J. Gary Cooper, the first Black officer in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry company into combat, died Saturday, April 27, 2024, at age 87.

J. Gary Cooper, the first Black officer in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry company into combat, died Saturday, April 27, 2024, at age 87. (U.S. Marine Corps)

(Tribune News Service) — A visitation service will be held Wednesday for the late J. Gary Cooper, a Mobilian who became the the first Black officer in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry company into combat and who later had a distinguished career in politics, including service as a U.S. ambassador.

According to information provided by Cooper’s family, Maj. Gen. Jerome Gary Cooper, USMC (ret.), died on the morning of Saturday, April 27. He was born Oct. 2, 1936, in Lafayette, La., and was 87 at the time of his death.

The Mobile County Commission expressed condolences to Cooper’s family with a statement that read, in part: “Major General Cooper, commemorated on a mural in downtown Mobile, was a difference-maker and a man of many firsts. He was the first African American officer to lead an infantry unit (Vietnam War) and he was the first African American Marine Corps officer to achieve the rank of General. His illustrious career as a soldier, commander, state legislator, national military leader, international diplomat, and local businessman changed lives and paved the way for many. He will be sorely missed.”

Cooper grew up in Mobile and graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary School. He attended college at Notre Dame, where he joined the ROTC. After graduating with a degree in finance in 1958, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and served on active duty for 12 years. That period included combat duty in Vietnam, where, according to information provided by his family, Cooper “earned a number of decorations for heroism including the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts for wounds received in ground action, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry three times. His other military decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.”

Cooper became a reservist in 1970 and served in a variety of capacities, rising to the rank of major general in 1988, when he returned to active duty as director of personnel at the Marine Corps headquarters. He retired from the Corps in 1996.

His career in government began in 1974, when he became one of the first African-Americans to be elected to the to the Alabama House of Representatives since the Reconstruction era. In 1978 he resigned to serve as commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources. He served under President George H.W. Bush as assistant secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and the Environment and under President Bill Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.

In the corporate and nonprofit world he held leadership positions with organizations including David Volkert & Associates, CNP Bancorp, The Community Foundation of South Alabama, the American Friends of Jamaica, U.S. Steel, Inc., PNC Financial Services, GenCorp., Protective Life Insurance Co., and the Air University Board of Visitors. According to his family, he was “very proud to serve as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Commonwealth National Bank, the first minority owned National Bank in Alabama.” Additionally he was a member of numerous civic organizations including Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, 100 Black Men of Greater Mobile, the Montford Point Marine Association, the NAACP Unit 5033 and the Marine Corps League.

According to a full obituary published by his family, he is survived by “his loving wife of 33 years, Beverly Martin Cooper, and three adult children, Patrick Charles Cooper, Joli Claire Cooper and Gladys Shawn Cooper; seven grandchildren, Sophie Cooper ( Dan Fishman), Celia Mouton Cooper, Patrick Samuel Cooper, Oliver Cooper, Ashley Harold Cooke, III, Alana Marian Nelson and Anthony Cooper Nelson, Jr.; and one beautiful great granddaughter Annalise Boaz Cooper Fishman; brother Algernon Cooper, Jr., Esquire and former Mayor of Prichard, Alabama; and sister Dominique Cooper, Artist residing in Santa Fe, NM; special nephew Christopher (Amy) Cooper; a host of other nieces and nephews, family, friends; and lifelong friends James Harrell, Nettie Stewart and Nathaniel Jones.”

A wake and visitation will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 1, at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Mobile. He will later be interred in a private ceremony at the Alabama State Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Spanish Fort.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC.


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