I ran into Gary Cooper getting on an elevator in Mobile. I shook hands and said, “I don’t know if I should call you General Cooper, Representative Cooper, or Ambassador Cooper.”

He replied, “How about “Gary?”

That interaction describes Gary Jerome Cooper of Mobile, who has died at age 87.

A bullet list of his job titles and accomplishments does not do justice to the impact he had on Alabama people, businesses and the community:

Graduate of Notre Dame.  First time an African-American family has had three generations to graduate from Notre Dame.

Officer in U.S. Marine Corps.

Fought in Vietnam.

First African-American to command a Marine infantry company.

Legion of Merit.

Two Purple Hearts.

Three Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Crosses.

Director of family-owned insurance company and funeral home in Mobile.

Elected to Alabama House of Representatives, 1973.

Governor’s cabinet, commissioner of the Department of Pensions & Security.

Vice president for marketing, David Volkert and Associates.

Major General, director of personnel. First African-American to become a Marine general.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower & Reserve Affairs

U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.

CEO of Commonwealth Bank.

Board of Directors of GenCorp, U.S. Steel, Protective Life and PCN Bank.

What an abundant life!

Before beginning that parade of lifetime, difference-making accomplishments, Gary Cooper experienced and overcame some resistance. When he left Mobile to ride to Notre Dame, he was required to ride in the back of the train.

From the back of the train to the front of a Marine battalion in Vietnam, it was onward and upward from there.

The national news picked up a dustup between Cooper and Gov. Fob James. Cooper was head of the Department of Pensions and Securities in James’ cabinet. The two had a serious disagreement on an issue, and James’ press secretary said that Cooper had resigned. Cooper said he had not resigned and remained in the office.

The Washington Post version can be found here.    

Cooper is featured in a mural painted in downtown Mobile:

Coopermural Alabama News
Mural of Gen. Gary Cooper. Mobile County Commission

The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce released the following statement Monday about Cooper:

The Mobile Chamber mourns the loss of a true local hero, Major General J. Gary Cooper. General Cooper was not only a decorated military leader but also a distinguished statesman, diplomat, and pillar of our community.

Cooper overcame segregation as a young man and went on to lead a Marine Corps infantry company in combat, became one of the first African-Americans to be elected to the State House of Representatives, was appointed assistant secretary of the Air Force, and was named U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica. 

General Cooper never forgot his roots in Mobile. He used his success to give back to his community, advocating for education and opportunity for all. 

“Cooper shattered barriers and served his country with unwavering dedication. His leadership extended beyond the battlefield, with a distinguished career in government and business,” said Mobile Chamber President Bradley Byrne. “The Mobile Chamber is deeply grateful for General Cooper's immense contributions to our nation and our city. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy will continue to motivate us to strive for excellence and service.”

Each year, the Mobile Chamber bestows an award in General Cooper's name, recognizing a current or past military member who embodies the values he championed: achievement, courage, excellence and humility. General Cooper's life exemplified these values in a way that continues to inspire us all.

Services for Cooper will be announced.

Jim ‘Zig’ Zeigler writes about Alabama’s people, places, events, groups and prominent deaths.  He is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at ZeiglerElderCare@yahoo.com.

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.