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Francis H. Cooper, teacher and activist, dies at 86

Cooper, of Freeport, was a science teacher and ardent advocate for civil rights. "He had an inability to sit still when he perceived something was wrong," his son said.

Francis Hedgeman Cooper in 2007.

Francis Hedgeman Cooper in 2007.   Photo Credit: Peter Dilauro

Francis Hedgeman Cooper, a science teacher and longtime civil rights and community activist, died at his home in Freeport on March 2 at age 86. He had suffered from lung cancer and prostate cancer, his family said. 

Cooper taught high school biology in Wyandanch in the 1970s and elementary school science at the Harbor Hill School in the Roslyn school district in the 1980s, until he retired in 1995 while living in Uniondale, said his daughter, Melody Cooper, of Hastings-on-Hudson.

In the 1960s, he helped lead a chapter of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality on Long Island, and decades later, when he lived in Freeport, he was most known for bringing that same passion to the effort to improve the failing Roosevelt schools, said his son, Christian Cooper.

“He had an inability to sit still when he perceived something was wrong,” said Christian Cooper, of Manhattan. "He passed that on to his kids as well — you’re not a Cooper until you’ve been arrested at a protest demonstration. The idea he passed on to us is if you see something that’s wrong, it’s your personal responsibility to do something about it.”

Cooper was an active member of the Roosevelt Watch Society and Roosevelt's Community Empowerment Coalition. He was notorious for recording every minute of the Roosevelt school board’s proceedings, said Nassau County Legis. Debra Mulé, a Freeport resident and longtime family friend.

“He brought his recording camera to public meetings to keep people honest,” Mulé recalled. “He was always someone who would speak out for things he believed to be right and he didn’t care what kind of a scene he caused or what feathers he ruffled — he was going to speak out.”

Cooper’s other passions including gliding and enjoying nature and the outdoors. He idolized the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tails, famed African-American pilots of World War II, but couldn’t fulfill his dreams of becoming a pilot because of poor eyesight, his son said. He then developed an interest in gliders, joining the Long Island Soaring Association and spending nearly every week in recent years working to keep the sailplanes flying from Brookhaven Calabro Airport.

“He was something of a fire-breathing dragon in many respects, and sometimes he could not really turn the fire off,” Christian Cooper said. “But if you had a cause, or were going into battle, boy, you were glad that dragon was on your side.”

Cooper was born Nov. 12, 1932, in Jersey City to Thelma Burke and Henry Cooper and was raised by his father’s second wife, Eileen. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Cooper joined the Air Force as a mechanic and dealt with discrimination in and around military bases in Texas, an experience that would fuel his activism, his son said.

When he returned to Brooklyn after leaving the Air Force, he graduated from the City College of New York, where he pursued his interests in science and racial justice. Cooper also studied under Dr. Kenneth Clark, famous for his doll experiments exploring bias. He went on to participate in civil rights marches alongside his friend the Rev. Robert Castle in Jersey City. Cooper briefly lived there with his first wife, Margaret Eversley, whom he married in 1961, and two infant children before settling on Long Island. Cooper married Miriam Hairston in 1987.

In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by his wife, Miriam, of Freeport; stepchildren, Muriel Cooper of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Michael Hairston of Hempstead; two sisters, Aleta Lovell of Coram and Eleanor Hawkins of Annapolis, Maryland; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held March 16 at noon at the Cecere Family Funeral Home, 2283 Grand Ave., Baldwin. Cooper was cremated. The family requests donations to Cooper’s favorite charity, Doctors Without Borders.

A previous version had the incorrect location of Stuyvesant High School. 

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