Samuel Cook, a colorful and nationally known expert in labor law who had headed the labor department at Venable, Baetjer and Howard — now Venable LLP — died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at Keswick Multi-Care Center.
He was 91.
"Sam was a great leader and visionary not only in the practice of law but in union and business relations," said Maurice Baskin, a Venable colleague and labor lawyer. "He had been the dean of labor lawyers at the bar in Baltimore for many years."
Mr. Baskin, who is in the firm's Washington office, said that while Mr. Cook was a "tough negotiator with labor unions" he was capable of having "great friendships with labor leaders."
"He was the last of a breed and one of the major-domos at Venable," said Jeffrey P. Ayres, a labor lawyer who was brought to the firm by Mr. Cook in 1978.
"He was a labor lawyer in Baltimore at a time when it was still a union town, and Sam was the dean of labor lawyers on the management side. He was known just not here but nationwide," said Mr. Ayres, who is in the firm's Towson office.
The son of Albert S. Cook, who had been a state superintendent of schools, and a homemaker, A. Samuel Cook was born in Baltimore and raised on Aigburth Road in Towson. He never used his first name.
As a youngster, Mr. Cook attended the old Lida Lee Tall School on the campus of what is now Towson University, and graduated in 1939 from Gilman School.
He was a 1943 graduate of Princeton University and earned his law degree from the University of Maryland, saying in a company history of Venable, that he graduated "magna cum difficultate."
Mr. Cook began his legal career in 1947 and the next year joined a forerunner of Piper & Marbury, where he worked until deciding to specialize in labor law.
He worked briefly as general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Department of Labor. He later became assistant to the industrial relations manager at the Davison Chemical Co. in Curtis Bay, which was later purchased by W.R. Grace & Co.
In 1961, Mr. Cook and H. Raymond Cluster formed a labor law practice, and the two men flipped a coin to settle on the firm's name. Mr. Cook won, he said in a 1998 interview with Warfield's magazine.
"It was for the exclusive practice of labor law, representing management," he said in the interview. In 1970, the firm merged with Venable, where he presided over and mentored its team of labor lawyers.
Mr. Cook was described in a 1988 profile in The Evening Sun as "an amiable, disarming kind of man — and a union organizer's nightmare."
While rejecting a description of him as a union-buster, he said had even met his future wife, the former Bernice Ann "Bernie" Thrush, a Harford County music teacher, on a picket line while representing Harford County public schools.
"But in the battle against union organizing, Cook prides himself on running a scrupulously legal campaign — aggressive, but immune to challenge by the National Relations Labor Board," observed The Evening Sun in the 1988 profile.
"I respect the common sense of the workforce too much, and I respect the law too much and my duty as a lawyer, to advocate anything that is illegal," he told the newspaper.
To avoid charges of unfair labor practices, Mr. Cook's arsenal had four simple points that he advised clients to adopt: Employees were not to be threatened with layoffs or firings if they vote for or against the union; no interrogation of workers if they have signed union cards or intend to vote in favor of a union or how others voted; no promises of pay increases and other benefits to influence workers to reject the union's attempt to organize; and no surveillance of union meetings.
The AFL-CIO recognized Mr. Cook as one of the most effective management lawyers in the country, and at times he negotiated with George Meaney, who headed the AFL-CIO for more than 40 years.
Mr. Cook had a well-earned reputation for being straightforward with the opposition and had a love for the challenges of his job.
"I think our business is something like that of an obstetrician. Every crisis occurs at 2 a.m., and our clients need quick decisions as unemotionally made as possible," he told The Baltimore Sun in 1974.
In a statement from his law firm announcing his death, Mr. Cook was lauded for having a "genuine gift for conciliation and engendering trust from all parties involved."
It was Mr. Cook who established Venable's long-term relationship representing the Associated Builders and Contractors, the national trade group of nonorganized construction contractors.
He was also the author of the critically acclaimed "Freedom in the Workplace," which documented the 50-year battle between the "merit shop," Associated Builders and Contractors, which he represented, and the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Unions.
"Sam was a great lawyer and had a gift as depicting himself as a country lawyer even though he had gone to Princeton. He was a very talented man who made a difference in many areas of the law," said Mr. Baskin. "He was sharp, meticulous and creative. He gets clients to a place they never thought they could go."
He was named to the 1987 edition of "The Best Lawyers in America."
Mr. Cook, who had lived in Cross Keys for 30 years before moving to Lutherville in 2007, retired in 2001.
In the formal world of law, Mr. Cook was a breath of fresh air.
"In those days, casual Friday meant not wearing your vest to work," said Mr. Ayres with a laugh. "Sam was so effusive, gregarious and the life of the party. Things were always popping when he was around."
A talented harmonica player, he appeared in the annual productions of the Paint and Powder Club.
Mr. Ayres said it wasn't unusual for Mr. Cook to take out his harmonica and launch into a jaunty air in the law office.
"Sam was great man and a lawyer, and we're all going to miss him," said Mr. Ayres. "And it is all true."
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
In addition to his wife of 34 years, Mr. Cook is survived by a son, Bryson L. Cook of Baltimore; a daughter, Cathy Cook Gaynor of Baltimore; a stepson, James W. Johnson of Rumson, N.J.; a stepdaughter, Patricia G. Johnson of St. Petersburg Beach, Fla.; and six grandchildren. His first wife, the former Thayer Leitch, died in 1976.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times