updated 07:36 pm EST, Mon February 24, 2014
Diligent student fondly remembered by classmates, teachers
On the same day that Apple CEO Tim Cook was celebrating the life of his predecessor, co-founder Steve Jobs, his hometown newspaper was running a profile of Cook that features insights on his early life in the small Alabama town of Robertsdale, a tiny community in the southern tip of the state, situation between Mobile and the Florida panhandle border. Cook revisited the area last Christmas when he went to see his parents.
Tim Cook in high school
His folks, Geraldine and Don Cook, still live in the house where Tim and his two brothers, Gerald and Michael, grew up. The family had spent brief periods in Pensacola, Florida and Mobile itself (where Tim was born) before settling in the small agricultural community in 1971. They moved there so that all three sons could go to the same school. Tim Cook's older brother Gerald is now an analyst, his younger brother Michael is in the maritime industry taking after his father.
The people in Robersdale are very proud that a local boy grew up to be the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world, and honored Cook this past December 10 by proclaiming a city-wide day in his honor. Classmates and teachers remember the young Tim Cook as a diligent student (he was second in his graduating class), and as a reliable friend with a "great personality." He was the business manager and ad salesman for his high school's yearbook, and had a job delivering newspapers before working in a restaurant and later with his mother in a drugstore.
Geraldine Cook remembers that he chose to go to Auburn very early on, telling her while he was still in seventh grade that it was his preference (in Alabama, high school students who plan to go on to college often choose one of the two major universities there). He has been an Auburn football fan ever since.
After college, he worked for IBM until 1994 -- picking up a master's degree from Duke University along the way. He switched over to Intelligent Electronics in North Carolina for a while, then moved on to Compaq where he rose through the ranks to become the director of operations. It was in this position that he was recruited for the same job at Apple by Steve Jobs. He famously told interviewers that he had little interest in the position, being happy at Compaq, but inside of "five minutes" after meeting Jobs he was ready to jump ship.
Cook is very private about his personal life, and doesn't divulge many details -- nor do his friends and childhood acquaintances. Apart from his interest in fitness and football, he says little about himself in interviews. He did once talk about his upbringing and world view in a speech at an event hosted by Auburn in New York City, where he and Warren Buffet's son Howard were being honored for their business and life achievements.
In the speech, Cook touched on topics that are somewhat unusual for a business-oriented fete in a southern state: racism, gay rights and immigration. He told the crowd that he had been shaped by witnessing the "devastating impacts" of discrimination: "Not far from where I lived, I remember very vividly witnessing a cross burning at such a remarkable family. This image was permanently imprinted in my brain, and it would change my life forever," Cook said. "For me the cross burning was a symbol of ignorance, of hatred, and a fear of anyone different than the majority. I could never understand it, and I knew then that America's and Alabama's history would always be scarred by the hatred that it represented."
He mentioned that in his office are three photos: two of Robert Kennedy, and one of Martin Luther King. "In Apple I found a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity, through its products and through the equality of its employees." He mentioned as a specific example the lengths Apple engineers go to to make sure the products work well for those with disabilities "...and we never analyze the return on investment [in such matters]," he added. He spoke of how Apple imposes its own code of equality onto its suppliers and factory workers as well, improving conditions compared to both competitors and in some cases governments -- even in the US.