Besse Cooper’s unique life has common situation in aftermath

At age 114, Besse Brown Cooper said she guessed she was getting old. She didn’t feel it. She wasn’t done.

Two years later, Cooper would do what only seven other people in the world were known to have done: she turned 116. And she still wasn’t done, seeing another 100 days before ending her reign as the world’s oldest living person.

Cooper’s lifespan was unique. But circumstances following her death in 2012 are unfolding into an all too familiar scenario. Her four children, in their 70s and 80s, inherited their mother’s estate.

They agreed to sell it and one month ago, it was put for sale, asking $250,000.

But a grandson is on a mission to retain her farmhouse and the 50 acres it sits on in Walton County.

Grandson Paul Cooper’s mission is to preserve the home as a historical site, with some of the land devoted to a park in his grandmother’s honor and possibly a small museum. And he is passionate, convinced it is the best way to make sure his grandmother is never forgotten.

“I have to save this farm,” Paul Cooper said. “I have to. I have to. I have no choice. It has to be done.”

For nearly 75 years, it was Besse Cooper’s home, bought by her for $500. The six-room farmhouse with floors built from surrounding trees was where she enjoyed reading and cooking. Outside, she tended to her flowers and garden, where she grew her vegetables. Inside, she gave birth to three of her four children, including Paul’s father, Sidney Cooper, who like his son, is opposed to the sale.

Decades after her husband died and her grown children had moved out, it was still Cooper’s home, a simple home for a woman who was anything but, despite her 4-foot-1o inch frame.

For Cooper’s children, the home and property were the setting for happy childhoods and a loving family. But keeping the home doesn’t make sense, according to Besse Cooper’s youngest, 70-year-old Nancy Morgan.

“I hate to see it destroyed or sold,” said Morgan, who lives in Mississippi. “But yet, you have to be realistic about things. It’s not realistic that he can get the money so that he can do what he’s talking about.”

Sidney Cooper, who lives in Monroe, is one of two of the four heirs living in Georgia. He believes his mother’s homeplace should be saved because of her unique life.

“She would’ve wanted it preserved,” Sidney Cooper said.

Morgan said her mother was a private person who would not have wanted her home to become a museum. Her mother’s legacy isn’t tied to the land or house where she lived, she said.

Instead she’s concerned about what happens to the money if the donations collected in her mother’s name aren’t enough to buy the farm. Furthermore, she said any family member could outright buy the property instead of relying on donations.

“They’ve had over a year to come up with some plan or money, and they haven’t done it,” she said.

Not far from U.S. 78 near Monroe, Besse Cooper’s land is surrounded by subdivisions and development. Paul Cooper can’t imagine his grandmother’s beloved home being destroyed.

“It’s vital to preserve her history,” Cooper said. “Once it’s sold, it’s gone forever. This is bigger than any individual who could buy this. This is a historic site, a historic legacy.”

Paul Cooper tried unsuccessfully to convince his relatives not to sell the property. He said his only option was to create a foundation in his grandmother’s honor in hopes of raising the money to buy the property from his own family.

Through the Besse Brown Cooper Foundation, Paul Cooper is hopeful he’ll reach the immediate goal of buying the property. He’s also writing a book about his grandmother’s life, compiling his copious notes and memories. Until then, he has one goal.

“She never gave up on me, and I’m not giving up on her now,” Paul Cooper said. “Her legacy is too important.”

Besse Cooper never wanted to leave her home. But after her 105th birthday, her family moved her to a nearby nursing home. It wasn’t an easy decision, according to her son, Sidney. But it was necessary.

Still, Besse Cooper wasn’t done. Her feisty spirit, intellect and will to live made her a favorite among caregivers and other nursing home residents. Even when one nursing home closed and she was forced to move to another, she adapted to her new surroundings, though always missing the one she left behind.

Besse Cooper constantly asked about her farm and whether her flowers were being cared for, and more than once, she tried to convince a nursing home employee to sneak her back. Even as her body aged, her mind stayed sharp. The college-educated, former teacher was intelligent, witty and graceful.

“She never felt old,” Paul Cooper said. “She’d be 114 and she’d say ‘I guess I’m getting old.’”

Besse Cooper had a young mind, her family says. And good genes that helped keep her going, outliving all of her siblings and her former students. Her children have fond memories of growing up with their mother.

Her grandson says he always had a special bond with his grandmother. But in the final two years of her life, their relationship grew even closer, he said. Paul Cooper visited his grandmother every day, even when she wanted to be alone and told him so. Other times, the two spent hours together, learning from each other even when neither wanted to talk.

“We’d laugh and laugh,” Cooper said. “It was easy. It was as natural as breathing.”

Cooper would take notes about some of their conversations, not sure at the time why he needed to record the details. In his grandmother’s final weeks, Cooper noticed a change.

“It was the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen,” he said. “She was ready to go as far as the machine would go. Until the wheels fell off, she was going to keep going.”

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