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Robert Cooley and the “Medicine of Life”

Steve Charles—I can’t recall a single encounter with Professor Robert Cooley during which he did not surprise me. Sometimes with an opinion, sometimes with something he’d recently read, often with an encouraging or kind word, and occasionally with an autobiographical fact (for example, his talent as a “coloratura whistler!”). The conversations often sent me scrambling for a text, and once inspired a major change in my life. His intellectual curiosity was contagious.

Even his death surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. We knew this was coming. But I was hoping for another of those conversations, and Bob’s rallying from cancer and various complications spoiled me into believing there would be more time. As my wife said when I told her the news, “We’re not ready to lose him yet.”

So when I went to the College archives to find comfort in reading more about him, I had to smile when, once again, and even in death, he surprised me.

First, in a Montgomery Magazine article from 2003 written by John Waye. I knew Bob and Mary Angela had parented many foster children and adopted four of their own. I didn’t know that Bob had himself been adopted:

“Bob was an orphan, adopted at 20 months by a miner and his wife in the steelmaking center of Bessemer, Alabama. His father was a tough, down-to-earth man who went to work at the age of 12 and rose in the mine, where he became its superintendent…

“The young lad proved to be a brilliant and hard-working student, a Boy Scout in his Baptist church’s troop from the age of 12, he rose through the ranks to Eagle and was involved as a junior scoutmaster. He worked on his studies, his reading, and music, especially choral work. He was a boy soprano in certain choral groups…”

Bob’s academic ranking in high school earned his recruitment for the Navy V-12 program, and Waye’s article discusses his bachelor’s degree in biology, his flight training in the near-impossible-to-fly PBY42s (and those take-offs from and landings on aircraft carriers I’d heard him describe so well), his reconnaissance flights over Korea and China at the beginning of the Cold War, and his law degree.

But my favorite anecdotes involved his meeting and courtship of Mary Angela:

“Back home from college he went to a favorite high school teacher and asked her if there was any girl from the high school that he would like to carry on a conversation with. She immediately recommended Mary Angela Perry. They began dating on a double date to a Sunday evening church service, then back to one of the girls’ house to sing hymns around the piano. Within six weeks they both knew that the other was the one they would later marry.

“But that proved to be much later. Mary Angela was still two years from finishing high school and wanted to graduate from college before marrying. Bob was getting ready to start his junior year at the University of Alabama and took a lot of ribbing from friends about “robbing the cradle, but he and Mary Angela knew their own minds quite well and never wavered. Bob countered their banter with, “Oh, she’ll grow up!”

And, of course, she did.

But the most moving words I read in Bob’s file were those of the late Professor Paul Mielke, Bob’s friend and colleague in the mathematics department, who spoke at his retirement reception in 1999. Printing that talk would make a good remembrance, but I’ll share a few excerpts here. It’s such a pleasure to read not only for what we learn about Bob and about his and Paul’s friendship, but because you can almost hear Paul speaking as you read it—and you can almost see Bob’s reaction (as Paul notes early on, “my friend eschews encomiums,” and Paul does his best to tone it down.)

Here’s Paul Mielke:
“From 1962 until my retirement in 1985 we enjoyed a continuous conversation wherever we were, his mind always in tune, his sentences sensibly structured with precisely chosen words. It mattered not at all that our teaching methods were disparate—his Socratic, and mine didactic. We enjoyed our differences civilly, with good conversation at the center of our life together.”

Paul also joined Bob, for a while, “in his relentless program of physical fitness:

“Robert patiently accommodated me in traversing as many as 3,000 meters a session, always charitably matching my pace.”

Paul spoke of “Robert’s intense regard for the proper use of language, a characteristic of his that I have most cherished.”

And there was music, always a part of Bob Cooley’s life:

“Robert and I enjoyed music together. Wendell Calkins conceived the idea of forming a madrigal group, so on Monday evenings a dozen or so of us gathered in the Goodrich Room to sing madrigals. I sat on Robert’s right and depended upon him to read the notes, and after a few passes I could do a passable job of matching his unerringly accurate melodic line, though my voice was no match for his.”

Paul makes reference to some academic politics on campus, and how his friend Robert’s “calm, kindly demeanor, and acerbic wit tided me over several intracollegiate tiffs.” He concludes with a quote from Ecclesiasticus, then his own words: “’A faithful friend is the medicine of life.’ Robert’s has been the medicine of kindness and companionship. May you all enjoy such good medicine as I have had from him.”

There will be a celebration of Robert Cooley’s life at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Crawfordsville on New Year’s Day (Saturday, January 1) at 1 p.m., and I’m looking forward to hearing more stories, learning more facets of this truly singular man.

Yesterday Mary Angela and I were talking—about Robert’s accidentally flying over a Russian port during the Cold War, among other things. Near the end of our conversation, the subject of her beloved’s faith came up. She mentioned that once, when confronted by another man’s theology, Bob summarized  his own the way he’d heard it summed up in the words of Jesus for years in services at St. John’s: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

It was the first time I learned something about Bob Cooley that didn’t surprise me at all.