Puyallup: News

Great-great-grandmother, longtime Puyallup resident to celebrate 100th birthday

Wanda Cook will celebrate her 100th birthday on Aug. 21.
Wanda Cook will celebrate her 100th birthday on Aug. 21. jbessex@gateline.com

There are many who can say they’ve lived in Puyallup for a long time, but maybe not as long as Wanda Cook.

Cook will turn 100 on Aug. 22, and has lived in the Puyallup area for more than 70 years.

“I like the trees,” Cook said about Washington. “The weather’s not too bad.”

Cook’s long life in Puyallup began in 1940 when her husband, Homer, couldn’t find work where they lived in Oklahoma. Cook had an aunt and uncle in Washington, and after hearing how much they loved it there, decided to move.

Cheryl Nikolao, Wanda’s daughter, recalled the story her mother told of the trip to Washington, which took more than a week of driving.

9 number of grandchildren for Wanda Cook

“When they were traveling, the car didn’t have (roll-down) windows,” said Nikolao, 68. “It felt like a desert. But when (Cook) saw the mountain, it was paradise, she said.”

When they arrived, Homer got a job at a dairy farm, while Cook gardened and picked berries from the farming fields that used to make up most of Puyallup. Both Cook and her husband had farmed in Oklahoma, harvesting wheat and cotton and keeping cattle and turkeys. In Washington, they had thornless blackberries. Cook and her children recalled her canning peaches, pickling beets and making butter.

Butter was heavily rationed during World War II, when Cook was living in Puyallup. Cook’s son, Gwen, remembered stories of how the war affected his family’s daily life.

Instead of lahar sirens, like there are now, there were air raid sirens, said Gwen, 77. Tin cans were recycled to make bullets, and tanks rolled by outside. When the war ended, everyone in Puyallup was singing and honking their horns, Nikolao said. They were glad it was over.

Ever since she was a child, Cook has been surrounded by nature, and has seen both the beauty and the ferocity of it.

In Oklahoma, where Cook was born and where she spent the early years of her life, she remembered the storms and flash floods. There were no warnings, no sounding alarms for natural disasters.

Instead, her father would lie awake, watching the clouds, prepared for anything. If a storm did arrive — which they often did, she said — they’d have to hurry to the neighbors’ storm cellar, where there were beds and lamps, and wait out the storm.

One time, Cook nearly got stuck in a nearby stream that was prone to flash floods. Her grandfather helped her escape.

“I was trying to cross, and I got hung up on the log,” said Cook. “He said to come back as quick as you can.”

In Washington, Cook lived through some devastating disasters in the area.

17 number of great-grandchildren

“I went from tornadoes to earthquakes,” she said about the move from Oklahoma.

Cook was staying with some friends near Mount Rainier when the 1949 earthquake that killed eight people struck Puget Sound. She remembered the doors shaking on their hinges.

But even experiencing the deadlier side of nature didn’t stop Cook from enjoying it. She could be found outside with her hands dug deep in the dirt, gardening, even as she grew older. Her neighbors always admired her for being able to take care of herself, even after her husband died in 1995 at the age of 84.

Almost five years ago, Cook suffered from a stroke that left the right side of her body paralyzed, and had to forgo some of her favorite pastimes, like gardening. But ultimately she pulled through.

Now, in Pioneer House Assisted Living where she currently lives, Cook spends a lot of her time reading. But she still gets to go outside and be around the nature that she grew up loving, and watch her great-great-grandchildren do the same.

Cook has a big family — and legacy — behind her. She has three children, nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and 14 great-great-grandchildren.

Her family is excited to throw her a 100th birthday party on Aug. 21, which will be in Orting.

The venue is an old train station and has a spectacular view of Mount Rainier right as you enter the building, said Geonia Cook, Gwen’s wife. “It’s almost like you can reach out and touch it.”

14 number of great-great-grandchildren

Even with all of her stories, Cook still can’t quite believe the milestone she’s about to pass.

“I can’t believe that I’m 100,” she said. “I couldn’t believe when I was 50.”

For Cook’s family, those years represent a legacy of love.

Geonia, who has been part of the Cook family for more than 50 years, said she’s never seen Wanda angry. “She’s always the beacon you went to when you needed something. She always has a smile on her face.”

Allison Needles: 253-256-7043, @herald_allison