TAMPA, Fla. – In the late 1960s, the rumor spread throughout the school — the beloved English teacher and yearbook advisor was once the baby whose image still covered glass jars of baby food.
Ann Turner Cook was the Gerber baby.
Turner Cook’s role as the sparkling-eyed, pillow-cheeked mascot was officially confirmed by the company itself in a 1950s court case (after much controversy involving, somehow, Humphrey Bogart, who was rumored to have been the baby) and to the public in 1978. And while the original Gerber baby enjoyed the bit of celebrity that came with the role, she hoped to be remembered for something else.
“She used to say she’d hate to think she peaked at age 8 months,” said daughter Jan Cook.
“She always said ‘What I want to be known as is a great teacher,’” said Lenora Lake-Guidry, who spent three years as Turner Cook’s student in the late ’60s.
Turner Cook was a great teacher, her children and former students agree. Later, she became a mystery writer whose work showed her love for Florida. While her face at its youngest remains fixed in our culture, Turner Cook did the thing babies are supposed to do — she grew up and lived a good and interesting life.
She died June 3 at 95 of natural causes.
Eventually, Turner Cook learned that she needed to devote the first 15 minutes of each new school year at Tampa’s Hillsborough High School to telling her students the story of how she became the face of baby food.
It went something like this:
In 1928, her family lived in Connecticut. The Gerber company was in search of a baby’s face for its product. Artist and family friend Dorothy Hope-Smith used Turner Cook as a model for a charcoal sketch.
Gerber picked it.
The Gerber baby grew up, and in 1947, she married James Cook, a Navy veteran. According to news clippings, she later “received her only compensation for being the Gerber baby.”
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” she told the St. Petersburg Times in 1997. “We paid for college and bought our first car with the money.”
According to Gerber, “The identity of the baby, however, was kept secret for 40 years, until 1978.”
Teacher, creature keeper
What mattered to Turner Cook was her legacy as a teacher, said her son, Cliff Cook.
“She taught Shakespeare probably as good as anybody ever did,” he said.
Turner Cook played records of the Bard’s work in her classroom while her students read along.
“She said that’s the only way you really get a feeling for the drama of his plays.”
The Cooks had four children and always a collection of odd pets, said Jan Cook, including horned toads, sea horses, a rattlesnake, turtles and mice.
“And she welcomed anything the kids brought in through the door.”
Jan Cook remembers her mother outside under the porch light one night, catching bugs in a jar for one of the creatures.
“She was game for anything.”
Turner Cook worked long days and spent her evenings grading papers and tests. And when she worried that an exchange student wasn’t writing home, Turner Cook took up corresponding with his family with updates.
“She was the person who influenced me the most — other than my parents,” former student Lake-Guidry wrote on Facebook after learning of her teacher’s death. “I am so lucky to have known her.”
In 1989, after 26 years as a teacher, Turner Cook retired and did the thing she’d always meant to do — she started writing.
Along with her husband, who’d retired as a criminologist with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Turner Cook traveled to small Florida towns where the settings of her mysteries unfolded.
The lead character in several books, Brandy O’Bannon, was a newspaper reporter. Her adventures took her to Micanopy, Cedar Key and Homosassa. Each book included references and quotes from the great literature Turner Cook taught and loved. She’d discovered, in her 70s, another way to top her early fame.
“Though I feel like queen for a day in my role as the Gerber baby,” she told the Times in 2003, “my greatest satisfaction has been to create a story that others want to read.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.