Sherod M. Cooper Jr., a retired longtime University of Maryland, College Park English professor whose volunteerism on the Liberty ship S.S. John W. Brown resulted in a book chronicling its World War II voyages, died Wednesday from a stroke at his Heritage Harbor home in Annapolis. He was 93.
“When I met Sherod for the first time, he came down to the John Brown to volunteer his services not long after we got the ship," said Captain Brian H. Hope, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot, author and noted marine artist who headed the effort that brought the historic Liberty ship to Baltimore in 1988 for restoration to an operating vessel.
“At the time, we were working in the wheelhouse, and I gave Sherod some sandpaper to remove old varnish. Then I asked about his background and he told me he was an English professor at the University of Maryland and was interested in history, and then we made him our ship’s historian," recalled Captain Hope, an Arnold resident and former chairman of Project Liberty Ship.
“That single contribution of writing his book on the John Brown’s wartime years was more valuable than anything else I could have asked Sherod to do,“ Captain Hope said.”He was a real gentleman, a terrific guy, and one of my favorite volunteers who was a supporter of the Brown until the end.”
Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Baltimore Sun editor, longtime Brown volunteer and able seaman, was the author of the two-volume “Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown,” published in 2005 and 2006.
“It’s the only book about the Brown’s wartime voyages and Sherod wrote it,” said Mr. Imhoff, a Mount Washington resident. “Sherod was proud of his merchant marine career during the war and being a professor at the University of Maryland, but he never bragged about his life or his career, that stretched between literature and the Brown. Ships were always a part of his life.”
Sherod Monroe Cooper Jr., the son of Dr. Sherod M. Cooper, a physician, and his wife, Louise Morley Cooper, a homemaker, was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia.
“The day he turned 18 in 1945, he left Friends Select and joined the merchant marine as an engineer cadet," said a son, Stephen Cooper of Bowie. “He took two trips across the Pacific to China and the Philippines. Because he had such good grades, Friends gave him his diploma even though he didn’t complete his senior year.”
After leaving the merchant marine in 1946, he served in the Army from 1946 to 1947 as a member of the occupation forces in Japan.
Dr. Cooper earned his bachelor’s degree in 1951 in English, and his master’s degree in 1953, both from Temple University in Philadelphia, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963.
He joined the English department faculty of the University of Maryland in 1957 and spent the next three decades in College Park, where he was known for his expertise in the works of William Shakespeare and the poet Edmund Spenser.
Dr. Cooper was the author “The Sonnets of Astrophil and Stella: A Stylistic Study,” published by Mouton Publishers in 1963.
After retiring in 1989 from the University of Maryland, Dr. Cooper began volunteering on the John W. Brown and later served on the board of Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit that owns the S.S. John W. Brown.
“He was a Project Liberty Ship member from the beginning and served for several years on the board of directors and was the project’s historian,” Captain Mike Schneider, a former chairman of Project Liberty Ship who volunteers in the ship’s engine room., wrote in an email.
In 1991, before the ship prepared to make its “matron” voyage down the Chesapeake Bay, Dr. Cooper wrote a history of the John W. Brown — “The S.S. John W. Brown: Baltimore’s Living Liberty" — which was built in 41 days at Bethlehem Steel’s Fairfield shipyard and launched on Labor Day 1942.
Bethlehem-Fairfield built 384 Liberties during the war, more than any other U.S. shipyard.
In his book, “Liberty Ship: The Voyages of the John W. Brown 1942 to 1946,” published in 1997 by the Naval Institute Press, Dr. Cooper recalled the ship’s contribution to the war effort.
“Steaming a total of about 100,000 miles, she carried approximately 52,525 tons of cargo and more than a hundred thousand troops from the United States to the war zones. It would require 11 freight trains of a hundred cars each to carry the cargo,” he wrote.
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“While steaming between various Mediterranean ports, she moved about 15,585 tons of cargo, more than 5,100 troops, and 336 POWs. Inbound, the Brown up to mid-August 1945 transported to the United States about 8,645 tons of cargo, about 1,000 POWs, and 770 homeward-bound GIs,” he wrote. “Without fanfare, she had done everything asked of her.”
The Brown, which came through the war unscathed, completed eight wartime voyages and five peacetime trips before being turned over in November 1946 by the War Shipping Administration to the Board of Education of the City of New York, which docked the vessel in the East River for use as a nautical vocational high school for nearly four decades.
In 1982, the Brown’s role as a school ended and it was towed in 1983 to Virginia’s James River, near Williamsburg, where it joined the Reserve Fleet, or dead fleet, of ships waiting a rise in scrap metal prices and the inevitable scrapper’s torch, a fate from which the ship was spared after members of Project Liberty Ship were successful in getting it named to the National Register of Historic Places.
“Some of the volunteers on the Brown were rough and ready, while Sherod was refined and ready to serve the ship whenever and wherever he was needed. He was always willing to help out,” recalled Mr. Imhoff. “He was a very friendly and quiet fellow and very encouraging to me when I wrote my books.”
A celebration of life will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.,m. Saturdayat the Heritage Harbor Lodge, 959 River Strand Loop, Annapolis.
In addition to his son, Dr. Cooper is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Janet Williams; another son, David Cooper of Greenbelt; a daughter, Elizabeth Judy of Cape St. Claire; a brother, Everett Cooper of Evansville, Georgia; 10 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews. Another son, Sherod M. Cooper III, died in 2010.