The Watchdog: A watchdog tends to the meaning of life at a historic Texas cemetery

For the last half century, Jack Cook prepared for the day he would die. He thought about it, he prayed about it, and more than anything else, he tenderly cared for the sacred and historic cemetery grounds in which he knew he would spend eternity.

The land is Lonesome Dove Cemetery in Southlake, and it serves as the final resting place for some of the original settlers, including early government and church leaders who began arriving in the 1840s.

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Cook served as president of the Regular Lonesome Dove Cemetery Association, which meets once a year and is probably the oldest institution in Tarrant County. More than that, he designated himself the official caretaker of the grounds. He and that Cub tractor. The reason for this speaks of Texas.

Caretaker1

[Image courtesy of The Dallas Morning News]

If there’s one little piece of land that shows the meaning of life, not death, it’s ironically this patch of Southlake cemetery land, a century away from the bustle of a place that’s now a boomtown. A quiet 2.3-acre square that hardly looks important because only a few of its original tombstones survive.

For 166 years, Lonesome Dove Cemetery and landmark Lonesome Dove Baptist Church, one of the earliest churches, have existed side by side, one feeding the other. And yes, that’s where Larry McMurtry borrowed the name for his classic Western tale. But unlike Woodrow F. McCall and Gus McCrae, Jack Cook is real.

There are watchdogs for banks and watchdogs for government. But there are also watchdogs for the land, and in Texas that ought to be a most sacred duty.

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[Photo by Dave Lieber]

Jack’s ties to the land go back to his relatives, who arrived in the Grapevine area in 1849. But his connection to the cemetery was burned into his soul in the early 1950s when both his wife of 10 years, Corrine, and his son, Tommy, who was 2, died in a house fire. After they were buried at The Dove, Jack staked out graves for himself and other family members. Then he spent the next five decades learning every blade of grass around them up to the fence on all sides.

He took on all the duties of caretaking. Folks kept asking if he wanted help. He always turned them down. He was in his 70s, then 80s, then 90s. He never wanted pay. He didn’t talk about the fire. Instead, he mowed.

“Nobody has as much invested in it as I do,” he explained.

“This is my life. I was born here. My grandparents, parents, wife and child are buried here — and aunts and uncles galore. Half of all the people in this cemetery were kin to me some way or another.”

Twenty years ago, at age 76, he was asked once again if he wanted a break.

“I hope to be able to do this for many more years. I enjoy it. It’s not hard. I used to mow it and weed it all in one day. Now I stretch it out over two.”

The next year, at age 77, he was still good to go. “One of these days, I’m not going to be doing this,” he said. “What I have is terminal. Old age.”

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Two years after that, when Jack was 79, another man was allowed to come aboard. Mark Tucker, 40 years younger than Jack, lost his 4-year-old daughter, Emily, in a 1996 car accident. The cemetery doesn’t do much business anymore, not with 1,700 graves crammed into those 2 acres. But somehow Mark found Jack and The Dove.

Jack found room for Emily’s gravesite. He also counseled Mark. One grieving father to another. You never stop being sad, Jack explained, but then there’s this land.

Mark understood. “I’ll do anything that you need me to do, sir. Anytime you need me to do it.”

For once, Jack said yes. After that, it became the Jack and Mark Team. For the same reason. When Mark was offered an out-of-state job, he wouldn’t go. “I’m staying right here,” he said, pointing at that ground.

Ten years ago, Jack was 86 and mowing away when he found a gravesite for a mother. At the next meeting, with the grave still fresh, the mother’s surviving 14-year-old boy was in attendance. An odd sight. But that night, the meaning was passed from Jack to Mark to the boy, and the boy responded.

“I don’t mind coming over here to help,” he offered to Mark the way Mark had offered to Jack.

“Come over anytime,” Mark said.

“How did your daughter die?”

“Car wreck. And your mom?”

“She got sick.”

The boy looked away for a moment and asked, “When does she, uh, change?”

“Think about what God has planned and go with that.”

“OK,” the boy said quietly.

“And remember,” Mark said, “this is the most peaceful place on earth.”

A few years later, Jack was 93 when Southlake issued an official proclamation and held Jack Cook Day in honor of his work at the cemetery. He stepped down as president the next year because he had difficulty keeping track of the agenda. He was 94.

On Oct. 9, at age 96, Horace Weldon “Jack” Cook found that peace he sought for so long. Two days later, his funeral was held at the church, then his enormous family, which includes 10 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren, gathered around that special space.

Mark was there for the burial. He remembered the years he and Jack were a team. “One year rolled into the other,” he said, telling the story of this place.

With the coffin about to be lowered, retired church pastor Coy Quesenbury said, “Nobody deserves a plot in this cemetery more than Jack did.”

Considering who is buried there, that says a lot. A watchdog for the land, in the most peaceful place on earth.

