Shirley thought Airman 3rd class was 1st class

* Shirley Cookman first met the tall US Airman at a dance, a year later they went on their first date and four months they wed leading the 46 1/2 years of marriage to Tom Cheek. Photo: Milo Stewart, Jr. Baseball Hall of Fame. ....  MLB, Brewers open workouts 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors  2013 Canadian collegians playing summer ball 2013 Canadians in College  Letters of Intent


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By Bob Elliott

COOPERSTOWN -- The first time young Shirley Cookman saw the tall airman was at an American Legion dance in Plattsburg, N.Y.

He was the skinny guy with his short friends.

Sitting at the edge of the dance floor, Shirley turned to friends, Elsie and Beverley, who had made the drive south from Henrysburg, Que. and said over the noise of the live band:

“Look at him, he thinks he’s God’s gift to women, chin pointed up, surveying the crowd. He looks like he thinks he’s pretty important.”

A year later the two -- young Shirley Cookman and young Tom Cheek -- went on their first date ... in a way.

Cheek phoned up six girls and invited them to the 1958 New Year’s Eve dance at the Saxony Hotel in Grosse Point, Vt.

“We were all on a party line then, he didn’t think we’d all say yes, it started out as a prank,” said the woman known as Saint Shirley. “He had to call his friends to bail him out.”

Cheek took turns dancing with one girl, then the next.

“He was a perfect gentleman, it just so happened, he and I were dancing when his five buddies showed, so Tom and I started talking,” said Shirley.

Four months later they wed, Cheek, 19 and Shirley, 21.

Soon the U.S. Air Force sent Airman Third Class Cheek to the Strategic Air Command in Morocco for a year as a teletype operator. Cheek’s father, also named Tom, was a World War II fighter pilot in the Battle of Midway in 1942. Flying a F4F Wildcat, he shot down three Japanese Zeros.

Navy bell bottoms never appealed to Cheek.

It may have had a short courtship, but the marriage lasted 46 1/2 years until Cheek died Oct. 14, 2005, at age 66.

The love for Tom Cheek continues Saturday afternoon when Shirley accepts the Ford C. Frick award for her late husband.

Blue Jays fans love affair for their broadcaster has never ended as indicated by the Ontario plates spotted on the highway, like two years ago when Robbie Alomar and Pat Gillick were inducted.

No less than 45 grand kids, nieces, nephews and cousins relatives, from Manitoba, New York, Vermont, Pensacola, Fla. and Charlotte, N.C. will be there rooting for Cheek, including Tom’s sister Linda (his sister Elizabeth can’t make the trip).

A total of 40 Hall of Famers are expected on stage behind Saint Shirley, along with former Blue Jays Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, Alomar and Gillick.

“I’m not there for me,” said Shirley. “I’m there for our children. All were wed in the off season, we never had a summer vacation together.”

The Cheek children -- Lisa Olsen of Waterdown, Tom, Jr. of Woodford, Va., and Jeff, from Waxhaw, N.C. -- went through their father’s 27-year, consecutive-game streak will be there with their kids.

In the late 1970s, on the Canadian Thanksgiving Shirley and Tom visited Cooperstown when the village was pretty much deserted.

Cheek covered Hall of Fame ceremonies for Vermont radio in the 1960-70s staying at the Fly Creek motel, four miles west on Route 28.

This weekend Shirley will stay in the same hotel as the Hall of Famers.

“I was being interviewed the other day, someone asked me what I was thinking, what Tom would be thinking,” said Shirley. “I got so emotional, I thought I was going to break down,”

Shirley’s grandfather moved from Quebec to California in the late 1800s not for the gold rush but to chop down trees at Mount Shasta. The family returned to Quebec when Shirley’s father was five.

Alfred Cookman, a dairy farmer, with an apple orchard, was mayor of Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. on Route 9 between Montreal and Champlain, N.Y. At election time he made the rounds, farm to farm.

“Who are we supposed to vote for Mr. Cookman?” the’d ask.

Shirley’s father was Progressive Conservative told them who to vote for, some farmers signing with X and a witnessed.

Shirley, who had two older sisters Ruth and Ethel, attended a one-room school which went to grade 7 with 12 classmates.

“The school teacher -- Norah Bell Upton -- lived with us, so I never missed,” she said. “The only time we didn’t walk the 2 1/2 miles was when my father had his car on blocks, he’d put us in the sleigh and cover us with buffalo hides for the ride,” said Shirley.

Later Cookman sold his farm and moved to Hemmingford, Que.

Now Shirley, who didn’t have electricity until age 12, will speak into the mike and her voice will carry from the podium in shallow centre to the third base bleachers and behind home plate.

Fans leaning on the fence down the first base line and the right field line bleachers will hang on every word.

Her voice will carry all the way up to the heavens where her husband will smile.