Never Too Old

At 95, former Juneau teacher still going strong

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

When Barbara Cooper first came to Juneau in 1958, the airport was slightly bigger than a shack. Juneau residents had their vacation homes in the Mendenhall Valley and South Franklin Street was a different place "forth, back, in and around," the 95-year-old former teacher said.

After a nerve-wracking first flight to Juneau - the plane's engine caught fire halfway here and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Ketchikan - Cooper emerged from the airport and was, in her words, "appalled."

She and her husband Robert moved to Juneau with their two children for Robert's work in the Forest Service. Cooper was not excited about the move, but "where thou goest, thou go," she said.

Slowly, though, she learned to love Juneau - both her neighborhood on Highland Drive and her more recent new neighborhood at the Juneau Pioneers' Home.

Barbara Cooper is nearly 95 years old. She doesn't see very well, walks with a walker, and has good and bad days in terms of energy and alertness.

But she graciously shares pleasantries with most residents of the Pioneers' Home, where she has lived since 1996, and she is quick with the occasional self-deprecating joke about her age.

Is she surprised she has lived to be 95?

"No, because only the good die young," she said without hesitation. "But I've enjoyed life very much, and I really adore Juneau."

Cooper was born in Oregon on Nov. 3, 1907. Her mother died in childbirth, and Barbara moved to Los Angeles as a child after her adoptive father, her mother's brother, died. She returned to Oregon to attend Oregon State College, where she met her future husband.

The couple lived in Washington, D.C., and Oregon and had two children, Susan and Kent, before moving to Juneau in 1958.

Cooper was a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School from 1958 to 1963, teaching "anything everybody else didn't want to teach," she said - mostly English, typing and shorthand.

She liked teaching English, but she most enjoyed working with the high school drill team, she said.

"I modernized it, let's say, by bringing in a man from Colorado who did that kind of dancing," said Cooper, who participated in a drill team herself as a student at Oregon State College.

Almost everybody who knows Cooper has a story to tell that they say probably shouldn't go in the newspaper.

Former Mayor Dennis Egan, who had Cooper as a teacher for his freshman typing class in high school in 1963, said he was probably her worst student.

"I was in the same grade as her daughter Susan, and we just caused a lot of trouble," he said.

"Mrs. Cooper," as Egan still calls her, "is a great lady," he said. "She wanted you to learn ... but she wasn't too enthused about the boys screwing off."

"I probably wasn't his favorite teacher," Cooper said.

Outside of school, Cooper was active in her Highland Drive neighborhood and in the community.

Peggy Garrison, who was Cooper's neighbor for "a hundred years" and still visits her at the Pioneers' Home, said Cooper is a "delightful" person.

"We have a lot of laughs," Garrison said. "She's very funny."

Cooper volunteered for at least 10 years with the Golden North Salmon Derby, organizing volunteers to run the weigh-in stations. She also worked as the head of a voting precinct, and she definitely plans to vote on Tuesday, though she's guarded about her political leanings when the conversation shifts to politics. She will speak out on one issue, though.

"I'm firm on not moving the capital," she said.

In addition to fishing and politics, Cooper also enjoys travel - she has been to nearly every state and to Europe - and reading.

"I just finished a travel book about an old radio guy who went across the country," Cooper said.

Despite her 95 years and failing health, she insists on continuing her travels. She was in critical condition at the hospital for about a week in August and left for her grandson's wedding a few weeks after she was released.

"I love Juneau, but I love to get out of it, too," she said. "Once a year, at least."

"She's great," said Jan Gonce, who has been Cooper's nurse since Cooper moved to the Pioneers' Home. "She is one determined woman."

The staff of the Juneau Pioneers' Home is holding a surprise open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, to help Cooper celebrate her 95th birthday.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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