Harry Cook is retiring as president and CEO of Behavioral Health Services North.
PLATTSBURGH — Serving people is a privilege, says Harry Cook.
“It’s all about learning how to solve problems,” said the president and CEO of Behavioral Health Services North. “We all have problems and issues we struggle with in life.”
After spending a career delving into some of the most personal and painful aspects of people’s lives, examining mental illness and dysfunction and working toward healing people, Cook
Cook is retiring from his role at BHSN.
“I am turning 66 and this is demanding,” he said. “I am not getting enough exercise, and I love the outdoors.
“I want to take a breather and rebalance my life.”
BHSN has over 14 sites which comprise its 25 programs and is a leader in the North Country in providing behavioral healthcare for children, adults, families and organizations.
Cook, passionate about social studies, history, archaeology and anthropology, majored in sociology at Penn State, graduating while the Vietnam War, which he was against, raged on.
Cook joined what is today Americorps and drove to New York City to volunteer in East Harlem amid much political chaos and dissent. He worked with a small group organizing tenants to purchase the building they lived in.
Cook worked on the project for a year, spending time on a violent block and also delving into healthcare organizing.
Next, Cook worked in a maximum security psychiatric hospital as a rehabilitation therapist.
“That was a great experience.”
The population included individuals who had committed horrific acts, as well as inmates who became mentally ill while serving time in prison.
He became interested in mental health and attended Rutgers, earning a master’s degree in social work within a clinical program.
Cook became one of the early people to get involved with cognitive and behavioral therapy.
He completed an internship in Newark during riots and found himself a “drop of white in a bucket of black.”
Then he entered the public school system in suburban New Jersey, work he enjoyed, though Cook wanted to stretch himself.
He moved to the North Jersey Shore, spending time as a clinician in a mental health center in an upscale community.
At the Children’s Psychiatric Center Community Mental Health Center, Cook did pre-vocational programming for a couple years and ran groups around pragmatic learning.
“These were kids who had historically been institutionalized.”
So he started with after school chores.
“I can remember teaching kids how to mop floors in an organized way.”
Cook was offered a job developing specialized children’s services in the rapidly growing Jersey Shore area, starting as director of children’s services. He started a day treatment program and a school for adolescents with severe mental illnesses.
At 37, he took over as CEO of the agency, doing budgets by hand for a time after the financial department was wiped out.
Meanwhile, Cook got married, and when his oldest reached school age, he realized he didn’t want to bring up his children there.
“I wanted to get back to a more rural area.”
He saw the position for president and ceo in the New York Times for what is now Behavioral Health Services North and headed north for an interview.
Cook knew instantly he wanted to raise his family in the area, and when he was offered the job he took it, despite a 20 percent cut in salary.
That was 1989, and today, his youngest is graduating from college, another graduated from Clinton Community College, a third is working on a doctorate and a fourth wants to enter public service.
His wife teaches special education locally.
BHSN has flourished during Cook’s tenure with a recent expansion of adult services at the newly renovated Center for Well Being facility on Route 22B in Morrisonville.
“We have developed a lot of programming that is consistent with local values,” Cook said.
His retirement is effective the beginning of 2013.
A regional search is bring conducted for a new president and ceo.
“We want to thank Harry for his tenure as CEO of BHSN as it has grown and strengthened under his leadership in its services to our North Country residents,” said Dr. Raymond Domenico, Chair of the BHSN Board of Directors. “Our hope is to find a successor as equally caring and experienced as Harry, who shares our future-focused vision and our mission to strengthen individuals, families and community life with our multiplicity of services.”
Cook said he leaves as the healthcare environment rapidly changes.
One of the issues that has driven Cook personally is the fact that people with any kind of vulnerability living in rural areas have higher rates of problems than those in suburban areas.
There are real challenges in rural areas, he said, especially access to services.
Much of the work requires a willingness to step back from one’s self to work around an issue.
“It draws you out of yourself and gets you up every day,” Cook said.
The economy also increases the difficulty of the work. Money is tight and with funding cuts, employees have not received raises in four years.
He has enjoyed the work and the challenges and is eager to hand it off to someone else.
“My wife says I owe her 30 years of backlogged housework,” Cook said.