Having reached the age of 91, Homer Cooper died recently at home, surrounded by his family. Thus did another vital participant in the history of modern Athens slip away.
Homer was an unlikely hero. In many ways he was just an ordinary guy, doing his job. In other ways, he was extraordinary and showed us the cumulative good that results from always trying to do the right thing.
In his youth, Homer was an Eagle Scout, and he remained one all his life. He taught sociology at the University of Georgia, where he was on the faculty during the tumultuous period of transition to corporate management, when opposition to the diktats of the president and his team forced many people out of the university and caused others to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Homer was one of those who championed the principle of collegial academic governance, and he stood up to the administration, winning some amelioration in the installation of top-down management. During that period Homer demonstrated the radical impact of simply insisting that everybody do the right thing, even those in power. When you’re trying to smother dissent, the last thing you want to deal with is an insistence on fairness by somebody who, even when threatened, will not shut up or back down.
Imagine the consternation, then, when Homer decided to run for the Clarke County Commission, which at that time governed the area outside the city limits and was traditionally controlled by the good old boys, who did not care to have a pointy-headed professor on the commission. Homer launched his campaign, anyway, against a popular Athens businessman and, with a lot of work and smart campaigning, won a seat on the commission and showed just how progressive genuine common sense could be. An intellectual in khaki pants, Homer had a self-deprecating sense of humor and was not driven by ideology. He believed that fixing society’s problems was the proper role of government. We all save money on tires and shocks if we pool our taxes to fix the potholes in our streets—a truism some people still resist acknowledging.
When university administrators and the local power structure tried to intimidate Homer, they didn’t realize the depth of conviction that motivated the amiable, balding academic. They might not have realized that he had demonstrated the fortitude to register as a conscientious objector amid the frenzy of World War II, nor that he had left Oberlin College to volunteer as a medic and had been sent to the China-Burma-India theater of war as a surgical technician. In that capacity, he went on a secret mission into Indochina, during which he was wounded by an explosion and, after his recuperation, was made essentially the mess sergeant for American troops stationed in Shanghai.
Homer had the courage to act on his belief that war is not the answer. His reward came when he resumed his delayed education at Oberlin, where he met and eventually married fellow student Patricia Irvin, who has made her own mark on Athens with, among other things, her tireless and informed work on behalf of our built environment. (See her contributions, for instance, to The Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia.)
When Homer ran for the commission, his supporters distributed a leaflet that announced, “Two people can make a difference: you and Homer Cooper.” He did his part. Now, it’s up to you.