I was living in Oregon in March of 1998 when I heard about the middle school shootings in Arkansas. I felt hit by a bolt of lightning when I heard the word "Jonesboro." My uncle was the Superintendent of the Westside Consolidated School District where the massacre happened, and I knew that he was just weeks away from retirement. What a horrid way for an illustrious career to come to a close. Sure enough, Uncle Grover made the national news, as he and the grief-stricken community tried to make sense of an absolutely senseless tragedy. All of his wins as a basketball coach, all of his years in front of classrooms, the decades spent at the head of several Arkansas school districts... none of that mattered. A lifetime of achievement in Arkansas schools, and it all came down to an awful, horrific tragedy.
Whatever celebration had been planned for Uncle Grover's retirement had been put aside as the community mourned and tried to heal from the loss of four young students and a 32-year-old teacher who was a dear friend of my uncle. In later years, I don't remember a single conversation with Uncle Grover that didn't turn back to this tragedy. Before that, he was best known as the uncle who always had a new joke. I've got an Inbox folder that's more than a decade old filled with "Uncle Grover Jokes" that he started sending out by email once he grasped the potential of technology to share his love of humor. Jokes by email all the time from Uncle Grover, but in person the conversation always recalled the tragedy.
Two months after the Jonesboro killings, my Uncle Grover attended a luncheon in honor of his retirement and his service to Arkansas schools. But even this well deserved event had to be marred by further tragedy. It was at this luncheon that he and the other attendees found out that there had been ANOTHER school shooting, this time in Oregon, where I was. There would be no escaping the tragedy that marked the end of his career, and every school shooting that followed took him back to the worst time of his life, a time that would never leave him.
Recently, over the past several months, my uncle and his sister-in-law started writing a book about his life. About a country boy who went to high school for one reason and one reason only: to play basketball. The tedium of going to school every day, that was the price he had to pay if he wanted to do what he really loved, and that was to play basketball. The book about his life will be a story about a basketball player who went on to become a teacher and a coach, who would lead his Hickory Ridge High School basketball team to the state championship. I know that's what he wanted to be remembered for, and he is remembered by thousands and thousands of former students and colleagues for this and so much else.
The book is sure to be a good one. I can't wait until it is published. I can't wait to read it and find out all the things I didn't know about my Uncle Grover and will never get a chance to ask. Uncle Grover passed away last night, and all across the country and likely places around the world he is being remembered today, not for the shootings in Jonesboro, but for his leadership and sense of humor and his devotion to his first love, basketball. Rest in peace, Coach Cooper.