Besse Cooper, an East Tennessee State University alumna who died Tuesday at 116, embodied the spirit the school was founded upon a century ago, one administrator said Wednesday.
Cooper, who passed away at a nursing home in Monroe, Ga., Tuesday, graduated from what was then East Tennessee State Normal School in 1916. She received recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest living person in January 2011.
Her degree from ETSNS authorized her to be a teacher, and that is what she was for many years.
Robert Plummer, ETSU Alumni Association executive director, said though Cooper was not among those first 28 graduates from the normal school, she certainly belonged to an elite crowd who came to the school with hopes and dreams to improve the education and opportunities for everyone in this region.
“Besse Cooper is one of those remarkable stories of East Tennessee State and East Tennessee as a region,” Plummer said. “She finished in 1916 and was one of those early folks that were part of an educational revolution that was at work in Tennessee.”
Three normal schools were established in the early 20th century in the three grand divisions of Tennessee, an effort to bring up the educational levels of the general population.
Cooper was featured in the Johnson City Press’ ETSU Centennial Celebration special commemorative magazine published in October 2011. She also was mentioned in an accompanying documentary video about the school.
After leaving Johnson City, she taught briefly at Tiger Valley. At the end of World War I she moved to Georgia, where she taught school.
Cooper, born Besse Brown, had a great association with ETSU, Plummer said. She named one of her sons after the school’s first president, Sidney Gilbreath. She wore her class ring 92 years, until it had to be removed for health reasons. ETSU encourages graduates to display their ring as recognition of their accomplishment and pride in the school, so having an alum wear their ring for so long is noteworthy, Plummer said.
The alumni association honored Cooper for the length of time she wore that ring, which Plummer said Cooper regarded as a treasure. The ring is in the possession of the Reece Museum at ETSU. Its markings have been worn smooth by constant wear.
When Cooper attended school back in 1916, things were markedly different, Plummer noted. Access to education, for instance, is much greater now.
“She had to catch a train from Sullivan County and ride through all the passages and hillsides and all through Gray Station and Boones Creek and into Johnson City,” Plummer said. “That’s a little different than the commute to Kingsport or Bristol or Johnson City or Greeneville or any of the places we have students coming from.”
Plummer said those first students like Cooper were who laid the foundation for what would become the ETSU of today.
“I think that when you look back, though, if those folks had not come here, had a good experience and been able to do the things that they were able to do we would not had the longevity as an institution,” Plummer said. “And, you know, Besse becomes a great emblem and a person that we can look to for inspiration of that longevity as well.”