HE’S a knight of the realm; the man who guided the University of York to being one of the top ten academic institutions in the country; the brilliant net-worker who is chairman of trustees of the Castle Howard Arboretum Trust and chair of the York Civic Trust.

But 50 or so years ago, Ron Cooke was just a teenager from a state school in Ashford, Kent, trying to win a place at university – and failing.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t expected to do well at his A-levels, the 69-year-old admits. It was just that he didn’t do well at interviews.

He made the usual round of university applications, and went off for the usual round of interviews. “But I must have been such a pain in the neck I was turned down by everybody I applied to.”

Eventually, on the strength of his A-levels alone, he won a place, through clearing, to study geography and geology at University College London; and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is hard to believe, today, that he could ever have been the gauche, prickly young man he describes; except that he is, even now, very private and reluctant to talk about himself.

Ask him about the clutter clogging up York’s streets, or the city’s archaeological records or magnificent old buildings, and he can talk away effortlessly. But stray on to more personal territory and he becomes uncomfortable.

In the course of an hour-long interview with him, however, to mark his first year in charge of the Civic Trust, I do manage to winkle out a couple of teasing facts. The first was that he met his wife-to-be, Barbara, over a burning bed. And the second was that he had to give up his career as an expert on the geomorphoplogy of deserts, because he developed a potentially dangerous pre-cancerous skin condition… from spending too much time in deserts.

That bed, first of all. It was back when he was a young academic at University College, London (UCL), the institution where he had done his first degree and then his doctorate, and where he spent much of his early career. He was warden of a hall of residence, where one of the students managed to set a bed on fire. Naturally enough, he had to attend the scene – as did Barbara, who was managing the hall of residence. “So we met over a burning bed!” he says.

It was obviously a happy meeting, whatever the circumstances. The couple have been together ever since. They have two grown-up children – one son, and one daughter – and “grandchildren coming out of my ears”, he says.

And that skin cancer? It was 1980. By that time, he had become a professor of geography at UCL and a leading expert in the field of desert geomorphology. Sorry, desert what?

“It’s the study of the surface of the earth and of the way we can use that knowledge to help development, for example, urban development or agricultural development.”

He spent a lot of time in deserts, mainly in the Middle East. “And I got a form of skin cancer in 1980, so I started to do work on stone weathering in Britain, including at York Minster, instead.”

Now that’s quite a leap. I teeter on the verge of asking him about it, but don’t. Once the interview is over, he hints that if I had done, there would have been an interesting story to tell. But he is so clearly uncomfortable talking about himself that it is hard to probe.

He is one of those men who possesses an uncanny power to make other people want him to like them. It’s part of what makes him such a great enabler and organiser, but it also makes it difficult to pry into areas such as his personal life that he clearly doesn’t want to talk about.

Some time later, however, I do manage to ask him about it after all, and he says it is all to do with the way salt weathers and breaks down stone, which happens whether you are in a desert or dealing with magnesian limestone in the damp conditions of the north of England.

But back to the interview. Was his sudden interest in York Minster the reason he eventually ended up here?

No, he says, not directly: that move came much later. But it is true that ultimately desert geomorphology’s loss may have been the university’s gain.

His work in deserts finished, from the early 1980s onwards he spent more and more time in university administration. By the early 1990s, he had become dean of arts and then vice-provost at UCL; and in 1993 he moved to York as vice-chancellor, a position he held until 2002.

He remembers that period fondly as a ‘great time’ in his life, and he certainly did more than most to help transform the university into the top ten institution it is today, with a worldwide reputation for research and teaching in technology, electronics and the biosciences, amongst others.

But he attempts, as usual, to downplay his role, pointing out that while he realised during his time in charge that the university would need to expand, it was his successor as vice-chancellor, Prof Brian Cantor, who pushed that expansion through.

