Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, a beloved member of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) family since 2003, died Oct. 22 at the age of 72.

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke (Job’s Mortuary Inc.)

Prof. Reuben-Cooke joined the UDC Law faculty in 2007 after serving as an administrator at UDC for four years. As a member of the UDC Law faculty, Prof. Reuben-Cooke taught a number of key courses at UDC Law, including Property, Professional Responsibility, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Negotiations and Mass Communications Law. Students described her as humble and astute. “Prof. Reuben-Cooke was a professor who did not mind giving advice as to how you should approach a legal argument,” Sherrod Terry, ’19, said, “During my 1L year, she gave me great advice on how to lay out my argument in a Lawyering Process memo. Her advice helped me a great deal throughout law school.”

UDC Law faculty members remember Prof. Reuben-Cooke for similar reasons, citing her calming and thoughtful nature as a signature strength among many. “I will miss Wilhelmina’s ability to bring her special calm, wisdom and grace into any discussion,” said Prof. Christine Jones. Prof. Susan Waysdorf added, “Wilhelmina’s steady and wise counsel, her love and empathy for her colleagues, staff and students will always be remembered and cherished.” “Her calm demeanor settled us in tense times. Her kindness served as an exemplar. Her wisdom was a source of respect and praise,” offered Prof. Phil Lee.

I will miss her kindness and empathy toward others and her ability to incisively identify the ‘real issue’ in any circumstance. Perhaps most of all, though, I will both miss and treasure our conversations over tea in her office, where we talked and laughed about everything and anything – and where I learned what a powerhouse of a person and a great woman she was.

Prof. Christine Jones

She began a distinguished legal career after graduating from University of Michigan School of Law in 1973, working as an Associate Attorney at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in communications, antitrust, tax, securities, criminal and general corporate law before returning to legal education. In 1986, Prof. Reuben-Cooke embarked on a teaching career that included a number of administrative appointments. At Syracuse University College of Law, she was appointed Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in 1992 and directed the school’s academic program. She was also Associate Director of the Institute for Public Representation (IPR) at Georgetown University Law Center, where she was responsible for litigation before the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. She was named Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at UDC in 2003; she joined the faculty at UDC Law in 2007.

Professor Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke’s sudden and untimely passing is a devastating blow to each of us personally, and to the School of Law community as a whole. I have thought that as professors we are ultimately replaceable – or at least inter-changeable from one to the other, as we take on new courses, retire, move to a new job or city or just move on. But with Wilhelmina’s passing, I realize that she is in fact irreplaceable. There is no one on our faculty who can fill her place in our hearts or replace how she inspired and motivated us, day in and day out.  

Knowing that, we still will rise, to try and be and do our very best, to honor her. She would have wanted and expected that from each of us. Wilhelmina’s steady and wise counsel, her love and empathy for her colleagues, staff and students will always be remembered and cherished. Civil rights trailblazer, faculty leader, committed and brilliant teacher, devoted mother and wife, dear friend and mentor – Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke will remain with us always. 

Prof. Susan Waysdorf
In 1967, Reuben-Cooke, left, Nathaniel White, Jr. and Mary Mitchell Harris became the first African American under-graduates to receive their degrees from Duke. (Duke University Archives/Durham, N.C.)

Prof. Reuben-Cooke leaves behind a powerful legacy in the fight for civil rights. One of the first five African American undergraduates admitted to Duke University, she was active on campus and in the community throughout her time as a student. In 1963, Prof. Reuben-Cooke, Gene Kendall, Mary Mitchell Harris, Cassandra Rush, and Nathanial “Nat” White entered Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences; only Kendall and White survive. While a student at Duke, she was a champion of social justice, engaging in protests and signing an open letter speaking out against Duke faculty and administrators who were members of Hope Valley Country Club, at the time an all-white club.

During her senior year at Duke, Prof. Reuben-Cooke – known then by her friends as “Mimi” – garnered enough write-in votes to be named May Queen. She was the first black May Queen elected at Duke, a distinction that grabbed the attention of The New York Times. Prof. Reuben-Cooke was also active in the Freshman Advisory Council and YWCA, elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named a Woodrow Wilson Scholar while at Duke.

Wilhelmina was my boss as provost for five years. She was a warm and supportive leader, generous with her time, a real problem solver and a huge believer in the mission of the law school. I vividly remember calling her from Santa Fe when we learned that we had achieved full ABA accreditation. She was over the moon! She was also full of information. She listened to Jazz & Justice on WPFW regularly and held progressive forward-thinking views. I remember that she and I refused to cross a picket line to enter a restaurant where the University retreat was being held. Wilhelmina had great judgment, and she was cool. I will miss her. Sending love to all at this very sad time.

Dean Emerita Shelley Broderick
Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke was the first black May Queen elected in Duke history in 1967. (Duke University Archives/Durham, N.C.)­­

Prof. Reuben-Cooke’s engaged and committed service earned her a number of accolades over the years. Among them, she was named a John Hay Whitney Fellow and admitted to the Order of the Coif. She also received the Sojourner Truth Award from the Syracuse University Chapter of The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the C. Eric Lincoln Distinguished Alumni Award from the Duke University Black Alumni Council, and the Black Citizens for a Fair Media Annual Award for Public Interest Advocacy.

She never lost ties to the places she built and that helped build her, serving on numerous community, civic and professional boards to maintain those ties. She is a Professor Emerita of Syracuse University. She was a member of the Links Inc., an Alpha Kappa Alpha Legacy, a two-term trustee on the Duke University Board of Trustees and a member of The Duke Endowment. Duke, in turn, has not forgotten Prof. Reuben-Cooke, either. She received the Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011; the Duke Alumni Association’s highest award is given to “Duke graduates who have made significant contributions in their fields, in service to the university, or for the betterment of humanity.” Two years later, the university established a $1 million scholarship fund to honor the professor and her fellow first African American Duke undergraduates. She also remained connected to her hometown in South Carolina as a member of the Mather School National Alumni Association (MSNAA); she was president of the MSNAA’s Washington D.C. Chapter.

Wilhelmina represented the best of us. She always listened and was always willing to help. Her calm demeanor settled us in tense times. Her kindness served as an exemplar. Her wisdom was a source of respect and praise. Her influence was deep and meaningful. Our lives are enriched because of the life she lived and the justice she pursued. Her legacy lives on in all of us.

Prof. Phil Lee

Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, born Wilhelmina Matilda Reuben in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Dec. 13, 1946, was the eldest of six children. She was born into a family of educators, with both her parents having worked in academia. Her father, the late Reverend Dr. Odell R. Reuben, was President of Morris College; her mother, the late Dr. Anna Mays Daniels Reuben, was a professor there.

Prof. Reuben-Cooke attended public schools in Sumter and graduated from Mather School (HS 1963), a Christian boarding school in Beaufort.

She married Air Force 1st Lt. Edmund Douglas Cooke Jr. of Springfield, Ohio, on June 22, 1968, and they had two daughters. The couple were founding members of the Covenant Christian Community in Washington, D.C., where they remained active through leadership. A public memorial service is being planned.

In my five decades in the legal profession with three and half of them in legal academe, I cannot recall as much conversation with unanimous acclaim than I have heard about the late Professor Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke. I totally agree with these comments about her, such as a school integration pioneer, veteran higher education administrator and professor, quintessential colleague, gentle, insightful, a wise woman, warm and caring, a leader with sound values, infinite wisdom, compassionate, just a lovely person and more. This quote from Maya Angelou reminds me the most of Professor Reuben-Cooke: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

Prof. John C Brittain­­

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