John Alfred Cooper Sr. (1906–1998)
John A. Cooper Sr. was the founder, chief executive officer, and board chair of Cooper Communities, Inc. He and the business he founded were pioneers in establishing the recreational and retirement community industry in America. His first master-planned retirement community was Cherokee Village (Fulton and Sharp counties), which he formed near the northeastern Arkansas town of Hardy (Sharp County). His company eventually developed various projects across the southeastern United States, including the Arkansas communities of Cherokee Village in 1954, Bella Vista (Benton County) in 1965, Hot Springs Village (Garland and Saline Counties) in 1970, and Sienna Lake (Pulaski County) in 2005, as well as Tellico Village, Tennessee in 1986; Savanah Lakes Village, South Carolina, in 1989; Stonebridge Village, Missouri, in 1993; Glade Springs Village, West Virginia, in 2001; and Creekmoor, Missouri, in 2004. John A. Cooper Sr. led Cooper Communities until 1968, when his son, John Cooper Jr., became president, although he remained active in the company until 1989.
John Alfred Cooper was born in Earle (Crittenden County) on March 27, 1906, attending Earle’s public schools as well as the Mississippi Heights Academy in Mississippi. He attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia, the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee. Cooper received a law degree in 1927 from the Cumberland School of Law in Tennessee.
From 1927 to 1938, Cooper had a legal practice in which he was the law partner of E. C. “Took” Gathings, who went on to represent Arkansas’s First Congressional District from 1939 to 1969. Like Cooper, the Gathings family also lived in Earle, where Gathings graduated from high school before studying law at UA.
During the 1930s, Cooper’s law practice involved him in representing insurance companies and helping to refinance mortgages. He later said that he learned a great deal about property titles, making a number of important professional contacts during that time. Gradually, Cooper began leaning toward the field of real estate, which he felt would be more profitable than concentrating on his legal practice.
Cooper began studying statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Labor with an eye toward real estate investments. He discovered that in the post–World War II years, it was projected that there would be an American worker retiring every twelve seconds.
He recalled family vacations near Hardy, where they were surrounded by lovely natural scenery and spent time fishing and swimming in the clear waters of the Spring River. Cooper thought about average people experiencing that way of life all year round instead of just on vacation, in a way that could be both active and relaxing. He also saw the possibility of such planned communities appealing to multiple generations.
Starting with Cherokee Village, as Cooper Communities built their various developments over the years, the company retained between seventeen and thirty percent of the land purchased as unspoiled common property, providing natural wooded landscapes. Under Cooper’s guidance, the company chose sites in mild climates that were near attractions such as entertainment and shopping, along with providing built-in amenities at the communities themselves such as boating, fishing, golf, and tennis.
Cooper married Mildred Borum, who was originally from Earle, in 1937; they had three daughters and one son. They lived in Cherokee Village from 1963 to 1982. After she died in Bella Vista in 1983, the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista was commissioned in her honor by her family in 1988. After suffering a stroke in 1989, Cooper Sr. moved to the Dallas, Texas, area, after which son John Cooper Jr. led the company.
John Alfred Cooper Sr. died in Texas on January 24, 1998, and is buried in the Bentonville Cemetery.
In 1984, the John A. Cooper Sr. Distinguished Chair of Diplomatic History in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at UA was created in his honor. His leadership roles and recognitions include having served as president of the National Land Council and the National Association of Community Developers, awards for his work with the Boy Scouts of America, and his 2004 posthumous induction into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
Ault, Larry. “Retirement Community Pioneer Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 25, 1998, pp. 1B, 6B.
“Cooper Communities Continues to Pioneer Land Development.” Talk Business & Politics, July 14, 1997. https://talkbusiness.net/1997/07/cooper-communities-continues-to-pioneer-land-development/ (accessed February 28, 2023).
Cooper Communities, Inc. http://www.coopercommunitiesinc.com/ (accessed February 28, 2023).
Talbot, Tish. “John A. Cooper, Sr.: A Vision of the Future.” Arkansas Times, March 1983, pp. 30–33, 36–40.
Garland County Historical Society
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