When I met Dr. Cooper in September 2013, he had just been named Executive Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs. I was skeptical of his appointment, because I was skeptical of the office and its productivity, and that skepticism extended to anyone who would be named to lead it.
But over the last almost-two years, Dr. Cooper convinced me that he was a true advocate for education and, in particular, HBCUs. We did not always agree, but we developed a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s work and passion for these great institutions. As I sat in the church in which rows of HBCU leaders, Department of Education officials, family members and others whose lives he has touched gathered to pay final respects, I thought about his dedication to the work of promoting a better environment for HBCUs in this country.
I scanned the faces of presidents in attendance and I thought about how Dr. Cooper had once asked me how he could reach more—how could he get these presidents to respond to his emails or think to pick up the phone and call to let him know what was going on on campus so that he could remain in the loop. I thought about his mission to visit as many campuses and make as many calls as he could fit in, because he really wanted to know what was going on and how he could be of service. I thought about the great interest he took in a survey of HBCU leaders I recently conducted and how he wanted to know what action items could come from that feedback on how to better address the needs of the community.
When Deputy Director Dr. Ivory Toldson spoke at the service about Dr. Cooper’s emphasis on “we” and as others lauded his ideals of service leadership, I thought about the many mornings my phone would ring at 7:00 a.m. and it’d be Dr. Cooper calling with a question or a suggestion or to voice his disagreement with something that had been written. I truly believe that he woke up early each morning thinking about how to better serve the HBCU community, and his tone was always about what we needed to do to remedy some of the problems the community faced.
From Tuskegee to Alabama A&M to South Carolina State to the White House Initiative on HBCUs, Dr. Cooper dedicated most of his professional life in service to HBCUs. In his gentle, soft-spoken way, he was exactly what the office needed—someone who cared tremendously about the institutions, their students, their leadership, their sustainability and their future—and he worked tirelessly to represent and advocate for their continued vitality.
While the HBCU community will truly miss Dr. Cooper’s passion and leadership, I am convinced the office he led is better for him having been there. I am appreciative of the time that I had to know and talk with him and appreciate his service to the community.
And, on a more personal note, I am pleased to know he is no longer suffering or hurting and that his legacy will live on in the many current and former presidents he touched and in Dr. Toldson and the other Initiative staff left behind to carry on the work.
Rest peacefully, Dr. Cooper.