Obituary of James Michael Cooper

August 23, 2021

James Michael Cooper ("Mike" to his family, "Michael" to his friends and colleagues) died Monday, August 23, 2021, at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx following a protracted illness. He was 78. Fiercely independent to the end, he is remembered by family and friends as a multi-talented and passionate soul, a generous friend, a voracious consumer of arts and culture, and above all, a free spirit. His indelible presence will be sorely missed.

He was born in Clinton, Oklahoma on March 21, 1943 to parents Woodrow ("Woody") Leon Cooper and Mary Virginia Gray. He attended grade school in four different towns in Oklahoma before his family settled in Odessa, Texas, where he completed his secondary schooling, graduating from Permian High School (subject of the book, movie, and TV series Friday Night Lights) in 1961. An accomplished musician, thanks to his mother's tutelage, Michael played woodwinds in both the All State Orchestra and the All State Marching Band while at Permian. He was also adept at the piano, a skill that was in particular demand later in life at family reunion singalongs.

He matriculated at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 1961 with a five-year double major in architecture and foreign languages, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966. While at Rice, as a member of The Rice Players, an on-campus theatrical troupe, his creative talents blossomed, and his fondest memory of those years was his time spent in the Players' company. Two of his favorite roles were Hortensio (The Taming of the Shrew) and Polixenes (The Winter's Tale). The 1964/65 New York World's Fair provided the opportunity he so eagerly craved to further spread his wings, and he spent those two summers working at the fair's Texas pavilion and soaking up arts and culture in the City that Never Sleeps.

Following his graduation from Rice, Michael worked briefly as an FM radio announcer at KRBE, one of Houston's only two classical music stations at the time, before heading to New York City to make his permanent home. He supported himself in those early years as a computer programmer before dropping out of the 9-to-5 world to work freelance out of his home, typing, editing, and polishing manuscripts ranging from fiction to academic dissertation, and everything in between. The highlight of this phase of his career was the publication, with his friend Andy, of An Astrological Index to the World's Famous People (Michael Cooper and Andrew Weaver, Doubleday Company, Inc., 1975), which served as a comprehensive reference long before the advent of the internet.

As technology evolved past the typewriter, he enthusiastically took up word processing, which propelled him back into the workplace. To make a pretty long story reasonably short, he found himself, eventually, in the Municipal Bond Department of the storied investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, where he rose to the rank of Vice President for Presentation Management. There, his programming and organizational skills, his alacrity at the keyboard, and his unstinting attention to detail all came to full fruition. He set the linguistic and typographic standards and styles for all presentations coming out of the department, developed style sheets to guide the authors and his staff in enforcing them, and programmed the software to automate much of the work, thereby greatly enhancing not only his team's productivity but also the overall quality of the output. He referred to his team members as artists, in recognition of their dedication to the craft, and he often expressed how proud he was of their work together, often long into the night to meet the never ending deadlines, a sentiment they wholeheartedly reciprocated. Michael retired from Goldman early in the new century and devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of his varied interests.

Michael's lifelong passion was grand opera and his most cherished ambition was to become an opera singer. In the early days he would queue up overnight for standing room tickets to all the Metropolitan Opera productions and, to be as close as possible to the action, he "super'd" (took supernumerary, i.e., extra, roles) in as many productions as possible. His most vivid memory was being onstage with one of his idols, Leontyne Price, in Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the Met's new home in Lincoln Center. Later he studied with famed singing teacher Stephanie Scourby and performed with the legendary Amato Opera company in Manhattan's East Village. Perhaps his most memorable role there was Monostatos in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Michael adored all the music of Mozart, but his favorite opera composer was Giuseppe Verdi, and he worshipped soprano Maria Callas as the embodiment of operatic art. While he never got to see her perform on stage, he was able to experience her presence by attending the series of master classes she gave at Julliard in the early 70s. Though he never made the big time, it's safe to say that Michael gave his all, heart and soul, in striving toward his dream.

Michael was an avid runner from the early 70s and was a member of both the New York Road Runners club and Front Runners New York. In the early days of the New York City Marathon, when his application somehow missed the postmark deadline, he conceived and ran the "Maria Callas Memorial Marathon" along the old Elevated West Side Highway, which had been closed to traffic a year or two before. When the 1974 Charles Bronson movie Death Wish was shooting in New York they needed a runner to portray a hippie escaping a mob of construction workers in hot pursuit. Michael, in his freelance attire and long mane, fit the bill perfectly and his skill as a runner is immortalized in that cameo. As years of exertion began to take their toll on his knees he took up race walking, then in-line skating, and eventually bicycling and powered scootering to satisfy his need to sail along the Hudson River bike path in the middle of the night and take in the fabulous sight of the ever changing lower Manhattan skyline, which he loved with all his heart.

He was also a world traveler during his working years, eventually visiting all seven continents. One of his indelible memories was setting foot on Machu Picchu. Another was climbing to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza with his traveling companion, in the middle of the night, on the last day before their flight home. Having laid some baksheesh on the night watchman to point the way up, the two climbed for hours, battling an aggressive host of mosquitoes. As they reached the summit the entire city seemed to break out in song, celebrating the end of Ramadan. On the way down, however, the pair was met by a squad of local gendarmes, apparently of the mind that there was more baksheesh to be had. Michael's companion urged compliance but Michael insisted on feigning ignorance, and the two backed sheepishly away into the night and miraculously joined their tour group for the return flight home that morning.

As family and friends will readily attest, Michael was highly opinionated and could be stubbornly defiant in the face of opposition to his views, particularly if that opposition smacked of conventionality. On the other hand, his mind was open to a vast array of ideas and experience and he was a mine of facts and information on a wide range of subjects. He was also, in his lifestyle, a bit of an eccentric, a confirmed individualist. His approach to living is perhaps most succinctly characterized by a line from a famous song — "I Did It My Way!"

In his later years Michael's mobility began to decline to the point where he had great difficulty getting around, so that by the time the pandemic hit he was virtually confined to his home. This past May he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and was in and out of the hospital and the ICU until August 23rd, when he was transferred to Calvary Hospital where he died within hours of his arrival. He is survived by his stepmother Patsy Cooper, of Lufkin, Texas; his brother Jerry Cooper, of Yukon, Oklahoma; his stepbrother Steve Cooper and stepsister Melissa Cooper, both of Lufkin, Texas; and numerous cousins in Texas and Oklahoma, not to mention his many friends and former colleagues.

Michael was a regular and generous donor to many charitable and not-for-profit organizations, including Wounded Warrior Project, ASPCA, Southern Poverty Law Center, Smile Train, Neighborhood Funders Group, WQXR (New York Public Radio), Lambda Legal, ACLU, and amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Any of these would be appropriate recipients of tribute in his name if someone is so moved. As he journeys beyond this realm, he's eagerly looking forward to greeting all his beloved dogs: Fiordiligi, Janacek, Grizzy, Snazzy, and Flossie. And if he were to sum up his life in three words, they would undoubtedly be "Music Is Life!!!"

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