So what is he most proud of? Science City and the Hull York Medical School, he says – especially Science City which, in its partnership between the university and the city council, and its ability to attract inward investment and create jobs and spin-off companies, was quite new.

Since his retirement from the university, he has begun to get more involved in the work of organisations such as the Arboretum Trust and the Civic Trust.

And it was a year ago this month that he was elected the new chair of the Civic Trust, taking over from his predecessor, Graham Millar, after the latter reached the end of his three-year term of office.

He is typically enthusiastic about the role.

“York is a very special place,” he says. “It is not like other towns. As everybody knows, it has a tremendous history, and a strong heritage, both physically and culturally. It has massive historical and heritage resources which are extremely important. They have to be protected.”

If his record of achievement at the University of York and elsewhere is anything to go by, while he’s at the helm of the Civic Trust our heritage is in pretty safe hands.

Trust exists to fight for city’s heritage

THE York Civic Trust has long been one of the foremost champions of this city’s heritage. It is a role that sometimes puts it at odds with those who wish to see the city develop.

The trust described the designs for a £40 million new council headquarters at Hungate, for example, as a “box-like structure” that would try to cram too many people into too small an area.

And back in 2003, it described proposals for the redevelopment of Coppergate as “civic vandalism” – even going so far as to sell off one of its buildings, The Old Manor House in Clifton, in part because of the draining costs of the Coppergate inquiry.

Sir Ron Cooke insists, however, that the Civic Trust is not anti-development. It should be possible both to develop the city, while at the same time protecting and preserving what makes it special, he says.

The key thing about the Civic Trust is that it is independent of the city council. It doesn’t represent the views of all the people in the city, he accepts. But, with something like 2,000 members of the Civic Trust itself or of Fairfax House, it does represent the view of quite a significant number of people.

And the members of the trust committee, which reviews and comments on major planning applications, includes a number of highly qualified professionals, who give up their time for nothing.

“We have a professional town planner, a professional architect, a professional project manager, a professional builder, all volunteers.” It makes for a formidable independent voice.

The trust was established in 1946 by a group of influential men, among them Noel Terry, JB Morrell and Dean Milner White, then dean of York Minster. Down the years, it has played a significant part in shaping the way York is today, campaigning to have Deangate closed to cars, setting up an Academic Development Committee which was ultimately to result in the foundation of the University of York, and raising something like £250,000 for the restoration of public rooms at the Mansion House.

In recent years, however, more and more of its time and effort had begun to be spent on running Fairfax House, the magnificent Georgian townhouse in Castlegate.

That was why, under its previous chairman Graham Millar, the trust negotiated to sell Fairfax House to the York Conservation Trust – although it leased it back so that it could still run it as the museum that it is.

That sale and leaseback suddenly gave the Civic Trust far more resources. It appointed Hannah Phillip as Fairfax House’s full-time manager, and Peter Brown became the Civic Trust’s full-time director. And in the last year or so there has been an explosion of new activity, as the trust has redefined its role.

It continues to keep a watchful eye on new developments.

But there have been a string of new initiatives, too: a campaign to record classic ‘views of York’; a scheme to collect and archive vital knowledge about the city; an educational programme to get York children more interested in their heritage; a new website; and a campaign to get rid of clutter on York’s streets among them.

The trust is also keen to recruit new members, to give more people the chance to have their say on the future shape of York.

“The Civic Trust is entering a new era,” says Sir Ron. “We would like more members. We would like everybody who is interested in the city, its history and its development to join us.”

Membership costs £20 a year, which includes the right to attend the trust’s regular programme of guided tours and other events.

“They take us to places that the public can’t normally get to,” say Sir Ron. “They give members the chance to get to know our heritage better.”

This Sunday, for example, Civic Trust members will be taken on a tour of Stonegate, using an account of people who once lived there written by the nineteenth century stained-glass artist John Ward Knowles as a guide. It’s probably worth the price of membership just for that.

• To find out more about the York Civic Trust, or to become a member, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk