Frank Norman Cooper, born in Yuma October 6, 1914, one of eight children of William Peter Cooper and Carolina Holdener Cooper, passed away July 12 at his Yuma home. He was 98 and the last surviving member of the pioneering Cooper family that farmed in the Yuma Valley on land that later became a U.S. Department of Agriculture experimental station.
The Coopers moved to the valley from Salinas, Calif., around 1910, when an early Bureau of Reclamation project first made it possible to farm with irrigation from the Colorado River.
They grew cotton and alfalfa and kept dairy cows, milked by the children before and after school each day. "I might still be farming if it hadn't been for those damned cows," Cooper said in a 2004 interview that his son and daughter recorded for public radio's Story Corps project. Like so many things he said, that was a joke, delivered with his trademark smile and uplifted eyebrows. The summer heat and early 20th century Yuma farm life, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, were additional incentives that pushed him off the farm.
Cooper was a graduate of Rood School and Yuma Union High School. In his senior year at Yuma High, he began working for E.F. Sanguinetti Company's stores in Yuma, typing price lists for Sanguinetti's wholesale grocery operations. Later he moved into sales; at one time, he managed one of Yuma's first self-service retail grocery stores. He also moved into town from the farm, sharing bachelor quarters with his cousin, Drexel Cooper, who helped introduce him to Martha Marie McAllister, a teacher at Crane School, around 1936. They were married in 1939.
Cooper served in the Army
Air Corps in World War II
, parlaying his superlative typing skills into a series of stateside postings (the wartime military bureaucracy may have produced more demand for typed documents than for weapons, at least in his telling of it, thus explaining why various officers fought to keep him at home and not overseas). He and Martha spent the last part of the war years in Long Beach, Calif., where their son David was born in 1945.
After the war, the family moved to Indio, Calif., where Cooper helped operate a lumber company. His daughter Ann was born there in 1949.
In 1952 the family moved to El Centro, Calif., where Cooper managed Valley Hardware, a new store with a new concept: self-service sales. He also began a longtime commitment to supporting civic organizations and events, serving as president of the Chamber of Commerce and president of the Optimist Club. And he was president of Little League baseball, where son David was an all-star player, at a time (the 1950s) when, according to Cooper, youth sports were less competitive and parents less pugnacious about their child athletes. That collegial atmosphere spilled over into everyday life, he said in his Story Corps interview. "Those days, if you needed some help, everybody on the block was ready to help," he said.
By 1959, Cooper had migrated home to manage Yuma's two Imperial Hardware stores and continue his volunteer civic work. He served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and was on the boards of AEA Federal Credit Union and the Yuma County Fair. He was so busy that a friend noted (possibly in jest) in 1961 that his photo had appeared in The Yuma Daily Sun 137 times in 12 months – six more times than State Senator Harold Giss.
More presidencies and chairmanships followed at Yuma's Friends of the Library, the county Republican Party, the Downtown Merchants Association and the Westerners Club, among others. "About the only thing that Frank hasn't done in the past 90 years," wrote the Optimist Club, in a letter honoring his service in 2004, "is run for public office."
Cooper retired from Imperial Hardware in 1978, but his career as one of the city's most active civic volunteers continued for decades. His wife Martha joined him in many volunteer activities until her death in 1993.
In 1995 Frank married Patricia Martel, who shared his commitment to civic causes. Together they have donated money and many,
many hours of service to Hospice, Assistance League, Crossroads Mission and other local causes. In 2008 they were named Citizens of the Year by The Yuma Daily Sun. "They're very, very kind," said their longtime friend Velma Denman, who nominated them for the honor.
Cooper will long be remembered for his droll, often self-deprecating sense of humor; for his encyclopedic memories of Old Yuma; for his prolific cactus garden, which has supplied cuttings for many Yuma venues; and for his love of hardware stores, tools and tinkering (repairing typewriters and vacuum cleaners were particular specialties). He fried sausages for Rotary Club
fundraisers, sold chocolates for Optimist Club causes, and even won the El Centro lettuce festival salad dressing contest in the 1950s with his spicy vinaigrette.
Most of all, he will be remembered for his generous spirit, which touched the lives of so many people in Yuma. Right up to his final days he cracked jokes and continued to dispense wisdom. In a final barrage of advice to his grandson Artyom, 23, this month, he stressed this sage advice: "Stay young."
Asked at his 90th birthday how he would like to be remembered, Cooper said: "That I was a friendly, honest, hard-working person."
He was all of that, and so much more.
He is survived by his wife, Pat, of Yuma; his daughter, Ann Cooper and grandson, Artyom Keller, both of New York; his stepdaughter, Patti (Steve) Gentes, and step granddaughter, Zoe Gentes, of San Diego; his stepson Martin (Bonny) Martel of Valrico Fla.; and his granddaughter, Deidra Cooper, of San Diego.
His son David, Yuma County Justice of the Peace, preceded him in death in 2009.
Visitation will be held at Johnson Mortuary, 1415 S. 1st Avenue, at 9 a.m. Thursday July 18, followed by services at 10 a.m., also at Johnson's.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Hospice of Yuma, which offered Cooper and his family comfort and care in his final weeks, or to the