I saw in the paper one weekend that someone I profiled a couple years ago passed away. Sam Cooper was a Douglas County Court judge in Nebraska. I believe my late mother, Gemma Pietramale, was a classmate of his at now defunct Mason Elementary School in Omaha. He was Jewish, my mom Italian, and the school a veritable melting pot of European ethnicities. A diminutive man in terms of height, his stature in local judiciary circles ranked high, as much for his fair, gentle manner as for his legal acumen. When I met with he and his wife it was clear to see he was on the fragile side physically, but his mind and spirit were sharp, and his abiding love for America and its freedom was evident in the way he spoke almost reverently about the opportunities this nation provide his immigrant family. My story on Cooper originally appeared in the Jewish Press, and I offer it here as a remembrance of this kind little man with a big heart.
Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Retired Douglas County Court Judge Samuel V. Cooper’s immigrant parents always told him anything is possible in America. They were living proof. Sam, too. Like them, he came from “the old country,” and like they did he’s taken what America’s offered and made the most of it.
His success as a lawyer, as a Democratic Party operative and as a judge fulfilled the family’s dream of becoming productive American citizens. His life became the embodiment of the Great American Ideal he once wrote a prize-winning essay about. None of it would have happened without his family having the courage of their convictions and leaving totalitarian Europe for freedom in the United States.
He said his father, Martin Cooper, made his way here after escaping the turmoil of war-torn Europe. Martin (Mayer) was a Russian Army conscript in World War I and was taken prisoner by the Austrian-Hungarian Army. Once released, he yearned to follow his brother Harry to America. Harry ended up in Omaha, where he built his own successful construction company. His Cooper Construction Co. built the old Beth Israel and Beth El Synagogue buildings.
But before Martin made the leap he first settled in Chelm, Poland. That fateful move led to him meeting his future wife, Ida (Chaya), who operated a candy store. The couple married and began a family. Their two oldest children, Jack and Sam, were born in Chelm.
Memories of Chelm are still with Cooper. How, for instance, his family lived in an apartment complex with a central courtyard that contained a common well from which residents drew water.
Cooper said his father could no longer ignore the itch to find something better and, so, in 1924 he embarked on a new start for the family by going on ahead of them to America. In classic immigrant tradition he planned to establish himself in some trade and then send for his wife and kids to join him. No one could have imagined how long it would take for the family to be reunited.
Martin worked for a time with his brother in the construction company but found his niche in the grocery business, said Cooper. One of the stores Cooper’s father worked for was Tuchman Brothers. With $500 his father saved, Cooper said, the enterprising man opened his own grocery store at 21st and St. Mary’s Avenue. By 1929, nearly six years after leaving his family in Poland, Cooper’s father finally saved enough to buy passage for his wife and two sons.
The image of saying goodbye to friends and schoolmates at the seder he attended is still fresh in Cooper’s mind. He recalls sailing on the S.S. Leviathan, in steerage, and arriving in New York. After a few days there a train took him, Jack and their mother to Omaha. He recalls nobody was at Union Station to meet them. A taxi took them to the address Martin had sent. The reunited family was the subject of stories and photos in the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee News.
If they had stayed in Poland just a few more years they might well have become victims of the Holocaust. Family that remained behind were never heard from again.
Sam was 8 when he arrived in Omaha. He and his family lived in back of the store.
His parents had little formal education, he said, but were quite literate and well-informed. He said his “very well read” father “read The Forward religiously. The radio, of course, had news about world events and he was very up on that.” As his father “felt his foreignness,” he said his dad took pains to improve his English and thereby better assimilate. Growing up, Cooper worked in his father’s store.
He said his mother was “a simple woman” who had small aspirations for him — desiring only that he find some stable work, perhaps a store of his own. She spoke of nothing high falutin, such as the law. Besides, where would the money come from to study a profession in college?
Cooper was a good student at Mason Grade School, where he received special help with his English language skills. He got so proficient so fast he became editor of a mimeographed school newspaper. The oratory abilities that would help make him a lawyer and, later, a judge, found him serving as MC during the dedication for a school addition. But it was at Central High School where he really shined. Active in speech and debate, his coach encouraged Cooper to enter a national essay contest conducted by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
His entry, entitled “The Benefits of Democracy,” swept local, regional and national honors, earning Cooper a $1,000 grand prize that he used to pay his way through Omaha University. He wrote the essay at a pivotal, anxious time in world history. It was 1940. Nazi Germany was on the march. Great Britain was under siege. The entire world would soon be at war. Most agonizingly for Cooper, Jews were being persecuted back in the country of his birth.
In a fervid paean to his adopted homeland, the young patriot expressed his love for America and its democratic ideals, contrasting the freedom he and his family enjoyed here with the tyranny they would have otherwise faced abroad.
