Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame, published by Corby Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
Growing up in a devout Catholic family in segregated Mobile, Alabama, I had never heard of the University of Notre Dame until I was eleven or twelve years old. It was 1948 when Archbishop Fulton Sheen of New York, with a police escort, pulled up in front of my home on a dirt street in a black neighborhood in Mobile. He was accompanied by Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. My Daddy was raising funds to build a hospital for black folk, and the archbishop heard of the effort and wanted 35 to help. Under Jim Crow laws at the time, black women were not admitted in hospitals in Mobile and had to have their babies at home. My Daddy, a graduate of Hampton Institute, had plans to change that. A popular radio personality, Archbishop Sheen was a nationally known figure and helped raise funds. While visiting, he asked me if I had heard of the University of Notre Dame. I told him I had not. Then he told me that it was a great college and one day, if I wanted to attend, he would be happy to write a letter of recommendation and help me get a scholarship.
In 1950, Mobile’s first African-American hospital opened not far from my home. It was named Blessed Martin De Porres Hospital. By then, Notre Dame had become my college of choice. A few years later, I wrote to Archbishop Sheen, and he wrote back: “Thank you for your kind and warmhearted letter, which brought to mind the happy occasions when I visited with your wonderful family in Mobile…. You have my hearty approval to use my name on your application to Notre Dame University. I shall be delighted to recommend you.” I still have the letter today. So with the help of an academic scholarship, I headed to Notre Dame in the late summer of 1954, climbing aboard the all-black “Jim Crow car” on a train from Mobile to Chicago. It was called the Hummingbird.
On the train, after eating the fried chicken lunch Mom fixed, I decided to see what the dining car was like. There was one table designated for blacks. When I sat down, they pulled a purple curtain around the table to segregate me from the white diners. The Hummingbird took me to Chicago, and then I took the South Shore for the ride to South Bend. When I walked onto the campus, it was a revelation. I still remember clearly seeing the Golden Dome for the first time. This trip to Notre Dame was my first time outside the segregated South. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Until I reached Notre Dame, I don’t think I’d ever been in a room with three white folks. On campus there were no “colored” or “white” signs on the drinking fountains or bathroom doors. People were friendly, and Father Theodore Hesburgh, the 37-year-old president, was determined to make sure my experience was positive. Notre Dame was a great experience!
Those four years laid the groundwork for all the achievements that followed. I would become a Marine general and the first African American to lead a Marine infantry company in combat. That helped open other doors for me in government, business, and diplomacy—including a presidential appointment as the first African-American ambassador to Jamaica. I majored in finance, and I am convinced that my Notre Dame education and exposure to diversity gave me the credibility that was essential to the success that followed in the Marines and my other appointments to corporate boards, such as those of U.S. Steel and PNC Bank. I had attended all-black Catholic schools in Mobile and, thanks to the Dominican Sisters who taught us and my parents’ emphasis on education, I was prepared academically when I went to college. If I had missed out on anything, it was the ability to understand and know different people, but I was lucky enough to go to Notre Dame to pick that up, because at Notre Dame I got a chance to live with people from all over the country, all over the world. It was a school of developing diversity.
Consequently, when I got to the Marine Corps—where I was one of just six blacks among 20,000 Marine officers— working closely with people of all colors really was not a serious problem for me. In my freshman class at Notre Dame, I was one of three African Americans out of 1,500 students. One of the three was my roommate, Mervin “Corky” Parker, who studied organic chemistry, became a chemist and worked almost his whole career with Gillette. He and I remained friends and, over the years, rarely would a week or two go by when we did not get in touch. The other was Aubrey Lewis, a star halfback on the football team and a star hurdler who became the first black captain of an athletic team at Notre Dame—the track squad. He recently was named athlete of the century in New Jersey. He was also the first African-American FBI agent. I was six-feet-six-inches tall and in good shape, but I was no collegiate-level athlete. That was clear—and a humorous memory from my Notre Dame years—when I briefly tried out for the basketball team. At the end of the practice, the coach said that I needed to learn three things: how to shoot, how to pass and how to dribble. “That means you need to learn how to play basketball,” said Corky. End of tryout.
