I’ve known Austin’s Gary Cooper for years, as a fine man and an effective community activist. Recently I learned that as a youth he received a full college scholarship from a successful businessman he was referred to by a newspaper editor who had interviewed Gary at his inner-city high school. Gary knew this was a gift he should pay forward and when the time came, he chose another fine young man, David Reyna, as his recipient. (Read David and Gary’s story here )
Gary had known David since he was 5 years old, when his mother began working for Gary. Gary has funded David’s dental care for several years, and now is paying college tuition, housing and transportation for David as he pursues his dream of becoming a petroleum engineer. Gary is also introducing him to engineering professionals and community cultural events to expand his vision and encourage his aspirations. I asked Gary to lunch so I could learn more about this compelling philanthropic story. I learned much more.
Gary had a hardscrabble youth. He had multiple stepfathers, earned his own way from an early age, was forced to leave home while still in high school and endured a mistaken arrest and near imprisonment in his late teens. But other experiences shaped him as well: a Hispanic family that made room for him to come live in their already crowded home, a stint as a VISTA volunteer with farmworkers in California, as well as service and leadership during the early years of the AIDS crisis after he tested positive for HIV himself. What did Gary learn from his experiences? “It is in the act of giving that we find grace,” he told me. Grace—that deeply mysterious word that helps explain how we are able to endure in the face of the unendurable.
Then he added, “I believe we find our own courage in the act of encouraging and helping others.” Giving to others makes us more whole, it makes us strong, it makes us brave enough to confront the difficulties of our imperfect lives. Generosity has advantages for the other, but profound advantages for the self as well.
In closing, Gary let me know he is now challenging his former classmates at North Dallas High by offering a matching grant to provide services that help the school’s current students have a rich extracurricular experience in spite of the burden of poverty and in some cases, homelessness. Then he smiled and said, “People tell this story like I am so good, so generous. That’s not it. The truth is that through this experience I am having the best time of my life”.