Eight years ago, Anita Fleck-Cooke, who serves as an artillery commander during Washington Crossing Historic Park’s reenactments, invited several other reenactors back to her home for dinner after the Christmas crossing.
Last year, the site shifted to the Mahlon K. Taylor House in the park’s Historic Village. That building better accommodated the 38 people who attended.
“We call it the ‘Island of Misfit Toys Christmas Dinner,’ since so many of us are away from our families for Christmas dinner,” Anita says.
The event underscores the close-knit relationships among the people who animate the park today. It’s also one example of many where Anita is at the center of the action.
“Her passion and energy are contagious,” says Jennifer Martin, Executive Director of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park. “Several new volunteers have gotten involved over the years because of it.”
Of course, Anita does much more for the park than fire the cannons, but it would probably be easier to describe what she doesn’t do around the park.
That’s why she’s the Friends of Washington Crossing Park’s Volunteer of the Year for 2019.
“Whether as a reenactor, a narrator for the crossing, an educator, or an ambassador, Anita’s proven to be an incredible supporter of the park and its history,” Jennifer says.
Anita’s sister’s boyfriend invited her to join them at Washington’s birthday party nearly four decades ago, back when it was an adult-oriented affair. He even rented her a costume. That was her first taste of life as a reenactor. “And I loved it,” she says. “I had so much fun.”
Later, in 1997, Anita brought her six-year-old son to an encampment at the park. The two of them began their tenures as reenactors at the park shortly thereafter. She describes seeing him cross the river in Washington’s boat as one of her proudest moments as a mother.
“I also met my husband at the park. I outrank him,” Anita says with a laugh. (Her husband, Denis Cooke, is also a reenactor.)
When asked what her favorite part about volunteering at the park is, she replies, “Have you ever fired a cannon? It’s a real stress reliever.”
After all these years and countless experiences at the park, Anita’s connection to the park took on a new dimension with the recent discovery that one of her ancestors participated in the crossing. “I think finding out that I had an ancestor cross made it more real for me. I never knew my family was even here then.”