Services for Wilce L. Cooke

   Life Stories | Posted on August 9, 2021

UPDATE: Twilight Services will be held on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, from 6–8 p.m. at Robbins Brothers Funeral Home, 204 South Fair Avenue, Benton Harbor, Michigan.

A Celebration of Life will be held on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Visitation is at 9 a.m. and Service starts at 11 a.m. at Greater Grace Temple, 660 Nickerson Avenue, Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The Benton Spirit Newspaper will prepare a Special Edition on Wilce Cooke in its August 20 edition. Please send your comments on Wilce Cooke to by Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.


On Monday afternoon, Aug. 2, a few friends and a family member bore mournful witness as Wilce L. Cooke (June 18, 1938–Aug. 2, 2021) was taken from his home in Benton Harbor to begin his journey to his final resting place.

He was born and raised in his beloved city of Benton Harbor, Michigan. He graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1958 and went on to earn his LPN from Oakland Community College, Rochester, Michigan, an associate degree in political science and sociology from Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1975, and a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from Western Michigan University (WMU), Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1977. While there he received a National Upper Division Scholarship and was named a member of WMU Honor’s College. He also obtained adult education instructor certification from Model Cities Program/Area Five School and training from the Mayor’s Leadership and Advance Leadership Institute. He credited his mom for teaching him about "the power of education."

In 1968, as the only male nurse in Southwest Michigan, he began his 50-yearlong distinguished service at Mercy Center, which later became Lakeland Health Systems and is now part of Spectrum Health. During his healthcare career, Cooke also served as a nurse at the Benton Harbor School-based Clinic and Benton Harbor Teen Center in the 1980s. He also taught in the Benton Harbor Area Schools medical assistant program in the 1990s.

In addition, Cooke was actively involved in the political, public and civic life of his local community and beyond. Beginning in 1977, he served in different capacities and on several Berrien County and Republican Party committees, commissions and boards at the local, state and national levels. He also served as three-time mayor of Benton Harbor from 1981 to 1987 and 2004 to 2011. As mayor, he participated in the implementation of significant developments within the city, including Harbor Shores, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, the Whirlpool Corporation Riverview Campus, and the Jimmy Carter Harbor Habitat for Humanity, among other things.

During those years, he also testified before two United States Congressional subcommittees, on behalf of the National League of Cities, representing over 15,000 American cities on local government revenue concerns. He also had the privilege of meeting four United States Presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Throughout all his years of public service, Cooke proved to be a strong and dedicated leader who focused on helping and serving others at the local, state and national levels.

In his post-politics life, Cooke continued to make significant contributions to his community. In 2013, he founded the Wilce L. Cooke Foundation to provide healthcare scholarships to Benton Harbor area residents and enhance healthcare education and health and wellness outreach in Benton Harbor and Southwest Michigan.

In the 2018 spring graduation ceremonies of Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Cooke was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in honor of his distinguished life of service, leadership and integrity to his hometown of Benton Harbor and his broader impact and contributions to Southwest Michigan and beyond. In July 2018, Benton Harbor City commissioners approved the name change of their chamber to the Dr. Wilce L. Cooke Municipal Building. In 2019, Cooke received the Clarence Beckwith Distinguished Alumni Award from Lake Michigan College.

People from all walks of life have been blessed to know him as an employee, mayor, colleague, teacher, leader, nurse, friend and fellow citizen. In a 2016 Benton Spirit Community Newspaper interview titled “I Made a Mark,” Cooke was asked what kept his spirit alive, to which he replied, “The city that I was born and raised in. I have an affinity for the city of Benton Harbor. It's the place of my birth, and I think that anyone worth their salt would always try and improve the quality of life of those in their community, to help bring them up to par, and to inspire them to carry on even further. I really believe that, and I have tried to do that. I tried to make the citizens of Benton Harbor proud that I was their mayor, and proud that I was their nurse—so they would feel that they have someone that they can rely on.”