Steven V. Roberts

What a Beautiful Life

What a Beautiful Life

My wife, Cokie, and I wrote more than 1,000 columns together, but this is the first one I’m writing alone. The outpouring of affection has been so overwhelming -- and heartfelt -- since her passing that I wanted to share parts of the eulogy I delivered at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

In the summer of 1962, I met a girl named Cokie Boggs at a student political meeting. I firmly believe she was wearing a pair of charcoal gray Bermuda shorts at the time. For the last 57 years she has corrected me, on this and many other points, because she has never, she insisted, owned a pair charcoal gray shorts.

Over the years, on countless occasions, Cokie corrected all of us. She also encouraged us and inspired us, taught us and touched us, cajoled us and consoled us. Above all she loved us, fiercely and forever.

I knew immediately that I had met an extraordinary person, but I was a typical guy, petrified of commitment. It took me four years to finally propose, and as Cokie always used to joke, I did it by saying, “Oh, all right, Cokie.” Yet it was the best thing I ever did in my entire life.

In recent days, many of my former students have quoted back to me a piece of advice I’ve always given them: Who you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. Nothing else is even close.

Fortunately for us, even though we were very young, we got that decision right.

We have heard directly from thousands of people who are mourning Cokie, but some of the most poignant notes came from young women who received her help as they navigated their way through the journalism business. One of them, Amna Nawaz, now a correspondent on “PBS Newshour,” called herself “a proud member of Cokie’s army.” She wrote:

“What made me adore her so much was the fact that she used her power to empower others. She fought her way up the ladder, and then kept reaching back down to help others. Most people don’t do that. Most people don’t do it with the style, and grace, and good humor that Cokie did.”

One reason she felt so strongly about helping others was her own experience. After graduating from Wellesley in 1964, she moved back home -- to the house we’ve now lived in for the last 42 years -- and found work at a small television production company. A year later, she was hosting her own interview show on the local NBC station, but in the 1960s, the ladder of opportunity in journalism was largely closed to her and other women.

Here is a person who eventually wrote six national bestsellers, and yet after we were married and moved to New York, she was told repeatedly by various editors: “We do not hire women to be writers.”

Boy, did she prove those men wrong -- over and over again. But for all the celebrity that Cokie eventually earned, she always remained a true “small ‘d’ democrat” and a true Christian. She touched everyone she met, especially those who were not famous or wealthy or influential.

During the last days of her life, when I would pull up to the hospital doors, the valet parkers -- all immigrants, and most not fluent in English -- would say to me, “We’re praying for Miss Cokie.”

She became friendly with one of her nurses, Letitia, and absolutely insisted that I rummage through her recipe box at home and find a recipe for crawfish cornbread she wanted Letitia to have. The author of that recipe, by the way, a man named Big Lou, is serving a life sentence in Louisiana’s Angola prison. But he was Cokie’s friend, too.

And then there was Judith, another nurse who had two small children at home and was pregnant with a third. Cokie kept bugging her: “Judith, I want to see pictures of those children!” And in the last hours of the last day that Cokie was conscious, Judith finally relented and showed Cokie the photos on her phone.

Cokie’s face just lit up with that incandescent smile we all have loved for so long. “Judith,” she exclaimed, “what beautiful children.” And the two embraced.

That moment captured the Cokie I’ll remember most. Caring about someone else. Helping them feel good about themselves. Opening her heart and her arms and making the world around her a better, brighter place.

What a beautiful smile. What a beautiful spirit. What a beautiful life.

(Steven Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)