In late summer 1976, entering 10th grade at Southwest, I was searching for a second discretionary course to help close the gap of the required number of hours in the elective category.
I asked some of my best buddies what they were planning to do for the fall quarter. Rick Beall, Stan Comer and Eddie Rhyne, all told me they’d signed-up for French lessons from Mr. Cooper in the Willingham ‘B’ building.
Giving in to my friends dominant peer pressure, I relented and made my way to the foreign language booth in the gym to enroll. Seated behind the table was a small black man wearing glasses and a huge smile.
That was my first introduction to Gary Cooper. Yes, his name really is Gary Cooper; not the actor, but the fluent French teacher.
Mr. Cooper was more than an ordinary teacher as he wove a tapestry of his life into the foreign language he taught. He’d often read a story from a newspaper or magazine (in French), requiring us to translate what we’d just digested.
Through high school I took a French class each year and loved every minute of it because Mr. Cooper made his class fun, inspiring us to take the language seriously, often saying, “One day when you have the chance to go to France it will pay off.”
Students got to know Mr. Cooper. He was a devout Christian; faithful to playing the pipe organ at St. Joseph Catholic Church and served as advisor to the C.I.A. (Christians in Action) Club on campus.
At the conclusion of one 12-week quarter, our final consisted of each individual student singing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” It had to be sung a capella, in the French language, maintaining a melody. Let’s just say there was a reason I wasn’t in chorus. (I honestly think if the students in that class had led the rallying cry with the Song of Marseillaise during the French Revolution absolute monarchy may have ended much sooner.)
I must admit there’s only a fraction of the words, style and rules I retained, however, thanks to Mr. Cooper’s direction and his commitment to French verb conjugation, it paid off. When I joined others from Macon and visited our sister city in France, much of what I had retained was beneficial in communicating.
At the request of Lonzy Edwards, I recently attended a forum at the historic Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. As I gave the attendees a quick background of my childhood and school years, I mentioned one of my favorite teachers was Gary Cooper.
After the session, a woman approached me and asked if I knew that Mr. Cooper was in extended rehabilitation following a stroke. My heart sank as I learned the news that evening, but I promised myself I’d get by to see him.
At various times since high school I’ve had multiple opportunities to chat with Mr. Cooper. A few years ago, I ran into him at a local drugstore and he told me he was nearing retirement. I’ll never forget his frustration with the laissez-faire attitude of current students. He told me he wished he could move to Mexico where he knew he could make a real difference in someone’s life.
Friday morning, I stopped by Laurel Baye Healthcare and asked if Mr. Cooper could receive visitors. An administrator led me to his room and at his bedside and as I reached for his hand, I greeted him with the standard, “Bonjour, Monsieur Cooper.”
While the stroke has claimed his speech his identifiable smile is still there. I held his strong hand and asked if he recognized me and he nodded affirmatively. I promised to keep praying for him and that I would be back to visit. I departed with what he always said to me when we’d run into each other, bonne journee (have a nice day)!
Gary Cooper didn’t have to move to Mexico to make an impact on someone’s life. He accomplished that at Macon’s Southwest High School.
Kenny Burgamy serves as a marketing consultant and is co-host of the Kenny B. Charles E., TV, radio and Internet program.