I recall that Father Hesburgh or another priest would drop by and check on us in the dorm in the evenings. At first after he left, Corky and I would look at each other and say, “Why is he checking on us?” But it soon became clear that he just wanted to make sure we were okay. Integration on campus was still relatively new and it was important that it go smoothly. While the campus atmosphere was friendly, I found social life for African-American students was minimal at best. There were only two or three black female students at Saint Mary’s and in the 1950s, even at Notre Dame, it still did not seem like a good idea for me to ask white female students for a date. Every Sunday afternoon at LaFortune Student Center, there was a mixer. The students from Saint Mary’s would come and we would go to meet them. After attending a few of these events, I stopped going because there were never any black girls at the mixer. Coming from Alabama, I still have not gotten used to asking a white girl to dance.
One Sunday afternoon, my friend Bob Moretti from Detroit knocked on my dorm door and shouted, “Cooper, get dressed! There’s a black girl at the mixer.” I immediately got dressed and ran from Dillon Hall to the mixer. I walked in and laid eyes on the most beautiful sister in the world. Her name was Pat LaCour. Pat was tall, smart and beautiful. Not only did that make my day; it made my year. Pat and I remain friends today. She is a great person and we still laugh about meeting that Sunday evening. But as it happened, the girl who became my wife and the mother of my three children—son Patrick and daughters Joli and Shawn—was a student at Marquette whom I met while working a summer job in Chicago, thanks to Father Hesburgh. He wanted to make sure we had work during the summer months, and I didn’t have anything lined up— in Mobile or anywhere else. So in 1956 he arranged for me to work that summer at U.S. Steel’s Chicago mill. I was a “stamper,” a physically tough job that involved putting an identifying number on the white-hot steel as it went by. Years later, when I served on U.S. Steel’s Board of Directors, I was able to joke with the other board members by saying I was the only one who had actually worked in a mill.
It was at Notre Dame that my career as a Marine officer began. When I arrived on campus, I didn’t even know that the ROTC existed. But then I saw these guys wearing blue uniforms, some with Marine emblems. I learned about the Naval ROTC program, which allows you to choose the Marine Corps for your junior and senior years. So in the spring of 1958, when I graduated, I also was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps, the first African American to do so at Notre Dame.
After graduation, I left Notre Dame for the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, but my heart never left the campus at South Bend. My fondness for Notre Dame has only grown over the years, and I am thrilled hat my daughter Joli also chose Notre Dame, where she graduated in 1981, as did her son Ashley Cooke III, who graduated in 2011—making us the first African-American family with three generations graduating from Notre Dame. Over the years I have returned often to attend black alumni programs and other University events. At a reunion in 2011, Joli made sure I heard the stories of recent black graduates who would not have been able to attend Notre Dame without financial help. Joli’s friend, the wonderful Ramona Payne, was in the development office, so I am sure they all had this planned. But these incredible young people moved me with their stories and accomplishments. They inspired me to donate $100,000 and, with my wife, Beverly, endow the J. Gary Cooper Family Scholarship Fund. I also visited Father Hesburgh and took a photograph of him with my daughter Joli and grandson Ashley. While in his office, I noticed that he had a crystal bowl on his bookshelf with his memorabilia. For me, this was not just any crystal bowl—it was a gift he had received from a great friend of Notre Dame, Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I smiled, as I felt like my Notre Dame journey had come full circle.
Jerome Gary Cooper came to Notre Dame in autumn 1954 from Mobile, Alabama. He majored in finance and was a member of the Naval ROTC program. After graduation, he became a marine Corps officer, retiring with the rank of major general. He served as US ambassador to Jamaica during the Clinton administration. He and his wife, Beverly, live in Mobile.