Oregon State University

Sid Cooper Turns His Back on a Perilous Past

 

“Can it get any worse?”

Sid Cooper sat hung over on his backyard step feeling as hollow as his last bottle of whiskey. The weight of decades of lifting glass and chin had crashed upon him leaving a wound he wasn’t sure would heal. His answer to the question was ubiquitous and frightening.

“Yeah,” he told himself. “It probably could get worse.”

Water swirling down the drain.  A free fall like that of his father’s, a man he loved and hated. A feeling that bordered on insanity. The daily impatience for quitting time, the lies and hypocrisy of a family man, a good man. Then, the last straw: a DUI in 2006.

Booze was not mercy. It was his poison. Cooper needed a new quitting time, and he needed it right away. It wasn’t that he could no longer recognize the man in the mirror. He could, and that was what frightened him most of all.

“There’s no lipstick you can put on that pig,” he says. “ The reality was that if I kept drinking I would lose who I am.”

Even now, he points at the stair beneath the sliding glass door. “That’s where I sat,” he says. It serves a monument, a crossroads where he decided that the party had to end.

“It was probably the lowest I had ever been,” he says. “ I had lost control over my spirit and my consciousness. They were threatening to leave me.”

He should have known where he was headed because of another memory of another morning. It was on a Sunday when he was 8 that he watched his mother clench a butcher knife while his father pushed her against the kitchen wall with his hands around her neck.

“I told myself that I wasn’t going to allow what had beaten my father to beat me,” he says before pausing. “Then I started drinking even more.”

His father, a hard-working man, was felled by alcohol in 1991 at age 59, two years older than Cooper is now. As he thought about the claw and climb to sobriety, Cooper wondered if he was too old to quit, but for certain he was too young to die. Between fear and hope, hope won.

“I’m not thirsty anymore,” he says. “I don’t want another drink. I never want to experience that again.”

Cooper has been sober for six years. As Memorial Union assistant director for Building Services, he has been at OSU for 13 years, longer than he has stayed with any job.

The complexity of his disease was furthered by his ability to thrive educationally and professionally. In 1990, he graduated from OSU with a liberal arts degree and a minor in Russian. In 2002, he received the Division of Student Affairs Service Award.

Despite his drinking, he was able to work hard and get the job done, two expectations he has imposed on himself and coworkers. He is known as a problem-solver with rare ability to listen, reflect and find solutions with his characteristic good cheer. In doing so, he has earned trust.

“Call Sid.”

That’s what people say when there’s a problem; and if he can’t solve it, one of his coworkers probably can. He has instilled a family approach in keeping the MU clean and well lit, comfortable and accommodating for all who pass through.

“I’ve always looked for work that would allow me to have a familial relationship with people,” he says. “The people here take pride in their work. They’re dedicated to this place and take ownership of our role in serving others. I trust them to get the job done, and for me it’s been a process of learning when to stay out of their way.”

His addiction now is music. He grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the belly of the Delta blues. An hour south of Memphis, Clarksdale’s history is rich with stories of juke joints, music soaked in tears and sweat and voices pleading to be heard. It is music of oppression, longed-for love, found love and, ultimately, lost love.

John Lee Hooker was born there. Bessie Smith died there. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues artists lived there.

His love for music began in front of a radio, and it blossomed the day he picked up a baritone at school. No one else wanted to play it. He had no money to rent an instrument, so he picked it up and found magic. He later played in Army bands, but upon his discharge, in true blues style, he hawked it to pay the rent.

“I never played again,” he says. “Now I play my stereo.”

On his desk in the basement of the MU is an eight-track player and stacks of recordings. There are more in his shop at home. In his living room is a collection of CDs ranging from blues to Motown to rock to jazz.

In any genre, he favors music that tells a story, some of it his story. As a boy, Cooper worked at a gas station owned by his grandfather, who, in the turbulence of the ‘60s, taught him that there was no black or white, only people; and everyone should be respected in behavior and belief.

At the station, he learned the importance of hard work. He received his Social Security card when he was 10 and began a series of cooper_sidjobs ranging from chopping cotton to traveling with a crew that migrated from Montana to Colorado with monstrous combines to harvest wheat for bread, barley for beer.

His first home in Oregon was a bean camp between Jefferson and Scio, where, rather than sleep in the one-room cabin with no running water or electricity, he sometimes slept in the back of his father’s truck, beneath stars and infinity. By the time he graduated from high school, he had lived in 18 homes, which was fine by him.

It offered a chance to explore, see different places and meet different people, which is why he enlisted in the Army. He was swayed by the romance of seeing the world, and the military provided opportunities travel, make life-long friends, utilize the GI Bill to attend college. It’s also where he imbued a life of drugs and alcohol.

But he has settled down in many ways. He is content in his Albany home, where the backyard is alive with chickens, doves, pigeons, an occasional squirrel, three cats and four dogs.

“This is my peace. I would rather be here than anywhere else,” he says. “We live a simple life, and that’s something I tried to instill in my daughters. You don’t need a lot to be happy.”

His wife, Diane Cooper, works at OSU in Media Services. His oldest daughter is an OSU graduate in theater and communications, but it is his youngest daughter, a recovering methamphetamine user, who most reflects his past. He can’t look at her without seeing himself and his father.

“Sure I think about it,” he says. “I blame myself for a lot that has happened in my life. I think about my grandchildren and hope they won’t get caught up in the things I did. I think about that a lot.”

There is one battle he still fights. He is nearly two months into his fourth attempt this year to quit smoking. The consequences are huge. 

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with emphysema. His lungs work at about 50 percent of capacity, and when he walks uphill he feels it. The air becomes thin, and his pulse quickens.

But life is good, he says. His mind is clear, and small joys mean more now.

Everything means more. The best moment of his life will always be tonight, when he can go home and look his grandchildren in the eyes and show them a whole person, a man drunk on love.

Memorial Union

Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki

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