SAN JOSE -- Carl E. Cookson, who as head of Santa Clara Land Title Co. earned a reputation for philanthropy and civic involvement, died at his San Jose home Tuesday after a long illness. He was 81.
Cookson's philanthropy helped establish or support many San Jose institutions including the symphonic orchestra, the arena, the Children's Discovery Museum, the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and the Tech Museum of Innovation.
"He was pretty involved in the redevelopment of San Jose," daughter Cathy Lefeber said. "That was a big part of his life, something he was proud of."
After retiring from the title company more than a decade ago, Cookson remained active with many San Jose institutions including the Silicon Valley Capital Club, History San Jose, the San Jose Repertory Theatre, City Lights Theater Company and Silicon Valley Faces.
"He was extremely active, and a very generous, compassionate human being," said longtime friend Frank Fiscalini, a former San Jose city councilman. "You don't find many Carl Cooksons. He was a very unique person."
When the San Jose Symphony found itself more than $450,000 in debt in 1984 with no hope that ticket sales could make it solvent, Cookson gave his city reason to call him civic booster extraordinaire. Taking a leave of absence from work, Cookson stepped in as executive director of the symphony for six months and mounted a fundraising effort that enabled the organization to make music in the black.
He could take the time off because he owned one of the most successful real estate title companies in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara Land Title Co., and he could count on success with the symphony drive because he had done it before.
The symphony's reboot survived nearly two decades but it ultimately collapsed in bankruptcy in 2002.
"It broke his heart," daughter Cathy recalled. It has since been replaced by Symphony Silicon Valley, founded that year.
San Jose also turned to Cookson when it needed someone to pry loose funds for the Children's Discovery Museum and the Tech Museum of Innovation. And he was co-chairman of the fund-raising committee for the San Jose Arena, now the SAP Center.
Though Cookson did not provide the direct philanthropy of a David Packard Foundation, he had accumulated as long a list of charitable good works and civic leadership as anyone: Boy Scouts of America, Crippled Children's Society, Friends of Guadalupe Park, San Jose Beautiful, HOPE Rehabilitation Services, Santa Clara County Fair Management Corp., San Jose State University Business Alumni Association, Community Partnership of Santa Clara County, Arts Council of Santa Clara County, Giants Stadium Task Force, Halona Foundation, Mexican American Community Services Association, National Conference of Christians and Jews, San Jose Chamber of Commerce, San Jose Development Corp., San Jose Medical Center and San Jose Museum of Art and others.
Cookson gave not only his time, as a director or chairman for the organizations, but also his money. When he stepped in to run the symphony, for example, his company was donating 5 percent of its $9 million in earnings to philanthropic causes, he said in a 1985 interview.
"We had a philosophy of giving money even before we were making money," Cookson said at the time. "It's a line item in our budget, just like rent."
Cookson had reason to cultivate a life of beneficence. He was born in San Jose to a father who worked as a truck driver for Langendorf Bakeries and a mother who was a housemaid. His father died when Carl was 9 and his mother had a problem with alcohol, so he was reared by his sister in Salinas.
After serving in the U.S. Army and studying at Hartnell College, he enrolled at San Jose State, working at American Can Co. and driving a laundry truck for California Cleaners. He obtained his bachelor's degree in business administration in 1957.
Cookson spent 10 years at Valley Title Co., then became a 50-percent partner in Santa Clara Land Title Co. In 1986, he bought out partner Wayne Hone.
The company grew into at times the second largest title company in the valley, and then in 1997, Cookson sold to the Denver-based United Title Cos. Group. United is the largest title agency in the United States. With another acquisition in 1998, Cookson became chairman of Financial Title, part of the United group.
"He was a hard worker, very committed to his work," Fiscalini recalled. "People loved him, and he reciprocated."
Born: Sept. 8, 1932, San Jose, Calif.
Died: April 29, 2014, San Jose, Calif.
Survived by: Wife, Sharron of San Jose; son, Carl P. Cookson, and daughters Cathy Lefeber, Chris Prodis, and Cary Colleran, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.