Elena Maud Cooke was born on December 16, 1922 in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur, to a Ceylonese Burgher family (Burghers are Eurasians descended from Portuguese, Dutch, British and other European men who settled in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, and married the local women). Her name is synonymous with Bukit Bintang Girls' School (BBGS) where she spent 50 years — first, as a student, then as a teacher and, eventually, as headmistress. “Miss Cooke”, as she was known to generations of BBGS girls, was the first Malaysian and longest serving headmistress of the school which became one of the premier girls’ schools in the country.
Her father, Eric William Cooke, after being refused permission to join the Navy by his doctor father John, boarded a boat without the knowledge of his parents and sailed off from Ceylon to Malaya.
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur, he stayed with his aunt, Maud Eunice Cooke, who was married to Marcus Theobald Foenander, an apothecary at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital who had left Ceylon to settle in Kuala Lumpur. He then managed to get a job as a government engineering surveyor which took him all over the untrekked parts of Malaya.
Eric fell in love with his cousin, Elsa Mary Foenander, and the two were married in 1918. They bought land on a hill in Sungei Besi where they built their own house. Their first child, Evan, was born in 1920. Elena was born two years later. Three boys followed — Rex, who died when he was two, Harold and Cecil. Margaret Eunice was born in 1935.
The Cookes were Brethren and members of the Venning Road Chapel which became known as Jalan Imbi Chapel when it relocated to Jalan Imbi.
In 1928, Elena enrolled in the Chinese Girls’ School which was renamed Bukit Bintang Girls’ School after it moved to Bukit Bintang Road in 1930.
In 1938, the year of Elena’s Senior Cambridge, tragedy struck. A telegram arrived from the east coast bearing news that her father had died from black water fever due to much time spent in the swamps on his job. Almost paralysed with shock, the family went into mourning.
It was a long time before Elena snapped out of her numbness, prompted by Miss Mary Glasgow, a teacher at BBGS, who gently but firmly reminded her that if her father were alive, he would be very sad and disappointed to see that she was not making an effort to do well in the final examinations. Elena, who was then head girl of the school, threw herself back into her studies and did brilliantly in the examinations.
Elena went to the University of Hong Kong as a medical student but World War II interrupted her studies. Miraculously, she was able to return to Malaya via Canton. Together with some friends, she boarded a troop ship to Bangkok. From there, they sailed to Singgora in Thailand in a tongkang or wooden boat, with only a tarpaulin over their heads for shelter. They then boarded a bus to Haadyai (Hat Yai) before getting on a train to Alor Star and, finally, a bus to Kuala Lumpur.
The family endured hardship during the war. The Japanese seized their car, food was scarce and they all fell ill with malaria. Evan, the eldest, was struck with blindness and passed away in 1946.
In 1945, BBGS reopened. To help her mother support the family, Elena joined the teaching staff at a salary of $60. Thus began her teaching career in BBGS. Miss Glasgow had survived the internment camp and returned to the school in 1946 as the principal. When Mrs Cooke moved to Ipoh with the family, Miss Glasgow invited Elena to live with her. Elena took on her responsibilities with characteristic thoroughness and dedication. Her creative approach to teaching opened up a new world for young minds. A perfectionist, she demanded very high standards.
Elena’s brilliant mind and dedicated service was recognised when she was awarded a scholarship for further studies by the Department of Education. In 1953, she set sail for Belfast and spent the next 3½ years in intensive study. After graduating from Queen’s University with Upper Second Class Honours in geography, she was working on her PhD in 1957 when she was called to return to Kuala Lumpur to help in the school.
Miss Glasgow was due for retirement and in 1958, at the age of 36, Elena Cooke was installed as the 10th principal of BBGS. A new era for the school began. The enrolment grew from 520 to 2,038 by 1977 under her outstanding and distinguished leadership.
Miss Cooke wrote that when she was appointed principal of BBGS — a position she never wanted and which filled her with fear — a verse from the school song became her prayer:
Father in heaven who lovest all,
O help Thy children when they call
That they may build from age to age
An undefiled heritage.
“One never cries out to God in vain — His ear is ever bent low to hear our feeblest cry and He enabled me through those difficult early years and then the challenging years that followed. Mistakes were made and hard lessons learnt.”
