It’s official. Skip Cooper has stepped down from the Presidency of the Black Business Association (BBA), a position he held since 1972. Actually, the transition has already taken place, with his passing the baton to Sarah R. Harris, who assumed the role of President/CEO on Jan. 1.
As he closes this chapter of what continues to be a life of achievement and generosity, Cooper allowed OW a glimpse at the challenges and triumphs that shaped him as a pillar of LA’s Black community.
Earl “Skip” Cooper ll traces his entry into the world of commerce at the age of as an intrepid paperboy in his native Oakland, Calif. He maintains he’s been having conversations with God since he was a little boy coming up in the East Bay. This spiritual relationship has provided sustenance throughout the peaks and valleys of a remarkable life.
As a proud graduate of McClymonds High School, Skip came of age in the midst of the turbulence of the mid-20th century, one of the most consequential eras in the history of this nation, and Black people specifically. On top of the racial strife and cultural upheavals, America was caught up in the Cold War that evolved after World War II.
As an impressionable 19 year-old, he, like most of his generation, was called to arms and reported to Ft. Sam Houston for training as a combat medic. In his naivety, he initially assumed he was headed to Houston, Texas, next to historically Black Texas Southern University and its thriving social life. His expectations dashed, he settled in to make do with the hospitality of comparatively smaller San Antonio.
Trial by Fire
“I told God, ‘I know you didn’t put me here to die. If you did, do it the first week I’m in Vietnam. Don’t have me stay here until a week before I’m supposed to return and then let me die.’ ”
—Skip Cooper on his arrival in Vietnam
As a full-fledged member of the 25th Infantry Division (“Tropical Lightning”) he and his fellow troops were transported to a little known southeast Asian country called Vietnam, arriving on April 1, 1966. Among his duties as a hospital orderly, he was responsible for carrying the WIAs (wounded in action) from the helicopter pad into the wards for treatment. Many of these unfortunates were multiple amputees sedated with morphine, and Skip consoled them as best he could with a reassuring “you’re going to be alright.”
One particularly grisly incident involved copter crews tossing sandbags filled with the debris of firefights from their aircraft. As “Doc” Cooper retrieved one bag, he discovered a human head in it.
Other grim tasks included toiling in the euphemistically named “Grave Registration,” a polite term for the military morgue. Again he witnessed the aftereffects of combat in a large warehouse filled with corpses being prepared for shipment back to the States.
“Some of the bodies had begun to decompose, some had bullet holes, some were just body parts or had body parts missing,” he remembers.
Off time involved returning to his barracks, located near an artillery battery where large howitzers lobbed shells around the clock.
“…the sound seemed to come from underneath my tent,” Cooper said. “It was tough getting accustomed to that loud noise, but over time I did.”
These tribulations were punctuated by the sound of B-52 bombers as they executed their “Arc-Light” missions, their bombs striking the ground while emitting a mist of colorful smoke. Years later they would learn this smoke was the residue of a cancerous herbicide called Agent Orange.
Unlike many of his brothers-in-arms, Skip Cooper did not return home with visible injuries from his tour of duty. Alas, he brought with him, other tangible, memories of his time in service.
“Years later I realized that I had internalized my stress while in Vietnam, a condition that became known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” he said. “I promised God that if I made it back (from Vietnam), I’d make a difference. I still talk to him often.”
Back to the World
By March 7, 1967, Skip returned from Vietnam convinced of his “Special Purpose in Life,” as evidenced by God’s blessing in allowing him to survive the ordeal of the previous year. The Bay Area and the nation he returned to were in the midst of a major transition.
Enrolling at Merritt College (which spawned the Black Panther Party) with intentions of earning an AA degree in the relatively new major of African American Studies, he discovered a campus embroiled in the mantra of liberation and social change. Upon achieving his goal in 1968, he continued his education across the bay at Golden Gate University earning a BA degree in Business Administration in 1970.
Desiring a change of climate, he moved south to the warmth of Los Angeles in 1972. Upon arriving, he experienced an omen of sorts with the staging of the Wattstax festival to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots/Insurrection on Saturday, Aug. 20, 1972. Over 100,000 predominately Black concert-goers congregated in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to enjoy the music of Isaac “Black Moses” Hayes, the Bar-Kays, and other musical acts, convincing the newly arrived Cooper of a populace receptive to advocacy and guidance to prosperity.
Through diligence and networking, he was able to secure an internship at the prestigious Marshall School of Business Masters Program at USC. As a seasoned veteran with a foundation of life experience to sustain him, he dedicated himself to his stated goal of entrepreneurship with a vengeance.
His 1973 graduation coincided with the election of Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles. Looking back on the two decade tenure of Bradley at the city’s reigns, he considers him the greatest administrator of any major city in the country, with a subtle style that consistently yielded results.
In addition to his time with the BBA, the organization he is most often identified with, Cooper has been on the staff of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation since 1974. That organization assists minority-owned firms in securing contracts in both the public and private sectors.
While he is formally stepping away from the BBA he has led for 46 years, Cooper emphasizes he will remain available for advice and consulting. He will continue on as chairman of the board & president emeritus, ensuring a bright future for aspiring business people.
“Most importantly, I have the ability to deliver a message. Right now my message is that I’m leaving the BBA in good hands,” a reference to his successor, Sarah Harris, who brings with her an extensive background in publishing and print design, and has a two decade relationship with the BBA.
His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that he is a 100% certified disabled Vietnam era veteran. This coming Aug. 20th, his friends and admirers will demonstrate their gratitude with a 70s-themed dinner and roast at Exposition Park’s California Science Center.
For more on Los Angeles’ Black Business Association and its upcoming tribute reception in Cooper’s honor, visit their website at https://www.bbala.org.