Veterans Day General Cooper
Jerome Gary Cooper was born on October 2, 1936, in Lafayette, Louisiana, to a devout Catholic family. He grew up in the 1950s in the “Down the Bay” community of Mobile, AL, an average segregated urban area in the South during that time. Cooper says, “The streets were dirt and such, but we had a movie theatre called the Harlem Theatre, and on Sunday, they had a double feature and what that meant is that you could see the movie twice. So, I went in one day when I was around 15 years old to see a movie. The film was called “Sands of Iwo Jima,” a 1949 war film starring John Wayne. I was so impressed with that movie’s action. At that point, I knew inside that I wanted to be like anybody that strong, smart, and wild. That was the first time I had heard of the Marine Corps, but I made my mind up after seeing that movie that I wanted to be a Marine.”
Cooper did not know at that time that his dream would become a reality. But based on a recommendation from Archbishop Fulton Sheen of New York, Cooper won an academic scholarship to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Finance in 1958. Cooper says, “I got commissioned as a marine officer the day I graduated from Notre Dame University, almost 65 years ago. I rode on the back of a segregated train to Quantico, where we had our officer’s training school. I was the only person from Washington, DC, and when I got off at Quantico, the white guys said are you going with us? And I ran up and got in line. I tell everyone that this was the most important line I ever got in because it taught me how to be a leader. It taught me the principles of leadership and leadership traits, and I try to share that with young people today, letting them know that you have to learn how to be a leader and practice being a leader.”
Cooper says, “When I got commissioned, there were 20,000 officers in the marines, and only six of us were black. On that day, I knew that I had no choice but to be the absolute best I could be.” From 1958 to 1970, he was an active-duty officer and became the first African American officer in Marine Corps history to lead an infantry company into combat. “Everywhere we went people watched us, at the commissary, at the post exchange people watched us because they had never seen a black marine officer. Although it was only six of us, we made it a point that if we didn’t look as good as everybody else, we would go home and change clothes because we were standing on our ancestors’ shoulders, and we needed to represent.”
Cooper is no stranger to entrepreneurship. In 1970, he became the CEO of his family’s insurance company and funeral home, Christian Benevolent Funeral Home, in Mobile, AL. In 1976 he helped to found Commonwealth National Bank (CNB), a full-service nationally chartered commercial bank. CNB is one of only 15 black-owned banks remaining in the country and one of only five black-owned banks regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency. Out of forty-five banks doing business in the City of Mobile and CNB is the only one headquartered here. Giving black small businesses their wings is one thing that Cooper strives to do through the bank. “He says, being a veteran is a great thing, but you got a real challenge if you’re a black veteran-owned business. As shown in the current election polls, Alabama is a conservative state, with 65% of the population trending conservative. To remain profitable and relevant, you must work hard to get as much support as you can from the African American community and then reach out to others to gain their support. I asked a minister the other day, why don’t you bank at your home bank, the only bank headquartered in Mobile, and he said General Cooper, we’re out in West Mobile; it’s inconvenient for us to come to your bank.