Former Chattanoogan Robert E. “Bob” Cooper Jr. – who was recently appointed and sworn in as the new Tennessee attorney general – considers himself the luckiest attorney in the state.
He also expects to soon find himself one of the busiest.
“It is the perfect job for someone who thrives on law and public policy,” he said. “It’s a big office. A lot of things are going on here. I am trying to get my feet on the ground after a quick transition.”
The attorney general said he is coming into an office that was well run by his predecessor, Paul G. Summers, and he hopes to build on that foundation.
Among the areas on which he plans to place an emphasis are consumer protection, appeals, criminal matters, and the environment. “I hope to assist the executive branch in an effort to build up the state’s parkland and in upholding existing environmental laws,” he said. “It’s an area I have a lot of personal interest in, having grown up in Chattanooga surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery found anywhere.”
Being appointed to the respected position, which is elected in the 49 other states, is not a surprise to those who know him from his youth in Chattanooga.
Reared on Signal Mountain, he attended Baylor School from 1969-75, when it was still all male. He was the valedictorian his senior year and also received the Jo Conn Guild award for having the highest average among all high school students during each of his last four years. And that was as a member of an academically competitive class that produced 10 National Merit Finalists.
“His brilliance and thoroughness as a scholar were virtually without peer,” said his former teacher, Bill Cushman, who is still on the faculty. “My recollection is that his valedictory (address he gave at graduation) was stunning in its wisdom and maturity.”
But he was actually better at amicability than academics. “It always seemed to me that Bob's brilliance and thoroughness as a student were exceeded only by his congeniality, by his kindness to his peers,” Mr. Cushman said. “And – vitally important – Bob can laugh long and hard.”
His father, retired Tennessee Supreme Court Judge Robert Cooper Sr., remembered that his son was not a typical “bookworm.” He was a cross country and track letterman at Baylor, he said, and was also involved in a number of other extracurricular activities. “He’s always been very organized,” said Judge Cooper.
Mr. Cushman remembered that Mr. Cooper was not the most talented long distance runner, but that he trained hard, was always at practice and supported his teammates.
His father said his son also believed in ethics as far back as his junior high and high school days and never asked for help with his homework.
Judge Cooper is also quick to add that Attorney General Cooper received his smarts from his mother, Catherine Kelly Cooper, who is a law school graduate herself.
Mr. Cooper - whose sister, Bobbie Martin, is a teacher at East Ridge Elementary - remembers his time in Chattanooga and at Baylor fondly.
“I still have a bunch of friends down there,” he said, saying he still keeps in touch with classmates Pem Guerry, Doug Stein, Ward Fleissner and Van Bunch, among others. “My class was a wonderful class. It was a very smart class. We all pushed each other, but in a very good way.”
He also recalls warmly a number of teachers, including Mr. Cushman, Jack Murrah, Dr. George Taylor, Bryce Harris and Bruce High.
“The faculty at Baylor was second to none,” Mr. Cooper said. “I couldn’t imagine getting a better education anywhere in the nation.”
He said he still stays connected with Baylor through an alumni chapter in Nashville. While serving as Gov. Phil Bredesen’s legal counsel before assuming his current position, he also helped get current Baylor headmaster Dr. Bill Stacy an appointment with the governor to discuss leadership, which Dr. Stacy has made part of the curriculum at Baylor.
After Baylor, Mr. Cooper enrolled at Princeton University, where he ran the college newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. He also thought about following in his parents’ footsteps and studying law.
“I thought about it my senior year in college,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a lawyer or a reporter.”
After college, he took a job with The Raleigh (N.C.) Times. He was able to use his economics degree as the business reporter and as a general assignment reporter.
“I loved reporting,” he said. “I had just tremendous fun in Raleigh.”
But as he was mentally reporting on his own life, he began to realize he was not interested in eventually becoming a desk editor, which was the usual course of promotion in journalism. And he also did not like to have to stay on the sidelines in a non-partisan way, as journalists – other than editorial writers or opinion columnists - are supposed to do.
So, he decided to go from working with writing to working with writs. He entered Yale University law school with plans to become a lawyer.
Mr. Cooper said he quickly realized that his journalism training had been quite helpful, because he believes many of the talents that make a good reporter are also demanded of lawyers.
During the course of his law school and legal career, he became interested in and intrigued by politics. “I was never interested in running for office but I liked the policy aspects,” he said.
Before becoming legal counsel, he focused on corporate, constitution and regulation litigation in Nashville. He had also worked as a clerk in Washington, D.C.
When not carrying the legal loads of the state in his new position, he often enjoys relaxing by carrying a pack on his back and hiking in numerous mountainous areas in the region.
He also still tries to jog regularly, he said, just as he did as a Baylor student.
And, just as at Baylor, he is still out there leading his colleagues.