Ralph Eugene Cooper, 90, died Monday, July 25th, in Warsaw, Indiana. Ralph was preceded in death by his wife of 53 years, Mary Frank Ward Cooper, by his parents, Mary Bell Bryant and William Myrtle Cooper, and by his brothers, J.W. Cooper, Earl Cooper, and Charles Cooper. Ralph is survived by his sons, Ralph Ward Cooper, married to Cathy Waugh, Bowling Green, KY, and Gary Ray Cooper, married to Shayna Wombles, Warsaw, IN; his four grandchildren Travis Cooper, Portland, OR; Emily Cooper, Los Angeles, CA; Lauren Kreutter, married to Jeff, Marina del Rey, CA; and John Cooper, Berkeley, CA; and a brother Kenneth Marcus Cooper, married to Opal Higdon, Paducah, KY. As well, he is survived by a nephew and multiple nieces: Tammy Cooper Zimmerman, Nancy Cooper Bloodworth, Jayne Cooper Sevenski, Vicki Cooper, and Tina Cooper Shidal, all of Paducah, and Winston Ward, Chino, CA, and Cynthia Ward Blaylock, San Clemente, CA.
Ralph was a proud native Paducah son, born in 1926 in a bedroom on the residential second floor of Cooper's Grocery, a classic "corner" grocery store operated by his parents in the close-knit community surrounding South 6th Street known as The Southside. He was the fourth in line of five brothers who shared an exceptional familial bond that remained strong throughout their lives. This quintet was known during the brothers' youth and even into their seventies as "The Cooper Boys". Growing up during the hardships of the Depression Era and the catastrophic effects in Paducah of the Flood of 1937, Ralph nonetheless enjoyed a childhood of rich communal connections in a neighborhood teeming with relatives and family friends who all shared a close proximity and manifold social interactions. His admirable strength of character was forged and tempered by that upbringing in those momentous times.
Ralph attended Franklin Elementary School and Franklin Junior High School, all those years walking to school the short 1-block distance from his home to the school grounds. He was a graduate of Augusta Tilghman High School where he was a standout multi-sport athlete, and earned All-State and All-Southern honors as a Tornado football player, as well as being a State Meet medal-winner in the Pole Vault. His beloved coach, role model, and mentor there was Rice Mountjoy, who later was inducted as a member of the KHSAA Hall of Fame. Ralph's senior year was cut short when he was drafted into the Navy in the late fall of 1944.
Following training in Chicago, IL, Norman, OK, and Salton Sea, CA, Ralph served as an aviation ordnanceman aboard the escort carrier USS Savo Island during the closing stages of WWII. At wars end he was offered an appointment to the US Naval Academy by the Captain of the Savo Island who was returning as Athletic Director at Annapolis, having served there as Navy Football Coach before the war. Ralph longed for home, though, and elected to return to Kentucky to attend Murray State University on an athletic scholarship. He was a 3-year letterman on the MSU football team and also a diver on the swim team. He was a starter on the Thoroughbreds 1949 Tangerine Bowl team, the only Murray football team to ever compete in a national bowl game.
Ralph was recruited out of Murray by the superintendent of Paducah Public Schools, and his bachelor's degree was awarded early so he could be hired to fill a mid-semester vacancy as a coach and teacher at Franklin Junior High. There he was reunited with former Tilghman schoolmate Mary Frank Ward, the Home Economics teacher. It was love at second sight. Six years earlier Ralph as a junior in high school had walked senior Mary Frank home after classes, but no sparks had ignited. The second time around provided a different outcome, however, and they eloped in 1950 to be married in Corinth, MS. Shortly thereafter in 1952 he earned a Master of Education degree from George Peabody College in Nashville, TN.
For thirteen years at Franklin through teaching and coaching Ralph helped to shape the lives of many of the sons & daughters and brothers & sisters of people he'd grown up with in the Southside. Fifty-plus years later when son Gary created a FaceBook page for him, Ralph enjoyed a continual outpouring of messages from former players and students paying tribute to the positive influence he had on their lives. One such emblematic example, "How can I say thanks in a few words? It is truly not possible. You took an interest in my life as you did with all the students, but it helped me more than most can know." He found it gratifying, also, that several of those players bestowed upon him the title "Our Forever Coach".
In 1963 Ralph transferred to Tilghman to create the Distributive Education program and to join the football coaching staff. He retired from coaching in 1968 specifically to be able to spend more time with his family. Perhaps the role he was best suited for in Life was that of Father & Family Man. Ralph had been a member since childhood of Trinity Methodist Church, but after the birth of his and Mary Frank's first child, he transferred his membership to join her at Westminster Presbyterian Church. He gave generously of his time and talents as a member of that church, serving as a deacon, elder, Sunday School teacher in tandem with Mary Frank, and for 40+ years tenor in the choir. He and Mary Frank were a formidable united front in rearing sons Rocky and Gary. Both sons were beneficiaries of loving, caring, and supportive parents, who had at the heart of every action the best interests of their children.
In 1985 Ralph retired from Tilghman after having taught students for more than thirty-five years in the Paducah school system. He and Mary Frank were proudest of their sons and grandchildren, and during their retirement enjoyed frequent visits with them. A few years after Mary Frank's death in 2003 and after 82 years of Paducah residency, Ralph moved to Warsaw, IN, to be near son Gary and his family. He returned to Paducah for various school reunions, and in particular was thrilled to serve as the Big Blue's "Honorary Captain' at the 100th gridiron meeting between Tilghman and Mayfield in 2013. Shortly after celebrating his 90th birthday in April 2016, Ralph enjoyed touring Washington DC as part of a Veterans Honor Flight. Through his last days, Ralph maintained the positive attitude and sense of humor his family will remember him for.
Public visitation will be 5:00 P.M. until 8:00 P.M. Friday August 5th, and again on Saturday August 6th from 10:00 A.M. until 11:00 A.M. at the Milnor & Orr Funeral Home of Paducah. Funeral services will be held at 11:00 A.M. in the Milnor & Orr chapel. Burial will follow at Woodlawn Cemetery.
A college scholarship fund has been established to benefit students at Paducah Tilghman High School, where Ralph and Mary Frank both attended and taught. Memorials may be made to: Paducah Public Schools Foundation (The Ralph and Mary Frank Cooper Memorial Scholarship Fund), P.O. Box 2550, Paducah, KY 42002.
Saturday, August 6th, 2016 11:00am, Milnor & Orr
Woodlawn Memorial Gardens