Charles R. Cook, computer programmer for the National Federation of the Blind who worked on Braille translation, dies

Charles R. Cook, a National Federation of the Blind computer programmer who designed technological solutions for Braille translation, died of cancer July 2 at Stella Maris Hospice. The South Baltimore resident was 73.

“Charlie was a great person, who number one, was a man who lived life to the fullest and found everything to be an adventure that had to be lived daily,” said Mark A. Riccobono, who since 2014 has been president of the National Federation of the Blind.

“He was a very friendly and warm person, and when he talked to you, you knew you had his full attention,” Mr. Riccobono said. “He was a smart guy who could look at any situation, give you an opinion on it, and always asked the right critical questions.”

Charles Roundley Cook, son of Albert Cook, and his wife, Elizabeth Cook, who owned an employment agency, was born and raised in Lake Forest, Illinois.

He was a graduate of Lake Forest Academy and was 19 years old when he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from Mount Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Illinois. He did graduate studies at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Cook left Chicago in 1969 and moved to Wyoming, and then to Boise, Idaho, with his wife, the former Judy Tucker, whom he married that year. In the early 1970s, he taught himself computing and worked for a marketing firm, and then moved to Santa Monica, California, when he took a job with Universal Studios.

He returned to Boise and then went to work for a bank writing computer programs. After leaving the bank, he established Inline Computing, a computer consulting firm, and Carlson and Cook.

In 1979, Mr. Cook came to Baltimore after being hired by the National Federation of the Blind to work at its headquarters in the city’s Riverside neighborhood. He was given the task of writing one of the first computer programs to translate digital text into Braille.

“This was an urgent need at the time because the NFB had received a grant to provide job information to blind and deafblind people,” according to an NFB profile of Mr. Cook. “A recorded bulletin over the telephone would work for the blind but not the deafblind, so Charlie created the means for the information to be produced in Braille. His program NFBTrans, was later made available for free to anyone who needed it.”

Wrote Christopher S. Danielsen, NFB’s director of public relations: “Using it helped me through law school and I know that’s only one countless example of its use.”

Mr. Cook “went on to create other early programs designed to work with the text-to-speech technology, which was only just starting to emerge, so that blind staff at our office could work with the computer system,” Mr. Danielsen wrote. “It’s important to note that there was not commercially available computer technology for the blind at that time. He also mentored other blind programmers and through all of that work established himself as an early pioneer of digital accessibility.”

Gary Wunder, who is blind, and worked for 31 years as a computer programmer at the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia, Missouri, before retiring in 2014, vastly benefited from Mr. Cook’s work.

“What was so cool about Charlie was that he gave the blind the same kind of computer access that sighted people had,” said Mr. Wunder, who is the editor of The Braille Monitor, the NFB’s magazine, and lives in Columbia, Missouri.

“He developed the technology and made it work and he’d tell software manufacturers this is what you need to make,” he said. “I’m blind and I have the same efficient and full computer access as a sighted person. It’s not just only about how you feel about yourself, but it enables you to get and do a job and earn the same pay as a sighted person, and not have to tell an employer, ‘Well, I can do a little bit of this job,‘ no, you can do the whole job.”

Mr. Cook had not retired at his death.

“Charlie put his heart and soul into working it out,” Mr. Riccobono said. “He also had many interests that he liked sharing with others whether it was his knowledge, technology knowledge or even a book. He loved sharing with others.”

Said Mr. Wunder: “He was not just another chip head. That’s what he did for a living. He had many interests. Charlie was a Renaissance man.”

In addition to his professional life, Mr. Cook was a musician, gourmet cook, oenophile and neighborhood activist.

During the 1980s, Mr. Cook organized a people-oriented band to protest job cuts and rate hikes and celebrate Baltimore at the City Fair.

An accomplished folk musician, he was a founding member of the Idaho Folklore Society when he lived in Boise. A self-taught musician, he mastered the hammered dulcimer, concertina, harmonica, pennywhistle, banjo and bagpipes.

“He played the hammered dulcimer at brunch at the Admiral Fell Inn and the banjo at Bertha’s and the Cat’s Eye Pub in Fells Point,” his daughter, Karyn Chisholm of Canton, said. “He was a very smart and intelligent man.”

For years, he was a well-known street busker in Fells Point who dressed in a striped vest and railroad engineer’s hat, and could often be found in front of the China Sea Marine Trading Co. on the Ann Street wharf, playing his concertina and banjo while talking to owners Steve Bunker and Sharon Bondroff, and their parrots.

“He was a frenzied collector — when something struck his imagination he would read and research tirelessly, and scrounge paycheck-to- paycheck to acquire just the right piece,” his son-in-law, Steve Chisholm, wrote in a sketch of Mr. Cook.

“After a gift of a Yoshitoshi print from a former wife Bess, he became a minor authority on the 100 Aspects of the Moon print series, eventually acquiring as many as 30 fine examples of the pressings,” he wrote. “He went on a similar journey in collecting African masks, and could wax eloquently on the specific tribal traditions and ceremonial uses of any of the dozens of venerable carvings he acquired and displayed.”

In his kitchen, Mr. Cook made meals using wild game and prepared sweetbreads. “He’d spend bustling hours in the kitchen preparing sauces and morsels; the only help he would accept: frequent refills of his glass from a fine wine in his collection,” Mr. Chisholm wrote.

“He was not a great traveler. Instead, he could find depth and breadth of experience in place — on the streets of Baltimore, in the world of books or in the ones and zeroes of technology,” he wrote.

Due to COVID-19 pandemic, plans for a celebration-of-life gathering are incomplete.

In addition to his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. Cook is survived by two brothers, Stephen Cook of Silver Spring and Frederick Cook of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia; a sister, Carolyn Cook of Glendale, California; and six grandchildren. Marriages to the former Judy Tucker, Lorinda Riddle and Elizabeth Garrett ended in divorce, and at the time of his death, he was separated from the former Shirley Johnson.


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