A lot of laughs, a little wine — a good friend!

Apr 16, 2002 9:08 AM

ON THE OUTSIDE he was a big, big man. He could have easily passed off as a bouncer or a BG anywhere along Buffalo’s east side where the watering holes beckoned. He never tried to hide his image. How could you hide 6 ft. 5 in. and 250+ pounds? Believe me he wasn’t someone you’d want to meet up with in an alley. But, to a few of us drinking pals who pierced the armor, Bill Cooke was a pussycat.

He didn’t think much of publicity guys. He called them tub-thumpers. He never tried to hide his feelings, Âí­either. But, throughout our long relationship, Cookie’s dislike of PR people didn’t get in the way of our friendship. Looking back, it probably had something to do with the fact that we often lifted a glass or two together.

In my phonebook Cookie was listed with the C’s. He could just as easily have been under the F’s. F as in fun; that was Bill.

News of his death took a long time reaching me. He passed away Friday, March 8, after a brief illness. He was 65.

Bill began his newspaper career as a copy boy at the Buffalo Evening News, which is still with us as the Buffalo News. Later in his career he and a former Courier Express employee, Mike Ricigliano, a sports cartoonist, founded Unbalanced Lines. The Lancaster, N.Y. company was led by Cooke. It had a license from National Football League Properties to design, produce and distribute professional football-related apparel. The company also designed products approved by the National Basketball Association, several colleges and Major League Baseball.

Starting in 1996 Bill began writing for GamingToday covering the gaming scene in Niagara Falls, Canada and the surrounding area. He wrote until early 2001.

Staying power? It was certainly Cooke’s strong suit. It is said he could be woke up in the wee hours to go have a drink with a friend at an after-hours joint without too much persuasion and still make work the next day.

“He loved to yell and complain. It was all a bluff,” said a close friend.

When I first met Bill he was sports editor of the former Buffalo Courier Express. It was a morning Âí­paper. I was thumping the tub for Buffalo Raceway.

One of my promotions involved a lovely young lady named Tiffany. She loved getting ink to get her name spread hither and yon. Everyone ”” including Bill Cooke ”” wanted to do an interview.

I told Cookie I could arrange it.

“I’ll pave the way for you, but she’s getting a lot of calls. So, if you want to impress her you’ll have to make her think you’re really important,” I explained.

Cooke took the bait and his sense of humor went to work. By the time the interview was over Tiffany thought Bill was a personal friend of Johnny Carson. She was sure he could get her on the “Tonight Show.”

Our favorite watering hole in those days was the Âí­Armor Inn, a block or two away from Buffalo Raceway. The hot drink at the time was Mateus wine. We bought it by the bottle ”” one for each of us. By the end of the night the table was filled with empty bottles and the truth was not with us. Cooke’s idea of funny got a little wacky after a few drinks. I’m not sure how the conversation got there, but one night after a Âí­Mateus or two he was talking about christening the bar the way you christen a ship.

The next thing you know an empty bottle is flying across the bar into the back room. Luckily, no one was sitting there.

It all would have passed without incident, except after the first bottle was tossed everyone else at the table ollowed suit. The bartender took the heat and we all got the heave ho, except Cookie. There was no one big enough to bounce him ”” not at the Armor Inn anyway.

The one thing I easily remember about Bill Cooke was how he stood tall and never bet on a so-called hot horse. It always provided him with a good laugh when the horse finished up the track. Not me.

A drinking buddy. Laughs by the barrel. And, above all, a good friend.

Cooke is survived by his wife, Arlene, two sons, William and Thomas, two daughters, Nancy and Cathy, a brother, Richard, a sister, Nancy, and eight grandchildren.

I think I’ll pick up a bottle of Mateus on the way home tonight.

Good-bye, my friend. God Bless.