets 35 or 40 years ago,” Cook said. “I don't know how the city luncheon got started, but obviously it's grown. It's a way to thank them and pay them back for what they do for me.”
Cook is a member of Kansas City Metropolitan, Eastern Jackson County and Johnson County bar associations, has been an active fellow for more than 20 years in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and has been featured multiple times in the Best Lawyers of America publication.