“Democracy to me is not something abstract and far off. It is with me at home, on the street, at school…It is like the very air I breathe. We do not have to sit on a special bench, nor wear a certain type of clothing…None of us need fear that somebody will report us to a storm trooper. We can read any book, newspaper or magazine that is published and they are not censored. We can go to sleep at night and be assured that we will not be awakened and be dumped across a border. We can awake in the morning and hear footsteps and know it is the milkman, not the gestapo.”
Clearly, for Cooper, the unfolding tragedy in Europe was not an abstract or remote problem. Although his parents were not political, he said they, too, followed what happened. He said his father “did get involved with some of the newly arrived people. They met like on Saturdays and discussed things — the news especially. He also helped a lot of refugees after the Holocaust to get settled.”
Economics intrigued Cooper while at Omaha U. but the practical side of him ruled the field out when, he said, he discovered “you can’t make a living at it.” His studies were soon disrupted by the war. Drafted in the Army in 1943 he ended up in the Quartermaster Corps, serving in England and Belgium. After Germany’s defeat in early 1945 he and fellow servicemen were on a ship that sailed through the Panama Canal to the Philippines. They were en route to the South Pacific to supply troops for the planned invasion of Japan. When the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s bloodiest war finally came to an end. A few months later Cooper headed home.
Inspired by a friend from his youth who became a lawyer Cooper used the GI Bill of Rights to study law at Creighton University, where he completed an accelerated program that saw him get his degree in two years. This Jew delighted in the Jesuit rigor he found at Creighton.
“I enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere. Most of the professors would stir up something in your mind.”
To this day he feels indebted to the framers of the GI Bill for giving him the opportunity to complete his higher education and enter a profession that became his career. He takes offense to any suggestion that, for example, the Social Security Act was the greatest legislation ever passed. “The GI Bill is a little bit above that,” he’ll tell you.
Upon passing the bar Cooper first practiced law with Joe Friedenberg. As the courts’ Referee in Bankruptcy Friedenberg appointed the young attorney Trustee, which meant Cooper dealt with creditors and collected assets from those filing bankruptcy, netting him $5 for each case he cleared. He applied his fee toward his office rental. Later, attorney Loyal Kaplan tabbed Cooper to join him in a practice dealing with interstate and intrastate commerce applications for truckers’ routes.
Cooper next joined Jack Mayer for “a whopping sum of $50 a month and office space.” He certainly wasn’t getting rich in law. Indeed, he was barely getting by. Things were tight, especially after he married the former Judith Steinhorn of Dallas, Texas and the couple started a family. Things weren’t much more lucrative after he, Norm Denenberg and Ed Mullery formed their own law firm.
“I think we took any type of law business we could get, including divorces, filings for bankruptcy, drunk driving cases,” Cooper said.
He first entered politics in the mid-1950s. His abiding love for the democratic process and current events led him into that rarefied sphere.
“I got interested in politics,” is how he simply puts it.
Helping spur his interest were his struggles making ends meet as a lawyer. “I had time on my hands,” he said. “The law practice wasn’t going that great…” The opportunity was there to give back to America and he chose to take it.
“In the early years I ran for the original City Charter Convention that we’re operating under now in Omaha,” he said. “There must have been about 75 candidates running for 15 positions. The idea was to write up a modern charter. We met several times. We hired an expert that had done it in other places.
“One of the features, by the way, we placed in the charter was a provision requiring the mayor to appoint a review committee at least once every 10 years to assess if any alterations were needed in the charter. And I got appointed to two subsequent Omaha Charter Study Conventions.”
The first time around, in the ‘50s, he said, “I guess I was one of the younger members of the convention.” By his second time around, in the mid-’60s, he was a veteran politico who’d done his share of canvassing and campaigning.
“I worked for the Democratic Party on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, who was sort of a hero of mine. He sounded so well in his oratory.”
Cooper beat the bushes on voter registration drives and getting people out to vote for the Democratic ticket. Twice Stevenson opposed Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential general election and twice he lost. The egg head couldn’t defeat the war hero. Cooper said the dichotomy of the candidates then reminds him of the current presidential race that pits an intellectual dove in Democrat Barack Obama against a war hero hawk in Republican John McCain.
Election nights particularly appealed to Cooper. Whether his candidate won or lost, it was the culmination of the democratic process in action. Besides, he said, he enjoyed the party atmosphere on those electric nights full of anticipation and excitement. The hopes and efforts of weeks of work came to a head.
Omaha lawyer and political boss Bernie Boyle introduced Cooper to then-Nebraska Governor Ralph Brooks, who was responsible for Cooper becoming further entrenched in the political apparatus when he appointed the up-and-comer Douglas County Election Commissioner. “That was a fun job,” Cooper said. Again, he most fondly recalls the election night buzz that prevailed as ballot boxes came in and the results tallied. His wife made things homey by bringing in pans of baked chicken and all the fixings to tide Sam and his staff over as they worked into the wee hours.
