Keith Cooper, a lifelong Hyde Parker, Vietnam War veteran, bookseller, avid bowler, jazz aficionado and active member of Augustana Lutheran Church, died July 14 at the University of Chicago Medical Center after two teenagers assaulted him following a botched carjacking. He was 73.
He was born on July 22, 1947, to Doris Moore and Willie Cooper. He attended Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968, serving two tours in Vietnam and leaving the service as a corporal in 1972, living in Okinawa for a time afterwards.
"He was a very proud marine. He enjoyed the brotherhood of it, the community behind it, his travels," said his daughter, Keinika Carlton, in an interview. "He wore his Vietnam veteran hats, jackets and T-shirts proudly."
With Sonja Cooper, whom he later divorced, Cooper had two daughters, Keesha Tyler and Keinika. All three survive him, as does a sister, Marie Cooper, two step-children, Richard Robinson and Michelle Walker, sons-in-law Terrence Tyler and Curtis Carlton, and five granddaughters. Cooper was preceded in death by two brothers, Willie and Edward Cooper, and his parents.
Cooper did league bowling and loved jazz, chiefly Latin jazz and the old WNUA 95.5 broadcasts; he was instrumental in establishing Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., as a venue for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. He was an avid indoor gardener, including herbs for his cooking. Carlton raved about his chili, which he taught her to make. "I still have not perfected it, but now I have to, because somebody has to keep it going," she said.
And he was a supportive father and grandfather who attended school plays and bought raffle tickets. Carlton said he supported her event planning business.
Kate Dumbleton, executive and artistic director of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, said it is logistically difficult to add venues to the event — staff need to be shuffled around, and bus schedules must be reorganized.
"But Keith was so passionate about it, and he just kept talking about the beauty of the space," she said. "I was able to go over and see the space, and it was just so fantastic. He was so invested in working with us. He made it so easy to add a venue."
Over the years, Cooper managed festival volunteers and worked with musicians; a few weeks before his death, he emailed Dumbleton to volunteer at the Back Alley Jazz event in South Shore on Saturday, Aug. 7.
"He was just really passionate about the music and really committed to what the festival does in terms of community-building," Dumbleton said. "His passion for the community and the music was why he did it, and that exists in that church because of him."
Cooper did a variety of jobs over the course of his lifetime. His longest career was with the Illinois State Lottery, but he also worked as an independent bookseller of works by Black authors. "He'd pop tables up at different stores," Carlton said, at 95th or 71st streets or in the South Loop. "Every weekend he was always somewhere different at a pop-up bookstand."
A committed Augustana member who served on the Church Council for a number of terms, Cooper was a leading volunteer on the church's monthly free community breakfast, where he played the role of greeter.
"He was a very social guy, so that was a good role for him," said the Rev. Nancy Goede, his pastor. He was baptized at the church as a child, was an acolyte and had attended Sunday school there; 15 years before his death, he returned to be a member.
Goede remembers him as a committed fundraiser for Augustana. He came up with the idea of parking cars during the 57th Street Art Fair, which yields the church a few thousand dollars every year. He invited friends who do step dancing to the church. "He just liked doing things that were fun and brought people together," Goede said. Her father had been a bowler, and they bonded over how his game was going.
Bill Tompsett, another church volunteer, recalled the important community outreach role the community breakfast played for Augustana.
"Keith was one of the central reasons it was successful," Tompsett said. "He could bridge the gap between people who were serving the breakfast … and the people who came, who were down on their luck in Hyde Park. Keith was able to communicate with all of us.
"He understood people. He cared about people. He brought his granddaughter sometimes, and they would work serving food. And he would circulate around, making sure that people felt welcome and safe."
Carlton praised Cooper's role in raising her. "He always made sure I understood my heritage, my culture, where I come from, my roots, things of that sort, but he also taught me to take who I am wherever I am," Carlton said. "He always encouraged me to support Black-owned businesses and to support my communities and my people, but he always felt like it was up to us to take our culture and take our things into areas that probably didn't have it."
Cooper's Augustana visitation is to include libations and a repast.
"It's going to be very African spirituality-based inside of this Lutheran church," Carlton said beforehand, "because that was him."