Each year, The Nancy Nye Priest Alumni Award is presented to an extraordinary Graland alumnus or alumna who lives out the admirable qualities of Nancy Nye Priest, a graduate of the Class of 1939 and Graland faculty member who retired in 1995 after 43 years of teaching. Many remember Mrs. Priest as a role model who embodied the very spirit and soul of the school. An award in her name not only allows Graland to pay tribute to Mrs. Priest but to honor alumni who carry on her legacy of service, curiosity, passion, and loyalty.
This year's recipient, one of Graland's first Black students, Ken Cooper '70, is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an author, and has been a newspaper reporter and editor for over 40 years. His outstanding contributions to the field of journalism have not only brought change to both the local and global community but are a direct reflection of what it truly means to live out Graland's mission of being an engaged citizen and thoughtful leader.
The morning after being presented the Nancy Nye Priest Alumni Award, Mr. Cooper stopped by Graland Lower School and Middle School assemblies to answer student questions and to share how his experience at Graland ultimately shaped him into who he is today.
At the Lower School assembly, students had many questions for Mr. Cooper, such as, “What do you remember most about being a student at Graland?” According to Mr. Cooper, "What I remember most about being at Graland is being challenged academically and working hard in an environment that had resources and good teachers. It was a safe place to be, and I had classmates who were friendly and cordial. I have fond memories of being here at Graland, as I said last night, it was my first big break in life, and I like to think that I fully made the most of it."
The students were also curious about Mr. Cooper's journalistic skills and questioned, “When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?” Mr. Cooper shared, "I remember in elementary school, when I was not much older than you, I had a dream about writing books. A light went off in my head, and I said, 'I want to be a writer!' Then when I went to college, I switched my major from computer science to English, and I also developed other reasons for wanting to be a journalist. This was nearly just after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and I understood that media coverage of the Civil Rights Movement helped propel that change. Idealistically, I knew that I wanted to do that. I felt that if I told people the truth, and they understood it, that things would get better."
The students also asked Mr. Cooper, “What are the qualities of a good journalist?” Mr. Cooper said, “At the top of my list for qualities of a journalist is curiosity. Somebody who is curious about the world and even things they don't know about or never imagined. Related to that is somebody who has an open mind. So the things that they didn't know about or are unfamiliar to them, they can actually grasp, and apprehend, and grapple with. Because if you have blinders, you will only see the world through a narrow framework and will have trouble understanding something outside of your knowledge. A journalist also needs to have perseverance, energy, and enthusiasm because it's hard work and you want to have fun. If you don't have fun, you're probably not going to stick with it. There should be a certain joy of discovery and learning new things as you as students do here."
During the Middle School assemblies, students, faculty, and staff had many questions for Mr. Cooper about taking chances and growth. But ultimately, following their lessons on personal gifts and purpose, the students asked Mr. Cooper, “What do you consider to be your purpose in life? Mr. Cooper responded, "I think my purpose is to help people embrace the dignity of individuals and to see our common humanity. I am a humanist, and when I interview people, I approach them all with the same sort of respect for them as individuals, whether it be an illiterate Indian villager, a corporate titan, or a head of government. I try to grant everybody their respect and dignity as individuals because I think everybody deserves that."
Graland would like to thank Mr. Cooper for being a continual source of inspiration to the school and broader community, for returning to Graland to share his story with fellow alumni, students, faculty, and staff, and for his work and dedication in living out the values of a Graland education. As the students reminded Mr. Cooper at the end of the assemblies, "Once an Eagle, always an Eagle!" Congratulations, Mr. Cooper.