MONROE, Ga., December 5, 2012 — Her snow-white hair gleaming and with a sparkle in her eyes, Besse (pronounced “Bess”) Cooper looked astonished at the crowd who came to celebrate her birthday, her 116th birthday, this past August. And yesterday, still bright and alert, the oldest woman in the world quietly passed away, still not sure what to make of her recognition by the “Guinness Book of Records.”
Mrs. Cooper had her hair done yesterday, had lunch and had watched a Christmas video with friends, when she began having trouble breathing, dying peacefully around 2 p.m.
Granddaughter of Confederate soldier
One of her proudest family connections is that she was the granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, Thomas H. Brown, who served in Company E, 60th Tennessee Infantry. In recognition of his service, Mrs. Cooper was a member of the James M. Gresham Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Georgia Division. His division participated in the battles at Vicksburg, Shiloh and several others.
She was very aware of her grandfather’s service as a Confederate soldier, and was proud of her induction into the UDC chapter when two members came to her home to present her with her insignia ribbon of membership last year.
In an interview with me, Ann Hall of Mrs. Cooper’s UDC Chapter emphasized her ongoing love of education. “She read the newspapers daily, was bright and outgoing, and enjoyed conversations with all who came,” despite the fact that her hearing difficulties made conversation difficult, Mrs. Hall said.
Mrs. Hall’s aunt was also a friend of Besse Cooper, and when her aunt and Besse and another lady “would sit on the phone in the den and have three-way phone conversations,” it was just fun to listen to.
It was Mrs. Cooper’s second attempt at the world record: in January of last year she was initially certified by Guinness as the oldest person in the world, but then a lady in Brazil was discovered, who was 48 days older. She held the title until her death on June 21, 2011, and with that event, Besse Cooper was able to fully claim the title.
Long-time Educator and Teacher
She was born in Sullivan County, Tennessee in 1896, the third of eight children born to Richard Brown and Angeline Berry. From childhood on, she was a voracious reader and graduated from East Tennessee State Normal School (now East Tennessee State University) in 1916, and taught in Tennessee before moving to Georgia the following year. She taught in the tiny town of Between, Ga. (296 persons) until 1929. The name came from its location being equidistant from Athens and Atlanta.
“She was in the forefront for a woman” in her education and dedicated service as a schoolteacher, Mrs. Hall said. Today a school in the area has been named for her.
She married Luther Cooper in 1924 and had four children. He died in December 1963 after 39 years of marriage. She then lived by herself on their farm until 2001; at that time she finally agreed to move into a nursing facility at the age of 105.
The small town of Between recognized its famous citizen just before her birthday, when the bridge on New Hope Church Road was named for her. In typical Besse Cooper fashion, she said she “was happy the bridge finally had a name!”
Words to Live by from Mrs. Cooper
She was the last surviving person born during the second administration of Grover Cleveland. When asked the typical question as to what she attributed her longevity, she had a succinct answer: “Minding my own business and avoiding junk food!” Despite her aversion to the latter, when she finally had formal recognition from Guinness, she said she thought she ought to have a box of chocolates to celebrate.
In addition to her four children, she had 11 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
A funeral will be held later this week according to Sidney Cooper, one of her sons, but arrangements have not been finalized at this time, and he was hopeful that it could be a small, dignified event, despite her national recognition. Even with her good sense of humor which all remembered, that’s probably what Besse Cooper would want.
My thanks to CofC member Chris Page of Fredericksburg, Va. for much of the information on Mrs. Besse Cooper, and Jessica McGowan who took her picture with the cake.
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