Coming Sunday: The death of a con man

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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Who owns Oasis Getaway travel club?

Almost every day, married couples walk into Steve Cosgrove’s travel agency and ask about free cruise and plane tickets in exchange for listening to a sales presentation. But Cosgrove and his staff not only tell them that they are in the wrong place but also warn them that they are going to the wrong place.

Couples see Cosgrove’s Dynamic Travel sign outside his building in an upscale Southlake business park, but they are looking for Oasis Getaway, a 6-month-old travel club whose sales office is tucked in a hard-to-find corner of the campus.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Oasis Getaway sells club memberships for thousands of dollars to people who receive mailings offering free travel tickets. (Read Watchdog Nation’s first report on the Oasis Getaway company here.

 Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

Cosgrove noticed that the mailings displayed logos from well-known cruise companies in place of the company’s own name and return address. The travel agent, whose company has been in business for 30 years, says he complained to three cruise lines. Each ordered Oasis to stop.

After I described an Oasis Getaway sales presentation I attended with my wife (couples are required) in a recent Watchdog column, Cosgrove hung the column on his office wall. Now when couples come to the wrong place, Cosgrove says, he shows them the column and says, “Watch your wallet.”

For this, Cosgrove received a warning letter from a law firm hired by Oasis Getaway’s owners. “Dynamic’s premeditated defamation and disparagement has already caused significant monetary losses to Oasis,” Dallas lawyer Delwin E. Hervey wrote to him.

Cosgrove says he isn’t doing anything wrong.

Hervey, a lawyer who represents Oasis, told me the travel club has many benefits and operates in full compliance with Texas laws. His favorite benefit, he said, is that “clients are able to vacation in one-, two- or three-bedroom condos at discounted rates” of $199 to $999 a week.

Oasis customer Tim Haitz of Southlake told me that he joined but couldn’t book the trips he wanted. He spent six hours on the phone trying to book a vacation to “basically any place warm with palm trees.”

He added, “We were shooting for November, then December, and finally January.” He ended up buying his trip package from another company.

Since his cancellation period had passed, he struggled to terminate his $4,000 membership and get a refund.

But Haitz handled it masterfully. First, he complained to his credit card company, which put a hold on the charge. Then he complained to the Texas attorney general’s office. Five months after his sales session, he received a full refund.

Lawyer Hervey says the company’s contract allows each customer to cancel within the first five days and receive half of his or her money back.

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Customer Chad Gibson of Roanoke told me that after he paid $3,300, he tried to book trips but the travel dates and restrictions were too severe. He said that the sales session was high-pressure and that the staff led him to believe that he could plan his trips well in advance.

Later, he said, he discovered that the best deals were for trips less than two weeks away. He said he was also told that the program offered discounts at hotels nationwide, but he discovered only limited choices.

Three months after his purchase, Gibson continues to negotiate for a refund.

The company lawyer says that if anyone has a problem, “please let me know who they are so that Oasis Getaway can investigate their claim.”

Oasis lists only two top executives or “managers” on its Texas incorporation papers. One is Thanh “Tony” Q. Nguyen, 43, a Dallas-area businessman who the company lawyer says “enjoys working in the industry and helping Oasis Getaway’s clients and their families take vacations that they might otherwise not afford.”

Nguyen did not respond to a written request for an interview.

The other manager listed with the Texas secretary of state is Linh C. Dinh, 40, who has homes in Las Colinas and in Duluth, Ga. He owns other travel clubs and has been in business for more than a decade.

Dinh’s largest company is Vacation Network. It used to operate in Houston and Austin, but its state business license expired last month, records show. Vacation Network also operated out of Arizona and Nevada from 2008 to 2010 but lost its business licenses in those states, too.

Dinh declined an interview request.

Dinh is listed as owner of his other companies but as manager for Oasis. Hervey says Oasis “is an independent business entity and has no connection with Vacation Network.”

No connection — except for Dinh serving as a top officer for both.

Vacation Network has had troubles. In 2007, Dinh settled charges of trade and commerce violations in Georgia, agreeing to pay $160,000 in penalties and $35,000 in costs, state records show.

The Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs accused Dinh’s companies of misleading customers about the location of travel destinations, not allowing refunds and cancellations, asking customers to pay $249 for promised free tickets, lying to customers about how the business worked and using others’ logos to indicate partnerships that did not exist.

The company denied the charges but agreed to pay the penalty.

On the complaint, Georgia authorities listed Vacation Network and three other companies for which Dinh is either owner or CEO: Augusta Reservations Systems, Premiere Vacation Systems and Vacation Reservation Systems. He signed the voluntary agreement. As part of that, 43 Georgia customers received refunds of $700 to $7,200.

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Read more about Oasis Getaway here.

Read more about travel clubs in the popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. The award-winning book shows you how to fight back — and win! The new 2012 edition is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit our store. The book won two national book awards for social change. 

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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