“The right-handed world lost a good and moral left-hander,” read the foreword of James P. Cooney Jr.’s obituary.
Most obituaries don’t open by hand, especially when they commemorate a veteran, a man who helped shape the way hospitals in the US are run and someone who taught a generation of healthcare workers.
But, as Cooney’s son Jim points out, his father was more than a career that earned him respect. He was a “Warrior”, a loving husband for over 60 years, a father and grandfather, a theater supporter, and a friend who encouraged his loved ones to drink so much wine that they used the wine to create art.
And “proud leftist.”
A ‘natural tendency’ to serve others
Cooney, who died of a heart attack in Charlotte on July 2 at the age of 88, was born at West Point to an Army doctor who would become the deputy surgeon general of the Army.
As the son of a service member, Cooney grew up in various military bases across the country and around the world. It was a “natural tendency” to help people who came from childhood experiences to interact with people from different communities that led him to work in the field of health.
“He thought about medicine for a while but decided he liked public health and started doing what in the old days we called hospital administrators,” Jim Cooney told The Charlotte Observer.
Finding that passion while serving in the Army, himself, led Cooney to run a military hospital in Germany and earn his Ph.D.
“By that time, people began to realize that running a hospital was not just about running a hospital, it was about the community,” Jim Cooney said.
His father joined the American Hospital Association, where he helped create what is now the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. It’s a plan, Jim Cooney explained, that changed hospitals by helping to “establish equality in hospitals.”
“Once you got all the hospitals on the same page,” Jim Cooney said, “you had information that you could use everywhere.”
This opened new doors for people like Cooney to establish public health as an important part of the medical field. It also opened the door for him to teach at some of the country’s top universities, including Duke University in Durham.
“He really enjoyed hanging out with his students,” Jim Cooney said. “To see them go to their communities and run health institutions, medical departments or many hospitals. And they can talk to them, share the problems they face or the practices they see and try to incorporate what they teach.”
Finding family, and warm weather, in the Carolinas
At his side throughout Cooney’s career was his wife of nearly 66 years, Sondra.
“That doesn’t happen often. I’m sure there were times when that seemed like a long shot,” Jim Cooney said with a laugh, “but they helped, and they made it work.”
Their love story spanned the country: from meeting at the University of Iowa to getting married in San Francisco and living in college towns from Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas, and Durham.
The couple met in Charlotte, Jim Cooney said, where three of their four children settled in the city. They often visited their children and grandchildren.
“He liked the way the city is. It is a city, but it also has many neighboring districts. … And he loved the weather. It’s done this winter,” Jim Cooney said of his parent’s decision to move to Charlotte after retirement.
‘It’s always going on’
Taking a step back from teaching also gave Cooney more time to focus on his other passion: art.
He “stumbled upon opera” at a young age and became a lifelong fan.
“He was a big fan of Saturdays,” Jim Cooney recalled. “He liked it when he went out and had to do it on Saturday because the Texaco Metropolitan Opera was on the radio. So if you rode with Dad, you could get a free lunch, but you were listening to the opera.”
An educator at heart, Cooney realized the lack of youth in the audience when he went to the theater after retirement and devised a plan to attract new audiences.
“He came up with the idea of small easy-to-read leaflets for different sports, and he did it himself,” Jim Cooney said. “Then theater companies started asking him to come and give pre-shows to customers.”
Cooney has worked with various opera companies on this project, including Opera Carolina.
He will be fondly remembered among his friends and family, Jim Cooney added, for his love of Christmas art. This was a task that often involved encouraging her loved ones to “drink too much wine to give her pancakes” which she turned into wreaths and trees.
“He was always on the move,” Jim Cooney said. “He was restless and loved to explore and learn new things, until the end of his life.”