Asked what he thinks of the ballot irregularities that have surfaced in recent U.S. general elections. he said, “We didn’t have any of those problems” under his watch at city hall. The controversy attending the disputed Florida results did not happen when Cooper presided over a recount here. When illness forced incumbent John Rosenblatt to retire in ‘61, the mayoral race came down to a dead heat between Jim Green and James Dworak. Green lost by a slim margin — a few hundred votes, Cooper recalled. The law required a recount. Cooper oversaw the process and he said the result “came pretty close to that same number.” End of story.
Cooper’s calm, cool demeanor and professionalism in that potentially volatile situation would become his trademark.
In 1964 Cooper once again took a leadership position within his party by serving as Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman, an experience he termed “great.” He said that year’s state convention “was one of the finest conventions we’ve seen here.” President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and as a memorial Cooper had printed “a sort of farewell” salute with photos and sayings of the slain leader of the free world.
By the fall of ‘68 the nation was reeling from the assassinations of three more leaders who inspired hope — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Civil unrest plagued many big cities. Anti-war protests mounted. Amid this incendiary backdrop the rancorous Democratic National Convention unfolded in Chicago, where youth demonstrators were brutally dispersed by city boss Mayor Richard Daley’s thug police force outside the convention hall.
Cooper was there as an alternate delegate — not in the melee on the streets but inside the contentious, smoke-filled convention that finally nominated Hubert Humphrey. Chicago wasn’t his first national convention but it was his most memorable. While he didn’t witness any overt violence with his own eyes he said the wire mesh covering the windows of the bus that transported him and fellow delegates from the hotel to the hall was a stark symbol of the discord.
“We didn’t see much of the demonstrations going on,” he said. “We heard about it. Speakers talked about it.”
Reform legislation in the Nebraska Unicameral aimed at modernizing the county court system resulted in Cooper throwing his hat in the ring with other lawyers vying for a spot on the bench. Cooper won election in ’72 and later was retained. He said James Moylan was “very helpful in my election.”
Wearing the judge’s robe seemed a good fit for Cooper.
“When the opportunity came along,” he said, “it looked like steady money coming in and I thought I’d like the position. People said I had the temperament for it, and I think I did. I’d listen to both sides fairly and try to do the right thing in the case.
Did he enjoy the position as much as he thought he might? “Yes, very much so,” he said, adding he liked “the contact with lawyers and the contact with cases themselves.”
The country court’s “high volume” docket kept things humming. “I mean, we didn’t shy away from cases,” he said. “We had multiple jurisdictions. We had to get things done, which we did. We all kept busy. We had to be there at a certain time to start the court and to process the cases. On the other hand, we usually got through by 4:30 or something like that.”
He liked the variety of cases he presided over — from criminal to civil to probate matters. Another judgeship, perhaps in a higher court, never interested him. After 32 years on the bench he retired in 2005.
If his years on the bench taught him anything, he said, it’s that “it’s far more important to be fair than to be tough. It’s important not to lose patience, to listen and to give everybody a fair hearing.”
He still keeps his hand in the law by volunteering as a mediator with the Douglas County Prosecutor’s Office. In a non-binding atmosphere he meets with parties embroiled in legal disputes to discuss their case, putting his skills for communication and deliberation to work, sometimes getting the two sides to settle out of court or to drop the matter all together.
One of his four children, son Justin Cooper, followed him into the profession. “It’s nice to have another lawyer in the family,” the proud papa said.
Some time ago Sam Cooper wrote down reflections about his life. The gratitude he expressed in middle-age is of a man who’s never grown cynical or bitter about the state of the nation that he loves:
“In looking back over those years I consider myself a very lucky person. Lucky to have missed the Holocaust in Poland. Lucky to have come to America, a country of great opportunity, a country that has been very good to me. Lucky to have missed being injured or killed in my Army years. Lucky to have been educated as a lawyer under the GI Bill…Lucky to have become a judge, to have a loving wife, a happy marriage and four children who have grown into exceptional and successful adults and parents, and 11 grandchildren of whom I’m very proud to be my offspring.”
The man he’s become is very much what he imagined as a boy, when he wrote these words as a salute to the democratic ideals that offered him the opportunity to be whatever he wanted to be:
“Democracy is much more than the declaration of independence, the constitution and our laws…It is beyond paper and ink. There is something about the American people that continually seeks freedom. Perhaps it is our heritage and principles. Perhaps it is the ideals that have so long been embedded in our hearts. Perhaps it is the realization that men can live together in peace and happiness. Whatever it is I am glad I might take part in these benefits…I hope I can find my place in this American democracy.”
Sam Cooper found his place all right — as a dedicated public servant and defender of liberty and justice for all. At age 86 he lives the promise of America every day.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning Expose on Boys Town (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Dick Holland Responds to Far Reaching Needs in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A. Marino Grocery Closes: An Omaha Italian Landmark Calls It Quits (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Community and Coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)