When Arthur Cooper walked into Chappy’s Deli, where he eats breakfast six times a week, he suddenly slipped and fell on his back. He remembers his friend David Housel, director of Athletics Emeritus at Auburn University, telling him to get off the floor and get to the golf course.
Later, he was talking to his friends at the Saugahatchee Country Club when he made a promise: “When I get to be 100, I’m going to play one more time, one more round.”
Sunday morning, about five years after making that promise and one day after his 100th birthday, Cooper hit a golf ball surrounded by his friends and family at the club. Tied to his golf cart were three silver balloons that formed the number 100.
Golf has always been one of Cooper’s favorite pastimes. He started playing 40 years ago when he retired early and moved back to Auburn with his late wife, Dorothy. He played for about 20 years, but hasn’t done much more than putt around in the backyard over the past 10.
“I never have made a hole-in-one, but I’ve been on the putting green a number of times,” he said with a laugh.
Cooper was born in 1918 in Fairfield, Alabama, and later came to Auburn to study forestry. He switched his major to agricultural engineering his junior year and was a member of the first class at Auburn University to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in that field. He later got a master’s from Auburn and a PhD from Michigan State University in agricultural engineering.
Cooper came back to Auburn as director of the National Tillage Machinery Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He developed the cleats on tractors for the military.
“They needed that worse than they did (needed) to draft me,” he said. “But finally, the person in charge of drafting said, ‘I have to have some more people,’ so I went to the Navy.”
Cooper only spent a short time in the Navy and was a "dry-land sailor," serving as one of three educational interviewers for people getting out of the Navy.
He said his favorite memory working at the National Tillage Machinery Laboratory was when a Japanese engineer came with a group of other engineers to work on machinery plans with Cooper. He enjoyed it so much that he came back the next year. On his third visit, he asked Cooper to come with him to Japan for a month.
“The ladies at the farm machinery companies entertained (my wife) with flower arranging and tea ceremonies while I was talking to the engineers,” he said.
Cooper also had a chance to go to the Soviet Union in the 1950s before it became Russia. He said he enjoyed flying propeller planes there in a time when it was behind the “Iron Curtain.”
He also spent time with the Agricultural Research Service, starting in Washington, D.C., as Deputy Administrator for Soil, Water and Engineering. He spent two years there before moving to New Orleans to become Regional Administrator of the Southern Region of ARS.
But of all the places he’s lived and the 27 countries he’s visited, Cooper said Auburn is his favorite place.
“Auburn’s my home,” he said.
Now, he stays busy with his 900-acre tree farm. On the plantation sits what is said to be the oldest home in Lee County in its original location, built in 1837. He said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the house with his wife, and now it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cooper hopes to be remembered for the research programs he developed, he said. His caretaker, Gyda Simms, who he also calls his “sweetheart,” said he will be remembered by the way he helped people.
“They owe their career to him, is what they say,” Simms said. “He’s just superman.”
Cooper said he has enjoyed his life and that it’s been interesting. He said that he doesn’t have a secret to living a long, happy life, but he advises others to start by finding a good career path.
“Just live and enjoy what you’re doing,” Cooper said. “That’s what I’ve done.”
On Sunday, that meant keeping a promise and hitting the links one more time.