December 19, 2014

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The Dash Between: Sylvester Cooper’s pulpit was out on the streets

Sylvester Cooper liked to get up early in the morning, put on his Sunday best and walk the streets of Elyria.

The Dash Between:
About this feature
The dates of birth and death that appear like bookends on a tombstone do not matter as much as the dash between those dates: The life that a person lived.

Alana Baranick

Alana Baranick

The Dash Between is an obituary feature written by Alana Baranick about regular folks from Lorain County and adjacent areas. Baranick wrote her first obit in 1985 when she was a reporter for The Chronicle. She wrote obituaries for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer from 1992 through 2008.

"Life on the Death Beat"

"Life on the Death Beat"

She is the chief author of “Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers” and director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. She won the 2005 American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award in the Obituary category.

Today, Alana Baranick examines The Dash Between Oct. 16, 1925, when Sylvester Cooper was born in Ripley, Tenn., and Nov. 24, 2009, when the Elyria resident died at New Life Hospice in Lorain.

The Dash Between is scheduled to appear in The Chronicle every other Sunday.

To suggest a story or make a comment, contact Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com.

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“He didn’t believe in wearing everyday clothes,” his sister-in-law, Gertrude Cooper, said at his funeral. “He had a suit and a hat on every time you saw him.”

Sylvester, who died Nov. 24, 2009, at age 84, was often mistaken for his younger brother, Bishop Willie C. Cooper, founder of the Call Out Church of the Almighty God in Elyria.

“When you see him, you’re looking at me,” Bishop Cooper said. “We looked alike. We dressed alike. We looked pretty clean all the time.”

To distinguish between the two brothers, family and friends began referring to Sylvester as “the walking one.”

As the elder brother, Sylvester “taught me how to dress,” the bishop said. “He made sure my shoes were shining, my tie would be fitting right, suit would be upright, my shirt wouldn’t be too big.”

Sylvester was born Oct. 16, 1925, in Ripley, Tenn., the sixth of 11 siblings. The children worked in the cotton fields with their mother, Eliza, and father, Isaiah, a sharecropper who became an ordained minister.

“We were a real poor family,” his brother said. “He had to help take care of my dad and my mother.”

After Sylvester and his wife, Bertha, married on Feb. 21, 1944, they too became sharecroppers. But Sylvester went on to grind cottonseeds at a cotton processing plant.

He lost two fingers in an industrial accident at a factory in 1962.

He worked with concrete in residential construction before moving in 1969 to Elyria, where he had relatives and hoped to earn higher wages.

His wife stayed behind with their children.

“It was too cold for her,” daughter Phyllis Taylor of Elyria said. “They never got divorced. They always talked.”

Sylvester took various jobs in Elyria that he could walk to and sent a portion of his income to Bertha to help support the family. He returned to Tennessee for visits, but not often. It was too far to walk, and Sylvester didn’t drive.

The Coopers spent more time together in their later years. In 2005, each of them traveled more than 600 miles one way to attend the other’s 80th birthday party.

Bertha made several trips to Elyria as Sylvester faced multiple health problems.

In the weeks before his death, “He didn’t act like a sick man or like a dying man,” Bishop Cooper said. “He acted like a joyful man. He talked with me and jived and told me what I’d done when I was a boy.”

At the funeral, their son, Charles, who lives in Clarksville, Tenn., told the crowd that he missed his dad whenever they were apart.

“But I always knew where my dad was,” Charles said. “And I knew how to get to him, and the distance was never too far, never too great.”

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Sylvester, the father of seven, often stepped in as a parent figure and confronted young people who were playing hooky or behaving badly during his daily walking tours of Elyria.

He confronted them and urged them to stay in school and to stay away from drugs and gangs. He punctuated his statements by threatening to tell their parents if he ever saw them misbehave again.

Sylvester, who had a sixth-grade education, understood the problems that arise from the lack of an education. In 1989 at age 64, when he found he could not read instructions for healthy living that a public health nurse had recommended, he enrolled in Project Read, the Elyria Public Library’s one-on-one free literacy program.

Since completing the course and brushing up his reading skills, Sylvester showed off his Laubach Way To Reading Diploma as if it were a PhD. He also became a regular user of the library’s Bookmobile during its weekly visits to his apartment building.

Last year, he appeared in a commercial to promote the literacy program.

Watch the library commercial:

Although he warned youngsters on the street about their less-than-saintly behavior, Sylvester himself indulged in a few vices — like gambling. He walked from his residence at Harr Plaza to Eddie’s Cigar Store in downtown Elyria a couple times a day to play his favorite numbers.

Folks who saw Sylvester making his rounds of Elyria businesses on foot often offered rides which he invariably turned down.

Strolling afforded him opportunities to run into old friends, chat with merchants and express his opinions to anyone who would listen.

Sylvester also encouraged people who were down on their luck and offered his home to individuals who needed a place to stay for a few days or a few months.

The many pastors, evangelists and missionaries in his family viewed his street time as a ministry.

“He wasn’t a preacher like we are,” his son said. “He wasn’t in the pulpit. His pulpit was out there on the street.”

Sylvester’s niece Delores Outlaw agreed:

“In spite of what we might say he did or how he did it, he knew the Lord, and he let me know that he knew the Lord, that the Lord was walking with him.”

Contact Alana Baranick at abaranick@chroniclet.com or by phone at 216-862-2617.