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Bill Cook, French Lick and a Billionaire Giving Back

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In my bestselling book, Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers, and What to Do When You Win the Lottery, I note that the only wealthy people who are truly happy are those who give back to their communities.

Lots of rich people talk the talk but the late billionaire Bill Cook was one who truly made a difference.

By opening a resort and casino.

Cook was a self-made billionaire, who lived in Bloomington Indiana and made his money in the medical device business.

He was totally unknown outside of the state of Indiana and liked it that way. The Bill Cook Story, a biography by Bob Hammel gives insight into a billionaire who danced to a different drummer. He had hobbies like driving his friend John Mellencamp's tour bus. He invented his first medical device in a small apartment, moved to a small house and stayed in the house for the rest of his life. He didn't get a garage until late in life when they made him quit parking his cars on the street.

Cook didn't spend much on housing so the irony is that he sunk his money into the ultimate real estate white elephant. The West Baden and French Lick Hotels in French Lick Indiana.

The West Baden had been a historic landmark fallen on hard times and literally falling apart. The French Lick Hotel was also long in the tooth and the local unemployment rate in pre-recession 1996, shortly before the resort opened, was over 20%.

It was a dead facility in a dying town before Bill Cook ponied up millions to bring both the resort and city back to life. All in the pursuit of historic preservation and jobs for the community.

I found out about Bill Cook at an unusual time: my honeymoon.

I was married on June 9 and chose the West Baden hotel for a honeymoon as it was a two and a half drive from my house and my wife had to cut the vacation to four days to speak at an International Education Reform Symposium.

I had been to French Lick but never West Baden but she had been to neither. She was a little disappointed that we didn't fly to a more exotic honeymoon destination, until she got to the West Baden. Now she wants to go back every weekend.

It's hard to do better than the French Lick experience. We let them know it was our honeymoon and they gave us a huge suite with a balcony overlooked what that had been the largest indoor dome in the world, 60 years before the Astrodome was built.

Both hotels had the beauty and splendor of a European grand hotel.The service and the restaurants, especially the 1875 steak restaurant was outstanding and reasonably priced. The resort has three golf courses with two (one designed by Pete Dye, another by Donald Ross) considered tops in the nation. It has a large casino but one of the rare resorts where you can avoid the casino easily if it is not what you are into.

Who I kept running into at West Baden was the ghost of Bill Cook.

Many of the employees at both hotels seemed to be history buffs and several had been at the resort since it re-opened in 2007. They all kept quoting or mentioning, "Mr. Cook," with personal affection and reverence. Finally, Clarence, a bellman, filled me in on Mr. Cook, Cook's history and his total devotion to making West Baden and French Lick world class hotels.

Clarence, who like all longtime employees knew Mr. Cook well, got me to buy the Bill Cook Story and spent nearly an hour telling me about Cook's philosophies.

One that struck me in particular was Cook's idea that helping a person find a job was the most important thing you could do. It gave the job recipient self-esteem, it gave them a way to support themselves and support their families, it gave them hope and a chance to plan for the future.

Most of the jobs in the French Lick area are related to the resorts that Cook restored to their original glory. The jobs are held by people proud, skilled and glad to have them.

Bill Cook didn't get into the West Baden and French Lick projects to make money. He had all money he needed and hotels looked like white elephants. He got involved to preserve an historic property and make it a destination point.

One that I plan to visit as often as I can.

Bill Cook used his money to make a difference. When you are looking for models on how to be rich, forget about Donald Trump and pick up the book on Bill Cook.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the bestselling author of the books Son of a Son of a Gambler: Winners, Losers and What to Do When You Win the Lottery and Wealth Without Wall Street. McNay, who lives in Richmond, Ky., is an award-winning financial columnist and Huffington Post contributor. You can learn more about him at www.donmcnay.com.