The name “Cooper” is as inexorably linked to Somerset’s Fountain Square as any could be.
Perhaps that’s why it’s still jarring to drive by the in-progress renovation of Somerset’s city center and not see the bronze likeness of Sen. John Sherman Cooper standing sentinel at the entrance as it has done for over a quarter-century now — and he in spirit for much longer than that.
Traditionalists ought not fear. Plans are to put the late statesman’s statue back on the square — if in a slightly different sector of it — within a week’s time or so.
The Pulaskian Cooper was one of Kentucky’s most distinguished and admired to ever to walk the halls of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. Cooper served multiple terms — including three partials and two full (the latter from 1960 to 1972) — in the U.S. Senate. The first member of the Republican Party to be elected by popular vote to more than one term as a Kentucky senator, he set record for victory margin in the state in both his 1960s wins and also served as the U.S. Ambassador to both India and East Germany during his career. The honors and accolades assigned to Cooper are myriad.
In 1963, Cooper left a legacy right in the heart of his hometown of Somerset — he was born here on August 23, 1901, part of a prominent local family, and grew up inside its confines — by undertaking a task much like what Somerset is witnessing now. Cooper and his wife Lorraine restored the square in 1963, with a grand dedication ceremony on November 9 of that year proclaiming it as a “gift” to the community.
The revitalization of the square was needed after “old age took its toll” on the area, as noted by Lorraine Cooper at the time. A park was in place as early as 1801, in the county’s salad days, and evolved over time. In 1908, a fountain was erected at the square — a civic group called the Commercial Club raised a whopping (for the time) $1,250 to help fund improvements designed by R.H. Bartells — but after several decades passed, the square was in dire need of a facelift.
A May 30, 1963 photo in the Somerset Journal portrayed some of the preparation for the project by architect Boris Timchenko. “Two landscape architects and site planners from Washington D.C. make a final survey of the park in the Fountain Square ... for remodeling and beautification of the park.”
Sound familiar? Since last winter, Somerset has been abuzz with talk of the current Fountain Square beautification project, paid for with a $1 million grant ($200,000 of it coming from the county) courtesy of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
How about this? In Mrs. Cooper’s words in November 1963, she and the senator “offered to have the park restored to its original beauty — just as a gift to the people of Somerset and Pulaski County. Their plans, however, were delayed by a controversy between the governing bodies of the city and county as to which had jurisdiction over the Fountain Square.”
Flip forward in time to a a Feb. 10, 2011 article in the Commonwealth Journal by Bill Mardis, which begins, “ Maintaining a firm resolve in the face of what appears to be a shaky truce with city government, Pulaski Fiscal Court on Tuesday approved a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to beautify Fountain Square.
“Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler is worried about how the Fountain Square project will affect his dream to revitalize the downtown area,” added the article. “ ... Girdler envisions the heart of the downtown area as a pedestrian-friendly spot with outdoor cafes, and condos to provide spaces for people who would like to live downtown. However, Girdler contends if the county spends $1 million and preserves the square it will nullify his plan to create the type of downtown he would like to see.”
City and county tussling over a Fountain Square makeover? The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
Less controversial — more adorable — was an article from March 1, 1985 concerning the plans to place a statue of square savior Cooper in that prime location. The seventh- and eighth-grade students of Mrs. Alice Wayman at Meece Middle School set about the task of raising money for the statue. Collected in that handiest of containers, a glass jar, the students raised a grand total of $43.50
A total of $60,000 was needed for the cost of the two sculptures — one a bust of Cooper that would be placed in the state capitol rotunda in October of 1987 — but every little bit helped.
Cooper’s sister-in-law, Cornelia Dozier Cooper — wife of the late Richard “Dick” Cooper, the senator’s brother — found the newspaper clipping about the industrious youth in a folder of media mementos she’d gathered over the years. She enjoyed a good laugh about it — one gilded with admiration for the students — over a conversation with a reporter this week.
“Isn’t that interesting?” she remarked. Cornelia Cooper also noted that the Young Republican and Young Democrat Clubs put aside their philosophical differences to raise the money to have the sculptures completed.
“It made me believe in the people of Kentucky that they would recognize John Sherman Cooper for what he stands for,” she said. “For our young people to look up to a man like that.”
Cornelia Cooper said that she had a “wonderful” husband — Dick Cooper, the local business and banking icon — who was “the same kind of man” as the senator.
“(Sen. Cooper) said that Dick was the nicest man he’d ever known,” said Cooper with a laugh before adding, “and he had another brother (Don Cooper).”
Cornelia and Richard Cooper had a role in transforming the square the same as the senator and his wife — they found the sculptor for Sen. Cooper’s statue, enlisting Louisville artist Barney Bright. The statue was unveiled September 27, 1986, right in the heart of Somerset.
Cornelia Cooper had also held onto the Oct. 13, 1987 edition of the Commonwealth Journal, featuring Mardis’ article on the bust of the senator being displayed in Frankfort. She pointed to the glowing remarks that everyone had to say about Sen. Cooper — notables such as Rep. Hal Rogers, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Gov, Martha Layne Collins, and even U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy — a staunch Democrat.
“Sen. Ted Kennedy was from the other party, but when he came to Frankfort when the statue was presented, he said that he went to his brother to find out how to be a good senator,” said Cornelia Cooper. “If he wanted to find the true significance of a bill and deal with somebody really fair and cooperative in the Senate, go to John Sherman Cooper.”
Indeed, Kennedy is quoted in the article as sharing his high praise for his party opponent.
“If you want the unvarnished truth on any issue, free from partisan bias or special interest influence, all you have to do is remember four little words: Ask John Sherman Cooper,” Sen. Kennedy recalled his brother, the late President John F. Kennedy, as telling him.
“In the decade of our own work together, I also came to know Sen. Cooper well — as brilliant statesman, loyal friend and wise advisor,” added Kennedy. “More than a decade has now passed, but in a sense, he has never really left the United States Senate.”
Cornelia Cooper was amazed by this crossing of the aisle to show respect for a leader who rarely followed the party line blindly — Sen. Cooper voted with the GOP majority just a hair over half the time during his first term in the Senate. She compared it to current discontent about gridlock in Washington, suggesting that modern politicians could learn a thing or two from the praise Kennedy had for Cooper.
“Since we’re having such a stalemate in Congress, everyone’s upset about everyone not cooperating ... all this animosity,” said Cornelia Cooper. “To think that Democrats and Republicans actually got along and admired each other!”
Cornelia Cooper is happy to see the Fountain Square that her family had such a key role in nurturing over the years getting attention once more, as expectations are that by August, water will be flowing in a new fountain more grandiose than anything Pulaski County has yet seen.
No project goes without its share of critics — the use of $1 million on the square today has drawn its own, certainly — but Cornelia Cooper’s unique perspective showed that even this most recent naysaying was nothing new.
“People told me (the square) won’t last two weeks,” she said of the last renovation efforts, “and it won’t unless people take care of it. And here it is.
“I love to see progress and quality of life here,” she continued. “I worked down on that square for 30 years, so it means a lot to me. It’s significant to the whole county.”