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Rolly: Combative candidate Cook now a tender caregiver

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

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While Merrill could name nearly every member of Congress and the margin of victory earned by each U.S. president, Camille’s passion was music.

She majored in voice and French at the U., then studied opera at a college in Pittsburgh while the two were engaged.

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"She sent me a picture of her being lifted in the air by a male cast member while they were rehearsing an opera," Merrill told me. "I got jealous. I got in my car and drove straight to Pennsylvania. I ran out of gas in the middle of the night in Wyoming. But I got there and sat in the front row during the rest of their rehearsals."

The couple married and moved to Boston, where Cook earned his MBA at Harvard. Camille supported the family during his graduate studies, working at a bank and as a research paper editor at Harvard. After his graduation, they remained in Boston while Cook worked at a financial-consulting firm.

They returned to Utah in 1974 and Cook eventually founded the Cook Slurry Co., an explosives manufacturer, with his father.

Meanwhile, as their family grew, Camille performed for the Utah Opera, the Salt Lake Opera and at many other venues, including church gatherings and funerals.

Pollster Dan Jones once told Merrill he would have better luck if he ran Camille for public office instead of himself.

"Everyone loved Camille," Cook said.

Now, with all five of their grown children enjoying successful careers outside of Utah — two in California, one in Connecticut (where she works at Yale), one in Washington, D.C., and one in New Zealand — Cook shoulders the task of caring for Camille.

He gets help from neighbors and fellow members of his Mormon ward, or congregation.

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An old political ally, Greg Beesley, who worked with Cook on the front lines during the fight to get tax limits on the ballot in 1988, comes by to sit with Camille when Cook wants to go to a meeting. He still can’t get politics completely out of his system.

Camille still accompanies Cook to many events. She was at his side Thursday, along with three of their children, when Cook was inducted into the East High Hall of Fame as part of the school’s 100th anniversary celebration.

She was there two years ago, despite her limitations, when Cook last ran as a candidate — that time for county mayor.

During a debate in that campaign, one of the candidates chided Cook publicly for running when he should be caring for his wife. In an emotional response, Cook said he was proud of his wife for being at his side. He likes to take her wherever he goes.

After the meeting, the crowd converged on Cook and Camille with hugs and greetings. "That meant a great deal to me," he told me, with tears in his eyes.

He did regret taking her with him to the South Towne Exposition Center to pitch a petition to get a Utah version of the federal E-verify program on the ballot.

Camille, he recalled, went to a nearby women’s restroom. After a while, he noticed she hadn’t returned. Cook panicked as he and several friends, as well as the police, scoured the Sandy convention center for his missing wife. She had wandered away, but finally was spotted on the opposite side of the large building.

"I’ll never again leave her without an escort," he said.

During our interview, Cook’s daughters Michelle and Alison accompanied their parents, who are both 67. They entertained their mother with songs, smiles and laughter. She grinned nearly the entire time. I sensed that she knew she was surrounded by loved ones.

I asked Merrill if he felt this experience has deepened the strong bond he has shared with his wife for more than four decades.

"Yes," said Camille, as her gaze turned to me.

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