Mon. Oct 3rd, 2022

James P. Cooney Jr., a renowned public health educator who spent time teaching at Duke and found a second act in the region’s opera scene, died July 2 in Charlotte.

James P. Cooney Jr., a renowned public health educator who spent time teaching at Duke and found a second act in the region’s opera scene, died July 2 in Charlotte.

Courtesy of the Cooney family

“The right-handed world lost a good and decent left-handed man,” read the opening words of James P. Cooney Jr.’s official obituary.

Most obituaries don’t open with a reference to one’s dominant hand, especially when they’re commemorating someone who was an Army veteran, someone who helped shape the way hospitals in the U.S. are run and someone who educated a generation of public health workers.

But, as Cooney’s son Jim tells it, his father was much more than the career that brought him acclaim. He was an “Army brat,” a loving husband for more than 60 years, a father and grandfather, an advocate for opera, and a friend who encouraged loved ones to drink more wine so he could use the corks for art projects.

And “a proud left-hander.”

A ‘natural inclination’ to serve others

Cooney, who died of heart failure in Charlotte on July 2 at the age of 88, was born at West Point to a military doctor who would become the Army’s deputy surgeon general.

As the child of a service member, Cooney grew up on various military bases throughout the country and world. It was the “natural inclination” to help people that came from those childhood experiences interacting with people of various communities that drove him to a career in health care.

“He considered medicine for a while but decided he liked public health and really started off in what in the old days we used to call hospital administration,” 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 to get his Ph.D.

“By that point, people began to realize that hospital administration was more than just running the hospital, and it extended into the community,” Jim Cooney said.

His father joined up with the American Hospital Association, where he helped develop what’s now called the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. It’s a system, Jim Cooney explained, that revolutionized hospitals by helping “impose uniformity on the standard for hospitals.”

“Once you could get all the hospitals on the same page,” Jim Cooney said, “you actually had data that you could use across populations.”

That data opened new doors for folks like Cooney to establish public health as a critical component in the health care system. It also opened the door for him to teach at some of the nation’s top schools, including Duke University in Durham.

“He really enjoyed interacting with his students,” Jim Cooney said. “Seeing them go out to their communities and run health organizations, public health departments or multi-hospital systems. And he’d be able to communicate with them, they’d share the problems they were encountering or trends they were seeing and he’d try to incorporate that into what he was teaching.”

Finding family, and warm weather, in the Carolinas

By his side throughout Cooney’s career was his wife of nearly 66 years, Sondra.

“That just doesn’t happen too often. I’m sure there were times when that may have seemed too long,” Jim Cooney said with a laugh, “but they made it work, and they made it work well.”

Their love story traversed the country: from meeting at the University of Iowa to marrying in San Francisco and living in college towns from Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas, and Durham.

The couple got to know Charlotte, Jim Cooney said, when three of their four children settled in the city. They made frequent visits to see their kids and grandchildren.

“They liked the feel of the city. It’s a city, but it also has a lot of neighborhood components to it. … And they really liked the weather. They were done with winter,” Jim Cooney said of his parent’s decision to permanently relocate to Charlotte in their retirement.

‘Constantly in motion’

Stepping back from teaching also gave Cooney more time to focus on his other passion: the arts.

He “stumbled across opera” in his younger years and became a lifelong devoted fan.

“He was a big fan of doing Saturday errands,” Jim Cooney recalled. “He actually liked when he had to go out and had to do Saturday errands because Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts were on (the radio). So if you rode with Dad, you might get a free lunch, but you were listening to the opera.”

An educator at heart, Cooney took notice of the lack of younger people in the audience when he traveled to operas in retirement and devised a plan to attract new listeners.

“He came up with the idea of these easy-to-read little pamphlets on various operas, and he kind of did it on his own,” Jim Cooney said. “Then opera companies started asking him to come in and deliver a lecture before the opera to patrons.”

Cooney worked with various opera companies on the project, including Opera Carolina.

He may be best remembered among his friends and family though, Jim Cooney added, for his love of Christmas crafts. That was an endeavor that often involved encouraging loved ones “to drink way too much wine to keep him supplied with corks” that he’d turn into wreaths and trees.

“He was constantly in motion,” Jim Cooney said. “He was kind of restless and enjoyed exploring and learning new things, really until the end of his life.”

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Mary Ramsey is a service journalism reporter with The Charlotte Observer. A native of the Carolinas, she studied journalism at the University of South Carolina and has also worked in Phoenix, Arizona and Louisville, Kentucky.

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