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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Merrill Cook's daughters Alison, left, and Michelle, who are visiting from out of town, lead their mother, Camille, into the kitchen for breakfast. Cook, a former congressman and perennial candidate, is now a full-time caregiver for Camille, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
Rolly: Combative candidate Cook now a tender caregiver

Camille Cook, her husband’s most devoted supporter, suffers from Alzheimer’s.

By PAUL ROLLY

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Apr 01 2014 12:16 pm • Last Updated Apr 04 2014 10:11 am

Merrill Cook’s obsession with politics transformed the Harvard MBA graduate into a caricature of himself, running for public office 13 times in the past 30 years and almost always losing.

He also led six initiative drives — three to limit taxes, another to end the sales tax on food, one to impose term limits and one to require employers to verify their workers’ citizenship status.

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During those times — stressful campaigns, the heartbreaking losses, the teasing from the news media and other politicians about his failed candidacies — Cook’s wife, Camille, was by his side, shaking hands, making calls, passing out fliers and comforting the family.

She never liked politics, and her husband knew it. She did it for him. She never complained about lost family vacations, the draining of their personal wealth to help finance campaigns or the lack of privacy.

Now, he’s there for her.

Camille Cook has Alzheimer’s.

She was diagnosed in 2008, but the family believes the disease took hold about four years earlier. During the past two years, Cook says, aphasia has set in, making it nearly impossible for her to communicate.

"She has an acute sense of colors," he says. "She still enjoys the beauty of the mountains, of the flowers. She is happy most of the time."

Whether she recognizes those around her is hard to say, but Merrill says it’s clear she senses the love.

Cook, whose passion for politics began when he was 8 years old, could just not stop running for office. But he has a new obsession as the full-time caregiver for his wife of nearly 45 years — and he loves it.


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He wakes her and gets her ready for the day. He cooks for her. He grooms her. He entertains her. He helps her to bed at night.

"It is by far the greatest thing I’ve ever done," Cook told me when I sat down with him, Camille and two of their five children recently at their home in Salt Lake City’s upper Avenues.

"I’ve learned more things, had more satisfaction, had more sense of accomplishment taking care of my wife than anything I’ve done. That includes running a successful business and serving in Congress."

During a 10-year stretch while their kids were growing up, Cook lost six elections — the state school board in 1984, Salt Lake City mayor in 1985, Salt Lake County Commission in 1986, governor in 1988, governor in 1992 and Congress in 1994.

He finally won an election to the 2nd Congressional District in 1996, although the Republican establishment didn’t help him much.

Resentment remained over his previous quests as an independent for governor and Congress, when he challenged GOP candidates.

He was re-elected in 1998, but fell short in the Republican primary when he pursued a third term in 2000. He tried to win back his seat in 2002, but fizzled at the GOP convention.

Still, Cook was not done. He ran for Salt Lake County mayor in 2004 and for the U.S. Senate in 2010 against three-term incumbent Bob Bennett. He failed in the first round at the Republican State Convention.

He ran for county mayor again in 2012, and Camille often accompanied him to events, despite being deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s.

Their story began in 1967, when Cook returned from his Mormon mission and resumed his studies at the University of Utah. They both had attended East High — Merrill in the Class of ’64, Camille in the Class of ’65 — but they didn’t know each other there.

He took her to the old Heidelberg Restaurant in Farmington on their first date. They went back several times to that elegant establishment during the courtship.

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