PINELLAS PARK — The heavyset man with the Santa-style beard was a frequent sight for residents here, whether he was riding around town on his electric cart or grumping at City Council members during meetings.
But he'll be seen no more. Marshall Cook, political gadfly and advocate for the disabled and downtrodden, died at home in his sleep Sunday. He was 65. He had suffered from multiple health issues.
"He'll be missed by a lot of people," Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler said. "He was kind to people who were down and under. He had a soft spot in his heart for those that were suffering."
Mr. Cook was a native of Alexandria, Va., who moved to Pinellas Park in the mid 1970s. He served in the Army. He worked for the city in the late 1970s through early 1980s, then left to open his own garage. He was retired at the time of his death.
He became an activist early on, holding the offices of steward, chief steward and acting president of ACFSME, the union that represents the city's public works employees. In later years, he became a member of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee, the Pinellas Park parade committee and Community Spirit in the Park. At the time of his death, he was serving on the Pinellas Park equestrian board and the Transit Advisory Committee of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
He twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council.
But a list of memberships does not come close to illustrating Mr. Cook's colorful character.
Mr. Cook had both legs amputated as a result of an infection when he stepped on a rusty nail. After the first was amputated, he still managed to climb onto his roof to do some repair work. He fell off.
Among other things, he took credit for bringing the Walmart Supercenter to Pinellas Park. It was the first supercenter in Pinellas. And he once asked the city to put a lock box outside City Hall so he could store a handgun there rather than take it inside during council meetings. Mr. Cook told a reporter he didn't feel safe traveling around the city at night on an electric cart without protection. He was outraged when the city refused.
It was his outrage at injustice that was the hallmark of his gruff exterior. He took delight in harassing city officials, especially on issues concerning access for the disabled. He complained long and frequently that cars parked in short driveways blocked the sidewalks, making it hard for wheelchairs to get by. He even carried a camera and took pictures of the offending vehicles.
The city finally heeded him and issued tickets. Forty-five residents woke the next morning to find citations on cars parked in their driveways.
Mr. Cook also had his bouts with code enforcement officers who said he wasn't keeping his yard clear of debris. Mr. Cook said the allegations were politically motivated.
But he never complied.
"He won," fellow political gadfly Randy Heine said. "He left it the way he wanted it."
But perhaps his favorite pastime was needling elected officials. He was a regular at Mischler's almost daily meet and greet at the McDonald's in Walmart. After harassing Mischler, he could be seen outside smoking a cigarette.
"He has over the years gotten under my skin," Mischler said. "He would like to do that."
Heine said, "He was a thorn in their side, but a good thorn. Somebody who made you think about life, about government."
But the gruff, grouchy exterior hid a soft heart. Mr. Cook could often be found helping at a local horseback riding program for disabled children. He once used his time speaking to the council to drum up contributions for an ill child in his neighborhood. He was a self-appointed protector of the elderly who were alone in the world.
"He was a difficult man to get to know, but he had a heart of gold," Heine said.
Mischler said: "He was a one of a kind. But his heart was in the right place."
Information from Times files was used in this report. Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.