Figure of Speech

Roger Cook’s passion for history and oratory
has inspired a unique career path

By Jon Shoulders

» During his high school years Roger Cook, 72, received a friendly suggestion from a teacher that set him on a path he is still exploring today. While Cook was a student at Southport High School in Indianapolis, the coach of the debate team saw potential in him and told him it might be worth his while to join the squad.

“It changed my life, because for one thing it taught me how to research, and it taught me the value of rhetoric and clear expression of ideas,” Cook recalls. “I think it inspired me to eventually study speech in college and start my educational video company much later on.”

Cook flourished on Southport’s debate team, earning a debate scholarship to Butler University and eventually transferring to Indiana University, where he earned a master’s degree in speech communication. He taught history at Franklin Central and Warren Central high schools through the 1970s. “I also taught debate and directed plays. Back then if you had taken a three-hour course on a subject you could teach it, so in those days you did everything,” Cook says. “But as time went on I got more and more interested in history.”   

His interests in speech communication and history would eventually converge in 1985 when he founded Educational Video Group, a company that offers DVDs and on-demand videos on subjects such as speech and business communication, women’s studies, political studies and a series of historical speech compilations. The original spark of inspiration for the business again found Cook in a classroom setting — this time as a professor of history and speech at Indiana Central University (now the University of Indianapolis).

“I was lecturing my class on famous speakers from the past and I mentioned Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and in both cases I got these vacant looks from students like they didn’t know who I was talking about. They had no idea,” Cook says. “I realized what a shame that was and realized how much it would help if they could actually see their speeches.”

Cook promptly bought the rights to five speeches, including John F. Kennedy’s inaugural presidential address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and compiled them onto one video, calling the finished product “Great Speeches Volume 1.” “That was the start of the company, and schools all over the country wanted it,” he says. “We didn’t even know if there would be a Volume 2, but we recently finished Volume 29, and we’re now over 30 years into the business since we started back then in 1985.”

The “Great Speeches” series remains EVG’s flagship product, and schools and libraries in countries all over the world, including Japan, Saudi Arabia, France and England, stock materials from the company. Cook and his wife, Susan, also an Indiana University graduate, operate the business out of their Greenwood home with the help of their son, Kevin, 40. The earliest footage Cook has been able to acquire? Calvin Coolidge’s presidential nomination acceptance speech from 1925. “Footage actually goes back quite a ways into the 1880s and 1890s, but film dissolves and deteriorates over time, which is another reason why I think what we’re doing with preserving these speeches is important.”

Harold Rogers, a lifelong southsider and Greenwood resident who has served as program editor and video technician for EVG since 1995, recalls when Cook helped prevent film footage stored at the National Archives and Records Administration from being lost forever.  “He was trying to locate some footage of Franklin Roosevelt, and when he reached out to the National Archives they went to their vaults to pull it and found that a lot of their film was actually degrading, which of course happens to celluloid film over time,” Rogers says. “By his inquiry, they managed to save a lot of historic footage. That’s an important contribution that will go completely unrecognized.”

Cook’s interest in American and world history recently fueled a desire to investigate his family’s past, which in turn led to his first novel, “The Other Side of the Window.” Based on true events he was able to compile about the relationship between his grandfather, a cook during World War I, and grandmother, a Beech Grove native who became a nurse as well as an associate of U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing, the book was published in June through Alistair Press, a division of EVG.

Having found his novel-writing stride in recent years, Cook has two novels yet to be published, one of which was featured in the four-part documentary “Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana,” which was released this year by WFYI Public Media and examines the state’s 200-year history. The novel is based on another true story of love and loss, this time set during the War of 1812 — a period that saw the birth of Indiana’s statehood.

“When we became a state in 1816, most of central and northern Indiana didn’t exist. It was just wild lands,” Cook says. “There were no cities or anything, and the first capital was in Corydon. It wasn’t until much later that they moved it to Indianapolis. It’s also interesting knowing the person who designed Indianapolis, (Alexander) Ralston, helped design Washington, D.C. If you look at the layouts, it’s all circles with spokes going out.”

Rogers stresses the importance of studying historical speeches and language generally, particularly with the rise of social media and what he sees as a declining focus on grammar and composition. ”We’re in the age of sound bites and 140 characters on Twitter,” he says. “I think today everything is focused on just communicating a simple message, whereas with those great orators of the past, it’s hard not to be moved by what they’re saying. So we’ve filled a niche out there that was really necessary.”

Cook looks back on his company’s history with pride as his own historical studies march on. “I got a letter from a professor several years ago who had watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with his class, and he said he had forgotten why he got into his field and then watched that speech and remembered how important public address is. Anything I’ve done that would forward our understanding of history so people could see, so these figures aren’t just names in a book, is valuable. It brings them to life.”

For more information on Educational Video Group Inc. visit