She started many of the societies and clubs that developed the leadership skills of the girls — the literary and debating society, geographical society, Christian Union, St John Ambulance Brigade Corps, and the choir and choral speaking competition. She helped with the first issue of the school magazine, initiated the practice of having house-parties and of taking girls out on excursions. She also began work on the library.
The many buildings whose facilities added much to the growth of the school were the result of her tremendous drive and energy. Under her guidance, staff, parents, students, friends and old girls pulled together through fun fairs, food sales and generous donations to put up the Lee Kuo Chuan Hall, physics laboratory, canteen block, library extension, and acquired the spacious athletics field. Her interest in gardening expressed itself in the beautiful surroundings that every BBGS girl was privileged to enjoy. Indeed, her name was “inscribed on the walls and corridors of BBGS”.
At the same time, character and personality development were instilled in every pupil. School rules were made and enforced to teach truth, honesty, integrity, courtesy and consideration of others before self, the importance of cleanliness and orderliness in practical daily living, and a “delight in simple things”. She lived by every precept that she taught. Girl after girl was called up to her office for breaking the rules, only to discover later that they had been helped with a deeper problem that had caused their misdemeanours.
Aside from BBGS, she actively served on the Juvenile Court and the Audio-Visual Aids Committee under the Ministry of Education. She founded the Teachers’ Christian Fellowship, was chairman of the Malayan Christian Schools’ Council, member of the Geography Syllabus Committee and chief examiner for Geography for the Lower Certificate of Education Examination. She was also a member of the Association for Retarded Children, the Association for the Deaf and Dumb, and the Little Peoples’ Association.
In 1961, she was one of four heads invited for a six-week visit to educational institutions in Britain. She was also actively involved in Christian work, speaking at various school and ladies’ meetings, and was a deaconess of Jalan Imbi Chapel.
Miss Cooke read widely, enjoyed gardening and was artistic, especially in calligraphy. Naturally gifted with musical ability, she delighted many an audience with her lovely soprano voice. She took courses in the basics of speech training, from which sprang her love for choral speaking. The choral speaking competition ran in BBGS for many years and was responsible for the excellent elocution of BBGS girls. It was later made into a national competition.
In 1977 when she retired, she was awarded the KMN (Kesatria Mangku Negara), a federal award from the King, for her excellent service and dedication to the field of education in Malaysia. She had received her first award, the AMN (Ahli Mangku Negara), from the then King, in 1970.
At the close of a career of notable achievements in 1977, students, teachers, parents and friends knew that they had come into contact with someone great. They knew that the flashing smile, the radiant personality, the selfless giving and the intense caring of Miss Cooke was deeply rooted in her absolute and total commitment to the God in whom she believed.
When Miss Cooke retired from active teaching, she continued to teach Bible Knowledge at her home until she was 80, despite battling cancer.
At the end of 1999, BBGS was demolished to make way for the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall. A new school was built in Taman Shamelin Perkasa in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, and renamed SMK Seri Bintang Utara. But it ceased to be a mission school, much to the sorrow of its alumni.
On August 4, 2009, the BBGS Old Girls’ Association held a grand reunion in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur to launch the Elena Cooke Education Fund with Miss Cooke as the guest of honour. The scholarship fund was set up in her honour to enable needy young people to pursue higher education.
On May 2, 2012, Miss Cooke had her final promotion to glory at age 90. Just as with the apostle Paul, she could say, “The God whose I am and whom I serve… stood by me.”
Yap Kok Keong, then chairman of the Malayan Christian Schools’ Council, in a tribute to Miss Cooke, said, “She was a role model for generations of Christian teachers in this country. She saw her profession clearly as a calling and a mission and gave it her all. She encouraged her students to become teachers… She had a powerful influence in education, not only on the students and teachers in her school, but also fellow principals and senior education officials as well. This was because she spoke out unhesitatingly, with clarity and boldness, for what is good and right in education especially in defence of students and teachers.”
- ^ Elena Cooke, “Seeking Nothing but the Best (Part 2)” in the BBGS Centenary Magazine, May 1993. Reproduced in “Back to BBGS” blog, October 7, 2007, http://www.back2bbgs.blogspot.com/2007/10/miss-cookes-story-part-2.html.
- ^ Yap Kok Keong, “Remembering Elena Cooke” in Diakonia, May/June 2013.https://www.cbsm.com.my/site/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/e-Diakonia-2013.pdf.