Cook paints bright future with gold
Spencer Cook remembers painting his Tonka truck toys, and at age 10, graduating to painting flames on his father's lawn tractor. At 18, he's competing against the country's most accomplished automotive trade students and besting his counterparts.
The road to a SkillsUSA national gold medal started at the Mid-Coast School of Technology, where classmates competed and the winners qualified for the state final in Bangor. Cook, who took first place at the state level, was the first Midcoast student to win gold and advance to the national contest.
SkillsUSA is a showcase for the nation's best career and technical school students. More than 5,700 students participated in 94 categories last year.
Mike Chaples, a former teacher of Cook's, was an integral part of Cook's success and motivation to compete. "All last year he tried to get me to go, and I said, 'No, I didn't want to,'" said Cook.
Employed at Phil's Autobody in Warren since October, Cook's experience there prepared and instilled in him the necessary confidence for competition.
"Once I signed up, I got excited," he said, and added that in retrospect, he would have regretted not competing. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Chaples, now retired, taught at Mid-Coast School of Technology for 25 years said it was an honor teaching Cook. "It's been one of the highlights of my life to teach those guys and work in that school," he said.
Chaples also taught MCST teacher Danica Wooster and Phil Nadeau, Cook's boss and owner of Phil's Autobody — a connection that continues to transfer knowledge to young students.
Cook's category, automotive refinishing technology, was one of the final results released at the closing ceremony. Cook recalls waiting "on the edge of my seat all night."
After the bronze and silver winners were announced, Cook thought perhaps he hadn't placed. "I thought I would place, and was expecting to do well, but I wasn't counting on it," he said.
Cook is humble, and his win was a surprise for him.
"People I didn't even know were cheering," he said.
Winning, Cook said, was "crazy, it was something else, I never felt anything like it before."
His family was in the audience in Kansas City for the closing ceremony. "My grandfather is probably my biggest influence," Cook said. His grandfather, Frank Cochran, was always working on cars when Cook was a kid. "Since I was little,10 years old, I was welding," he said. "When I won, he was grinning ear to ear."
Chaples, who stayed up late to watch the results live, received a text message from Cook after he won that said, "I guess we did alright for a small town in Maine, you're the man." The text, Chaples said, "made me melt."
Cook, of Oceanside High School, said he always wanted to attend the vocational school and looked forward to working half the day on projects he was interested in. Cook said autobody work has always been a hobby of his, but he's considering it a career option too. "Apparently I must be good at it," he said.
Chaples said students of the autobody program at MCST learn and do things that professional shops do. "I know we made a difference for some kids," he said. "They discovered a future."
Spoils to accompany Cook's first prize included tools, paint guns, tuition to cover painting courses and a scholarship to attend WyoTech, which has campuses across the country.
Cook said he would prefer to remain in New England to further his education and would like to study paintless dent removal.
Wooster, Cook's teacher at MCST, said he helped acclimate her to the classroom and enjoyed helping other students. She said Cook's achievement was an amazing experience, especially for her first year of teaching.
Wooster said she recognized great talent in Cook and describes him as "very knowledgeable, quick on his feet and passionate," qualities that will allow him to succeed in any chosen field.