Aging: Besse Cooper’s 42,000 Sunrises

“Naming bridges is no slam dunk in Georgia. For a while it appeared the state legislature would have to sign off on it, which couldn’t happen until after the bridge was dedicated.”

THIS IS A STORY ABOUT A BRIDGE, a county in Georgia with a famous resident, and a great great grandmother— the latter mainly because this past Sunday was Grandparents’ Day and I felt it important that we honor one such person.

The bridge for years was unofficially known as the New Hope Church Road bridge which crossed the Alcovy River in Walton County, Georgia. It was narrow, just 22 feet wide, and crossing it could be hazardous.

“Basically, if you meet a big truck, it is a tense moment,” Jimmy Parker, vice president of Precision Planning, the county’s engineering firm, told the Walton Tribune. “And there have been times when the Alcovy has topped the road, not to mention the bridge doesn’t have guard-rails.”

According to the Tribune, Walton County Board of Commissioners voted in 2011 to replace the bridge, which would require the road to be closed for months.

Shortly thereafter Sidney Cooper of Monroe, Georgia, mounted a campaign to have the new bridge named after his mother, Besse Brown Cooper. Besse wasn’t just any ordinary Cooper. At age 115, she was the oldest person in the world and easily the most famous person in Walton County.

NAMING BRIDGES IS NO SLAM DUNK IN Georgia. For a while it appeared the state legislature would have to sign off on it, which couldn’t happen until after the bridge was dedicated. But eventually the state tossed it back to the county saying it was a local issue.

“It is totally up to the county and yes, I think it is a great idea,” Walton County Chairman Kevin Little told the Tribune. “I think her birthday is coming up in August and I hope we can get it all going to maybe name it for her by then.”

“I think it will be great,” Cooper’s son, Sidney, said, adding his mother is doing well with another birthday on the horizon. No word on what Ms. Cooper thought of the legislative ping pong match, but I suspect it was of little interest to her.

On August 24, 2012, just two days before her 116th birthday, the bridge was dedicated before a gathering of elected officials, her children and citizens. A sign at either end reads: “In Honor of Besse Brown Cooper. The Oldest Person in the World.”

“Maybe we can do this again next year when she turns 117,” one of the officials said.

Image of Walton County and the city of Monroe when Besse Brown was three-years old.

Image of Walton County and the city of Monroe when Besse Brown was three-years old.

Besse was born in 1896, to Richard Brown and his wife Angeline of Sullivan County Tennessee. I don’t think any of Besse’s relatives nor Besse herself would object if I said she wasn’t just another sweet old lady. Sidney Cooper said his mother was a strong, determined woman who, like the school teacher she was, could be a disciplinarian. She was fair and honest, he said, but “when she said something needed to be done, you’d better do it…she was very intelligent,” Sidney said. “She loved to read.”

Besse graduated from East Tennessee State Normal School in Johnson City — now East Tennessee State University — in 1916. Soon after, she got a teaching job earning $35 a month. When she heard from a friend she could make more in Georgia, she headed off to Monroe for a salary twice what she had been making in Tennessee.

In 1924 she married Luther Harris Cooper and over the years they had four children — Angeline, Luther H, Jr., Sidney and Nancy, all of whom are alive today. She outlived her husband, who died in 1963, by 49 years.

The Associated Press referred to her as “a retired Georgia school teacher with a passion for politics,” and that passion exhibited itself early. CNN reported she joined the suffrage movement when she was 24, speaking about the importance of having a voice in politics and registering women to vote. After the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, she never missed a chance to cast her ballot — except twice, in 2012 and in 1948, when she and her husband believed Thomas Dewey would easily win.

SOMEWHERE I READ OR POSSIBLY HEARD on the airwaves that Besse for a time drove a Model T. She never had a driver’s license, however, because back in those days there was no such thing as a driver’s license.

Time NewsFeed quoted Sidney Cooper as saying that his mother cherished her 80s most out of the nearly twelve decades she lived. He said she loved to garden, watch the news on TV and read — despite her declining eyesight. When asked for her secret to a long life, Cooper told the Guinness website: “I mind my own business. And I don’t eat junk food.”

Just a little over three months after the bridge was dedicated, Besse Cooper died in a rest home in Monroe, Georgia. Saying she had lived 116 years doesn’t quite do justice to her life span. I prefer to say she lived the entire twentieth century — every blessed day of it — plus sixteen years in two centuries on either side of the twentieth.

Among her contemporaries: the Oreo cookie, which turned 100 the year Besse died.

“She looked real good when she passed away,” Sidney Cooper told Reuters, saying his mother died quietly and without suffering. “She got up this morning, had a big old breakfast and got her hair fixed,” he said. “It’s just like she got up planning to do it.”

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.