Kenneth “Ken” Cooper ’70’s educational experience at Graland was foundational in his pursuit towards excellence throughout his life and still today. One of Graland’s first Black students, Mr. Cooper is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an author, and has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years, specializing in government, politics, and social policy, at the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Knight Ridder, St. Louis American, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
His experience speaks to the Graland theme of “My Story. Your Story. Our Story.” Mr. Cooper shared his story last summer through Graland’s Alumni of Color forums and recently visited Graland’s campus to speak again about his school years as well as his life and career after Graland with Director of Equity & Inclusivity, Oscar Gonzalez, and Alumni Relations & Development Manager, Anna Natassja Scheitler ’13. Below is an excerpt of their conversations with a link below to listen to and learn more from Mr. Cooper.
What experiences did you have at Graland that you believe have been beneficial throughout your life?
At the time, I didn’t know this, but before Graland, I had been going to de facto segregated schools in northeast Denver. In retrospect, one of the big things that Graland did for me academically was allowing me to catch up in eighth and ninth grade instead of being a stellar student in public schools, thinking that I’m all that, and then going to college and not really being prepared. I know from my work reporting and editing education stories that a lot of students of color - including valedictorians in their public schools - go to college, and they find out quickly that they’re not prepared. It’s a devastating blow to their self-esteem, and they drop out. They can’t even finish because of the psychological effects. So Graland caught me up, making me eminently prepared to go to Phillips Academy Andover and then on to the fine college of Washington University in Saint Louis.
I also remember when Arthur Kent [Assistant Headmaster] used to give us a pop quiz of five questions every Friday that he would collect but wouldn’t grade. The purpose was to check the students’ understanding and find that if most of the class didn’t catch something, then we would do it in a different way the next week. It’s in the pedagogy of excellent teaching; it laid a good foundation for me and made me academically competitive.
Thinking of students today, what would you recommend for those who are seeking a sense of belonging?
Well, one thing that students can do now is talk to adults of color about how they feel. That is something I couldn’t do as a student myself, as there wasn’t a single Black adult on this campus when I was here. I think Graland should consistently send the message that all are valued and that we respect the dignity of all, and that’s what we expect at all times.
Being a student of color here isn’t a brand-new thing, even if it’s a new experience for them. It’s part of the school’s history and its character. I really think the most important thing is mutual respect. Respecting the dignity of other individuals and teaching them as individuals. We are all different.
Shifting to your life after Graland, what advice would you give to others interested in pursuing journalism and media?
The best advice that I got from my first editor was pretty simple: “tell it like it is.” Even if you wish the telling were otherwise, I learned your credibility rides on not bending the situation to try to fit your worldview. When you go out and cover a story, you have to keep your skepticism intact, a sense of detachment, independence, and neutrality. You don’t want readers, listeners, or viewers feeling like you’re taking sides. That’s an insult to their intelligence. You can allow others to have different opinions without casting them as evil or morally deficient. Tell it like it is, let them have their say, and always be fair.
What do you see as your greatest accomplishment? What makes you proud?
I once told somebody that I was interviewing, if asked about my greatest accomplishment, I might not say the Pulitzer Prize. What I might say is that it’s my work’s positive impact to open some doors and open some minds. I might say it was the stories that I did that got people jobs and that opened up opportunities, particularly for people of color.
The thing about the Pulitzer Prize is that it’s about me, even though it was a public-spirited project that had some impact on the racial situation in Boston. I want to appreciate having been a Pulitzer Prize winner at 28 - at that point, becoming the youngest African American with a Pulitzer Prize for the next 30 years. However, it is people’s lives, particularly their material circumstances, that are more important to me in a great many ways. Having a role in those people getting jobs, making a good living, and having children - that is a multiplier-effect over time. The work that I did created opportunities and opened up jobs for Black people, in particular.
Many stories I have written will be gathering dust in a digital database one day, but the impact of my work in the real world will still be felt. All will be in my obituary, but the latter part is what will outlive me and makes me most proud.
How do you define “success?”
In terms of my definition of “success,” the first word that comes to mind is excellence. In journalism these days, the internet allows one to fulfill the desire to do stories fast. This concept that stories can be “good enough?” I’m definitely not into that. I’m not even into “good.” I’m into excellent or best, but I’ll settle for better in competition. I think another element of success is going about whatever you do in a way that is humanistic and respects and values human life.
Graland continues to extend sincere appreciation to Mr. Cooper for taking the time to share his story. To view a recording of Mr. Cooper speaking further about his career and professional achievements after Graland, please visit: graland.org/KenCooper70
Ken Cooper ’70 is the recipient of the 2021 Nancy Nye Priest Alumni Award! He will receive this award during the Fall 2021 Alumni Cocktail Party.