By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Aug. 13, 2018 – Inspired by a Smithsonian Institution exhibit examining the impact of sports on American culture – which is now on display at the Greene County Historical Museum in Jefferson – I have been diving into the history of sports in our little town of Cooper here in the southern part of the county. Oh, the stories!
You can learn about them when you visit the Smithsonian’s “Hometown Teams” exhibit, which is free and continues through Sept. 23. (For more information on seeing that, click here.)
To add some local fun to that traveling national exhibit, Cooper and all the other towns in the county that once had high schools have put together displays of their own sports memorabilia. Most of the photos with this column are from Cooper’s display.
Now, let’s talk sports – Cooper sports!
Today an unincorporated town of 30 (maybe), Cooper in the early 1920s grew to nearly 275 people. And from 1919 to 1959, it had its own 12-grade school, too, graduating up to 20 seniors in a good year. The school offered basketball and up to three seasons of baseball each year for the boys, and basketball for the girls. There were choirs, bands and school plays, too.
Cooper also had a rich early history in town team baseball. And for a good 20 years from the 1950s well into the 1970s or longer, there were town basketball teams for the men and women and a town fast-pitch softball team for the men.
Yes, in our heyday, sports were always a big deal.
One measure of that is how Dennis Peer, who was a junior when Cooper High School closed its doors in 1959, keeps his old Cooper Cardinals baseball jersey in a shadowbox on his bedroom wall in Iowa Falls – and he was only too happy to get it out and model it for a recent photo.
“I keep my old 1950s baseball glove handy, too,” said Peer, who is retired after teaching theater at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls for nearly 40 years. “And I’ve got a baseball that I threw a no-hitter with, pitching for Jefferson High School in my senior year, in a game against Lake City.”
Dennis Peer now, in his 1959 Cooper High School baseball jersey.
My old neighbor, the late Marty Scheuermann told me several times about how she and other Cooper area women had their own town team in basketball. “I was still playing until after Darrell and I were married and had our first baby, Troy,” Marty said. “So when we got to halftime in one game at Cooper, I had to sit down in my uniform and breast-feed Troy. Darrell’s dad Roy walked up to me and said, ‘Marty, I believe it’s time to end your basketball career.’ So I did.”
The men’s basketball team had a few players who kept playing into their 50s – like the organizers Gerald Lawton and George Meinecke, both now deceased – as well as whatever teachers, coaches and others with some basketball experience they could recruit. They played teams from surrounding towns, and people still talk about the late 1950s exhibition game they played in Cooper against the barnstorming “Arkansas Redheads” women’s team.
“In our normal games, it was often kind of informal,” said my pal Doug Lawton, now a farmer, who started playing with the town team when he was still in high school. “In fact, I don’t think we even had officials a lot of the time. We’d make our own calls, and that would lead to some skirmishes.”
Doug’s wife Karen Lawton remembers those, too. “Yeah,” she said, “we didn’t have referees, and instead we had fist fights!”
Cooper’s “county champions” in 1926-’27. Note the team was wearing the “F” shirts, for “Franklin Township,” the formal name of the school.
The earliest record I’ve seen of organized sports in the community was a fascinating story in the July 11, 1981, “Centennial Edition” of the “Franklin Flyer” newspaper, which was an occasionally-printed tabloid publication that served Cooper, Franklin Township and the area. It told how in the first decade of the 1900s, Cooper had a baseball team of teenaged boys who played teams from other towns. Claude Lundy, president of the Bank of Cooper, thought we could do better.
“After Lundy took over the team, he started paying older players $5 per day and started charging admission,” the newspaper reported. “Admission was $1 and there were normally between 200 and 500 fans at most games.”
Lundy regularly booked teams from Des Moines, Omaha and Chicago to come to Cooper to play the locals. “There were also a lot of Negro traveling teams that visited Cooper, such as the Tennessee Rats and the Union Giants,” according to the Flyer’s story.
The 1928-’29 Cooper girls team was one of our high school’s best.
From Cooper’s informal founding in 1881, when the railroad was built through town on its eventual route from Des Moines to Spirit Lake, nearly all children were taught in one-room country schoolhouses. Few students went beyond the eighth grade. The only sports were recess games.
But in 1919, the Franklin Township Consolidated School was organized, bringing together the country schools in the immediate area. Mary Richards, a Cooper High graduate in the mid 1950s who knows local history well, said the consolidated school began operations in the two-story wood frame building that already served children in Cooper, plus “in about five one-room schoolhouses that were brought into town from the countryside.” The high school grade levels were then gradually added to the curriculum.
Construction was also started on a new, 2 ½-story brick building that opened in 1922 to house all the Franklin Township students. It came complete with a gymnasium on the bottom floor and a ball diamond out back. And that’s when high school sports began here.
The school name was always a point of argument, apparently.
Yes, formally it was “Franklin Township,” but from the beginning everyone was informally referring to it as “Cooper.” In fact, when the engraved concrete nameplate was first built into the front crown of the new brick building, it said, “Cooper.” But there was a squabble, and soon the workers were summoned back to remove the nameplate, turn it over & upside town, and engrave it “Franklin.” The building had that until it was torn down in late 1981. That nameplate, by the way, is still kept on a pedestal in front of what’s known as the “new gym” that had been added to the school in 1955, and which is now privately owned. If you look at the front of the pedestal, the nameplate says “Franklin.” Go around to the backside of it, and you see “Cooper” upside down!
The 1947-’48 Cooper boys had one of those joyous wins over Jefferson!
From what I’ve been able to learn, the Cooper Cardinals high school teams were about average for a small high school. They never won a state championship; in fact, I can’t find that they ever qualified for a state tournament in any sport. But they won a few of the old “county tournaments,” had good rivalries with the school teams in Jamaica and Rippey, and also enjoyed a few upset victories over the teams from the “big school” in the county seat town of Jefferson.
Bob Burnell, of Jefferson, now 93, went to Cooper High School until late in his junior year and then moved to finish in 1943 at Bayard High School. “From what I remember and was told, Cooper had a pretty good run of teams from the late 1920s into about the mid 1930s, and that’s also when they had their larger classes,” Burnell said. “One thing that I think kept our teams from getting better than we were was that we are all farm kids. The boys, especially, had to work all the time at home, so we didn’t keep up with practices as much as might have liked.”
Few “road” games were ever more than 15 miles away, as most of the games were played against the other small schools in Greene County – those were in Rippey, Dana, Paton and Churdan, with occasional games again the slightly-larger schools in Grand Junction and Scranton, and as mentioned, infrequent games against Jefferson. The Cardinals would also frequently play Bayard, Bagley, Yale, Linden, Jamaica, Dawson and Washington Township, all of those located out-of-county and generally south.
What was the ambience, or feeling, at those long ago basketball games in those small high schools?
A Cooper High School band, with our trilogy of fight songs.
One of our Cooper school cheers from the 19509-’51 era.
“Well, in a town the size of Cooper, absolutely everybody would go to the games,” Dennis Peer recalls. “There might be 100 fans, maybe sometimes 200 or more, but in those small gyms, they’d be full. And the concession stands would always be busy. I remember once we got the new gym, the concessions were either in the industrial arts classroom or the music room, which were part of the new building. Between games or at halftime, people would sit around there visiting.”
That visiting would also continue in the industrial arts room after home games, as Ken Mallas tells it. He was a teacher, the coach and last principal of Cooper High School, serving here from 1957 to ’59.
“Most of the kids playing on our Cooper basketball teams were farm kids,” said Mallas, now 85, who has recently moved to Marshalltown after spending decades of his 44-year teaching and administrative career at Corning. “So while they were showering up after the games, most of their parents would get together for pie and coffee in the ‘shop’ room. And they’d invite the coaches to join them, and we’d kind of gently review the games. I loved those gatherings. It was an opportunity to tell the people that even though we might have lost the game, and their kid might have made some big mistake, that we were all learning and getting better. I always thought that kept things in the right perspective.”
Mallas tells a great story about coming to Cooper for his first teaching job and the two years he stayed, before the 1959 consolidation with then-Jefferson High School.
“I got out of the military service on August 4, 1957, which was pretty late to be trying to find a teaching job for that fall,” he said. “I got back to my hometown of Boone, checked out the newspaper ads and found that there were three high schools in the whole state still looking for a teacher and coach – and Cooper seemed to me to be the most likely one for me.
“So I called over to Cooper, asked about the open position and then invited me to come over for an interview. I got in my Volkswagen and drove into town from the east, which back then meant I was driving in on a gravel road – there was no pavement east of town. I drove through all the dust, got into this tiny town, looked around and said to myself – honest, these were my exact words – ‘God, how could you send me to this God-forsaken place?’
“But, there’s a good lesson in this. I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful my Cooper experience turned out to be. It was probably the highlight – or at least one of them – of my whole career in education. I learned so much at Cooper. I think we had 160 kids in all the grades, and I taught five or six different subjects and knew all the kids. I coached every sport we offered, and it was just great.”
Mallas has attended many of the Cooper school reunions that have been held since he moved on, and still today, he pays for a college scholarship that is offered to any Greene County High School graduate from the Cooper area.
The 1950-’51 Cooper baseball team, with rising star Rich Monthei.
So, who were our best athletes?
It’s hard to say with any certainty, since there are no statistics available and such discussions now rely on people’s memories and probably their biases.
But from the people I’ve talked to, a ranking of the best at the high school level should include:
–Among the girls, Marie Garrity, a tall, strong basketball player from the Class of 1930.
–Lois Schrader, another very tall basketball player from the Class of 1952, who led her Cooper team within one game of the state tournament.
–Among the boys, Carroll Kendall, a 1936 graduate said to be small but blazing fast.
–Brothers Ken and Jim Hulsebus, who played briefly for Cooper in the late 1940s.
–Rich Monthei, an outstanding baseball player in the Class of 1952.
–And Jim Franey, who was a junior when Cooper High closed in 1959 so he graduated in 1960 from Jefferson High. Franey, who may well have been Cooper’s best ever, went on to play four years of baseball for Iowa State University.
If I’ve missed someone, please let me know.
Gerald Lawton and George Meinecke, perennial Cooper athletes and organizers of local town teams, are shown here, probably in the 1970s, with the traveling Arkansas Redheads after an exhibition game here.
There’s an interesting story involving the Hulsebus brothers, whose parents were operating the old Cooper grocery store for a few years. They were first cousins of the very well-known Tryon kids, of Glidden, who were the talk of Iowa high school sports fans from the mid 1940s to the early 1970s. There were eight Tryon brothers and two sisters. All eight of the brothers were exceptional athletes, and wound up teaching and coaching. The two sisters were high school cheerleaders, in that era when Glidden had no girls sports, and then they wound up marrying teacher-coaches.
So anyway, in the late ’40s, the Tryons were heading up a high school sports juggernaut at Glidden High School, and they knew they’d be better if they could get their cousins the Hulsebuses to transfer from Cooper to Glidden – and they did just that!
And the Hulsebus boys weren’t the only Cooper athletes targeted by the Tryons.
“They also tried to get my brother Rich to come play basketball for them,” said Larry Monthei, a Cooper farmer and United Methodist lay preacher. “There was a big farm set-up over there right outside of Glidden, and they were talking to our dad, trying to get him to move us over there. But Dad said, ‘No, I don’t think we’ll be moving just so Rich can play ball for you!’ ”
By the way, when I wrote the centennial history of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, a book that came out in 2005, I named the Tryons the “First Family of Iowa High School Boys Sports.”
Larry Monthei was one of the players on Cooper’s fast-pitch softball team, which played into the early 1980s and was our last sports team.
They had some terrific seasons, and were competitive in tournaments from Fort Dodge to Des Moines and beyond. The Montheis, the Lawtons, the Meineckes and others provided the defense and hitting behind pitchers Jim Giese and Butch Brooker. At home games, their wives and other women of the community ran a concession stand that was the best in the territory – and people flocked to the games.
There really wasn’t any money involved – if you forget a few of the inevitable side bets.
“Everybody just wanted to be together and have a good time,” said Larry Monthei.
And isn’t that the definition of sports at their best?
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.
The Cooper High girls choir sure wore cool shoes.