By BOTWC Staff
A New Jersey man earned his high school diploma at 101-years-old, The Washington Post reports.
Merrill Pittman Cooper was the only child of a single mother who grew up in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. After he finished the eighth grade at a two room, segregated school in the town, he was able to pass a placement exam that allowed him to attend Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Noting Frederick Douglass as a trustee, Storer was a segregated boarding school created in 1867 after the Civil War, initially aimed at educating formerly enslaved children.
In order to help pay for tuition at the boarding school, Cooper’s mother worked as a live-in housekeeper for a family in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Cooper said that at the time he had dreams of one day becoming an attorney and credits his teachers with helping him out personally, often taking him shopping for clothes and shoes.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but it was my dream to become an attorney. They knew I couldn’t afford it, so they’d take me downtown, then tell me not to tell the rest of the students. The school had mostly Black teachers, and they looked out for me,” Cooper recalled.
Unfortunately, after his junior year of high school at Storer, Cooper realized his mother would not have enough money to make his final tuition payment for his senior year. The two then moved to Philadelphia where his mother had family and he took a job at a women’s clothing store to help with the bills.
“She worked so hard, and it all became so difficult that I just decided it would be best to give up continuing at the school,” said Cooper.
He went on to get hired in 1945 as one of the Philadelphia’s first Black trolley car drivers, enduring severe racism and discrimination and helping to integrate the ranks of trolley operators. When trolleys became a thing of the past, Cooper became a bus driver, running for office of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Local 234 union and serving in various roles including president. In 1980, he was hired as vice president of the former International Transport Workers Union in New York City.
“As time went on, I thought it was probably too late [to get my diploma], so I put it behind me and made the best of the situation. I got so involved in working and making a living that my dreams went out the window,” explained Cooper.
Just two years prior to his appointment as vice president, he had married his longtime love of 14 years, Philadelphia pharmacist and mother of three, Marion Karpeh. Cooper’s youngest stepdaughter, 63-year-old retired lawyer Marion Beckerink, recalls how the two fell in love over homemade pound cake. While not their biological father, Cooper became a dad to them, educating and really uplifting them in a way that stuck.
“My sister and brother and I were impressed as young people that [Merrill] had such a command of literature and was such a great orator…Mr. Cooper – that’s what we called him then – had such a wealth of knowledge. He was constantly quoting famous orators like Kennedy or King. He would tell me and my sister, ‘I wish that I had been a lawyer so I could debate with you.’ But he did just fine,” Beckerink recalled.
Her sister, 64-year-old Enid Karpeh-Diaz, echoed those sentiments, remembering Cooper always telling them to “keep the heat on.”
“My mother and stepdad believed the key to economic stability and career advancement, particularly as an African American, was education. Even though my dad did not have the opportunity to go to college – not having a high school diploma – he achieved a great deal of success in his lifetime,” said Karpeh-Diaz.
Marion Karpeh Cooper passed away in 2015 but the family has remained close. Cooper’s son-in-law, retired New York social studies teacher Rod Beckerink, heard Cooper talking about the struggles he faced as a Black teen during the 1930s. In 2018, the family decided to take Cooper back to Harpers Ferry for the first time in 80 years, allowing him to reconnect with his childhood and take it all in. The buildings still standing from Storer College now exist as a part of Harpers Ferry National Historic[al] Park and historians there were intrigued by Cooper’s story. But Cooper said the thing that resonated with him the most was visiting his birthplace.
“I stayed in a hotel and I ate in a restaurant that I wasn’t allowed to stay in or eat in when I lived there. It felt good to do that,” said Cooper.
After that, Rod Beckerink made a decision that he would give his father-in-law more, working with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson School District to fulfill his lifelong dream of receiving a high school diploma.
Last year, the team set up a surprise graduation ceremony in his honor at a hotel in Jersey City. On March 19th, Cooper’s stepdaughters and son-in-law took him to the hotel under the premise of someone wanting to interview him about his long life. When they arrived, they revealed that he was actually there to receive that long-awaited diploma, complete with cap and gown.
“[I was] around the corner from tears. I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” said Cooper.
He was visibly speechless and after putting on his cap and gown, a virtual ceremony was held in his honor so other family members could bear witness. Jefferson County Schools superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn traveled from West Virginia to present Cooper with his diploma and representatives from the Storer College Alumni Association and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park all attended virtually and gave speeches.
Cooper now has the diploma framed on his bedroom dresser and reflects on the moment fondly.
“I can’t think of a happier day… Even though it took me a while, I’m really happy to finally have it,” he said.
Congratulations, Mr. Cooper! Your story is an inspiration to us all.