A great sportsman, greater friend to Harford County [Column]

Christmas is a time for giving. It's also about peace and goodwill toward your neighbor and your community.

This is the story of Darrel Cooper, who won't be with us this Christmas for the first time since 1917, in body anyway. He died at age 95 this past February.

Though born in Virginia, Mr. Cooper grew up in Bel Air and lived most of his adult life in Bel Air and Aberdeen. He was a superb athlete, but more about that later. He was also a giver who truly embraced the Christmas spirit, a man who volunteered at his church and was acutely concerned about people not having enough to eat in his community, particularly children and senior citizens.

He was a regular generous contributor to the Empty Stocking Fund, a Christmas charity started by employees of The Aegis more than two decades ago and today run by retired employees of our newspaper and their family members and friends. It was not unusual for him to give $3,000 annually in recent years, asking that the money be used to feed the hungry in Harford County.

A few weeks back, my friend and retired co-worker Jane Brown, who is the Empty Stocking Fund's leader, received a call from Ralph Walls, the owner of Plaza Ford and the personal representative for Mr. Cooper's estate. Even though Mr. Cooper wouldn't be able to present his annual donation this year, he hadn't forgotten the Empty Stocking Fund. A check for $10,000 was sent by the estate in late November.

"Mr. Cooper was very pleased that he was going to be able to assist in making your goal once more," Ralph wrote in a letter that accompanied the check.

"I don't like to complain, but my heart and soul are in what I am trying to do through your program, feed the hungry," Mr. Cooper told Jane in a handwritten note in 2010. "I am glad you provided me the opportunity. Your committee is right, I do have a desire for the kids to receive toys, but only after they have been given food to satisfy their hunger."

Then he added a postscript: "Keep up your good works. Hunger is all over Harford County, and much more according to your paper and the Baltimore Sun - Love, Darrel Cooper."

"Mr. Cooper was a loyal supporter of the Empty Stocking Fund," Jane said Monday. "We miss him and would like to thank his estate for this most generous donation."

I did not know Mr. Cooper well. Way back when I came to work at The Aegis in 1972, he was the man who faithfully brought in the golf scores from the Maryland Golf & Country Clubs each week, so they could be printed in our sports section. I came to associate his face with golf scores - no name, just golf scores. Mac Lloyd, our sports editor at the time, pointed out that often the top scores belonged to one Darrel Cooper.

Indeed, Mr. Cooper, who was a charter member of the golf club, won the club championship once and the senior championship four times, according to his obituary. He took up tennis as a "senior" and won the club's doubles championship. And when his playing days were over, he and his late wife, Verna, took up ballroom dancing and spent many years giving lessons at churches and, at the officer clubs at APG and Edgewood Arsenal, the latter where Mr. Cooper worked for 31 years as a senior executive in the engineers corps.

At Bel Air High School in the early 1930s, Mr. Cooper played soccer, basketball and baseball and was voted the school's best athlete his senior year. Baseball was his best sport but when offered a professional contract in the era of the Gashouse Gang, he left his minor league camp for the offer of a government job. This was, after all, the bottom of the Great Depression. When World War II broke out, he volunteered for the Army, but injured his hip in boot camp and returned to his old job.

In more recent years, I had become familiar enough with Mr. Cooper's philanthropy to start putting a name to his face. Back in the 1980s, he and some other like-minded people became concerned about the scarcity of affordable senior housing in the county, and their efforts led to the development of the HUD subsidized Harford Senior Housing complex off of Route 1 and Tollgate Road in Bel Air. Mr. Cooper served on the organization's board for 16 years.

He was a longtime member and director of St. Paul's Lutheran Church where he volunteered for many year's in the church's soup kitchen, Martha's Meal. And, his financial generosity wasn't reserved just for the Empty Stocking Fund. A few years ago, he gave $10,000 to the Salvation Army for its hunger and homeless programs in Harford County, saying he had been blessed with "great luck" and how his involvement in sports helped him get a job at a local store during the Depression.

It was his experience of seeing some of his classmates come to school without lunch that gave him his first glimpse of people hurting.

"I want to feel I'm relieving these people of such pain and misery," he said in an article we published in 2006 following his Salvation Army donation.

At the time, Mr. Cooper also said he planned to will most of his money to his church to make building improvements. "I don't know any better place to will it to," he said. "I hope people who read this will be encouraged to donate."

A great sportsman, he was an even greater friend to Harford County and our most needy citizens.

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