Betty Jean Cooper
Feb. 5, 1931 - May 28, 2006
Betty Jean (nee Aiken) Cooper, an impassioned social activist most of her life and a leader in county politics in Wisconsin for 16 years, died Sunday, May 28, 2006, in Coldwater, Mich. She was 75.
Born to James M. and Ruth (nee Flanders) Aiken in Coldwater on Feb. 5, 1931, Betty was later married to William L. "Bill" Cooper of Marshall, Mich., on Nov. 11, 1949. Upon retirement, the couple moved back to Coldwater in 1988, and she remained in the city after Bill passed in February 1994 following a lengthy illness.
Betty was a strong and independent woman who was generous with time, money and kindness. She possessed natural leadership qualities, a thirst for knowledge, a great sense of humor, quick wit and an infectious laugh. She was first and foremost a loving mother of three sons and a grandmother of eight, but a big part of her legacy is a successful political career that was capped in April 1984 when she was elected as chairman of the Waukesha County Board.
The Freeman at the time reported that Betty was the first woman to hold the county’s chief post and the first Democrat to ascend to the chair in what had historically been a "longtime Republican Party stronghold." In 1987, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel lauded Betty for her vision at a time when Waukesha County had the state’s fastest growing tax base, noting her "deft leadership" and fiscal responsibility in overseeing the county’s rapid change from a farm community to urban area. Milwaukee Magazine in January 1987 recognized her as one of the "87 Most Interesting People in Town" and credited her for helping "forge an aggressive and committed governance system" for Waukesha County.
She was first elected as county supervisor in 1972 and was re-elected seven consecutive times until her retirement from the chair in 1988. In the 1950s and ‘60s, she worked as a writer for newspapers and a radio station in Michigan and was active in leading and supporting local social and humanitarian causes.
She was a devout Democrat, and her direct style and tireless work ethic led her to become a leader in the southeastern Wisconsin Democratic Party. During her tenure on the county board, she was appointed to six gubernatorial task forces, served as a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention, welcomed Joan Mondale into her home when the wife of vice president-to-be Walter Mondale visited Waukesha on the campaign trail in 1976, served on the boards of many Waukesha-area nonprofits and academic organizations and was a guest speaker at events around southeastern Wisconsin.
Betty bridged political differences in earning the respect and admiration of Republicans and coalescing competing views about Waukesha County’s rural past and urban future. Perhaps her years as a Republican in the pre-Goldwater era tempered her political partisanship. Betty’s style was aggressive and principled, whether she was serving as a politician, public servant, master gardener, antique aficionado, mother, grandmother or caregiver to her aging parents. The energy and effort she committed to her political career was the same level of energy and effort she committed to her family and friends.
During her work and years raising three sons, her tireless nature and work ethic left her little time for herself. In her retirement, she redirected her energy to become a master gardener, voracious reader of dozens of books each year and caring grandmother of eight children, ages 1 to 19. In Coldwater, she again returned to public service as a member of that city’s housing board of appeals so she could make landlords adequately maintain their properties.
She is survived by her three sons, Riley (Karen Johnson) Cooper of Waukesha, 52; Patrick (Sharon Radbil) Cooper of Madison, 50; and Geoffrey (Angela) Cooper of Waukesha, 41. She is also survived by her sister, Alyce Jackson of Coldwater, and eight grandchildren, Kaitlin (19) and Kirk Cooper-Johnson (16), both of Waukesha, Rachael (18), Louis (14) and Will Cooper (10) of Madison, and Amanda (14), Alexis (12) and Braydon Cooper (1) of Waukesha.
Visitation will be held from 9 a.m. until the 11 a.m. memorial service Friday, June 2, at Dutcher Funeral Home in Coldwater.
Memorials can be directed to The Humane Society of Branch County, 969 Wildwood Road, Quincy, MI 49082, or the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc., www.nationalbreastcancer.org.
Dutcher Funeral Home in Coldwater, (517) 278-2795, is serving the family. Please visit www.dutcherfh.com to leave a message in the family online guestbook.