'Gold medal' volunteer dies at 87


If there was such a thing as an Olympic Games for volunteers, Sara “Sally” Graff Cooke, of Flourtown, surely would have been a gold medal winner. Cooke, who died at home on Dec. 27, 2023, after a brief illness, was a whirlwind of generosity, volunteering for countless causes, many in Chestnut Hill. She died surrounded by her family, two days before her 88th birthday.

“Our mom’s beauty was reflected in her soul and spirit, her caring and loving nature with people. She was one of a kind and seemed to touch each person, leaving a lasting impression…” said daughter, and namesake, Sara Cooke Lowe, of Chatham, N.J. “ She had a sort of magic touch with everything she did.”

Cooke brought that touch to her many volunteer efforts including serving for more than 50 years at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where she was a chairwoman of the facility's corps of volunteers.  She was also “involved in the Main Street Fair and Springside and Penn Charter,” said daughter Anna Woodward, of Chestnut Hill. 

 “I remember going to Children's Hospital (CHOP) with her when I was a child. We sold daisies for Daisy Day, which started as a cottage volunteer effort. Now it brings in about $500,000 every year,” Woodward said. “And she was a part of the women's committee that ran a Wawa welcome program for parents whose kids were in the hospital.

“Even to the end, she was engaged,” Woodward continued. “And she loved going to The Fairlane Grill (in Erdenheim). The day she passed we went to The Fairlane Grill for breakfast. She had a very good friend there, Joe Gladeck. That was her community at the end ... I am glad she got to go to the wedding of my son (Alexander 'Sander' Graff Smith, CHA class of 2011) in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 7.”

Sara Graff was born at the old Lankenau Hospital of Philadelphia in 1935. She was raised in Harrisburg and enjoyed her teenage years on “Tavern Farm” with her family. Her late father, Charles Henry Graff, was Chairman of the Board of the former First Union Bank in Harrisburg. He lived to 101, passing away in 1988. 

“She adored her father,” Anna said. “He used to bring jugs of spring water from Harrisburg to Philadelphia long before bottled water was a thing. He had a beautiful farm. Her mother, Elizabeth Brandt Graff, was from one of the oldest families in Cumberland County where some of the streets are named for her family.”

After attending the Westover School in Connecticut, Cooke attended and graduated from The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, in 1953. She went on to get degrees from Bennett College in Millbrook, New York, and The Child Education Foundation in New York City. 

Cooke was a kindergarten teacher by profession. She taught at the former Booth School (now Woodlynde) in Strafford, the Sara R. Birchner’s Kindergarten in Germantown, Chestnut Hill Academy (now SCH) and finally  Tarleton Day School in Devon. She was a member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, National Society of Colonial Dames, Junior League of Philadelphia and The Pennsylvania Society. She also volunteered with the Chestnut Hill Community Association and Chestnut Hill Hospital.

In 1963, Sara Graff married Peter F. Cooke. They lived at first in Flourtown and then moved to Wyndmoor. They divorced in 1982, the same year the family became members of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, where Cooke was a Sunday School teacher and head of the Flower Guild. 

Peter Cooke, Anna's twin brother and a resident of Haverford, told us, “My mother was born to have five children plus all their friends … She was always exposing us to new groups of people and was always on the move. She was always positive and never complained. She was a fountain in life, not a drain. I hope I can follow in her footsteps.”

Daughter Laina Cooke Driscoll (Sara Cooke Lowe's twin sister), of Wayne, told us, “What I remember most is her genuine and selfless spirit ... My mom found joy in simple pleasures: daily meals at The Fairlane Grill, quality time with her family and friends, sending gifts, notes and birthday cards, and she loved going to the golf range.”

Beth Haskins, another one of her four daughters, who now lives in Australia, said last week, “Our mother made most people feel special. She was genuinely interested in other peoples' lives and took the time to really listen and in doing so assisted people in developing their own self-worth. She was an incredible mother, teacher and friend to so many.”

“She was outspoken and funny…” Anna said. “Being with her at the end was a spiritual experience. She just floated up like an angel. She never complained. She lived and died with great dignity.”

Cooke is survived by her children and grandchildren. She was pre-deceased by a brother, Austin B. Graff, of Washington, D.C., and a sister, Mary Truby Graff Black, of Tennessee. Donations in her memory may be made to the CHOP Foundation, P.O. Box 781352, Philadelphia, PA 19178-1352. For more information, call  267-426-5332. A memorial service is scheduled for May 3 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, 8000 St. Martins Lane.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com