Like many Memphians, I log a lot of miles on Sam Cooper Boulevard, the stretch of I-40 between East Parkway and the junction with I-240. I’ve always wondered about the man behind the name. If you have, too, prepare to be impressed by his life and legacy.
Sam Cooper grew up in the Pinch District of Memphis, the son of a tailor. Shortly after graduating from Humes High School in 1930, he got a job as an office assistant at Humko, a vegetable-oil processing plant and cotton seed refinery. He learned quickly, rose through the ranks, and became Humko’s vice president in 1952.
Cooper also served as vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Memphis, even dedicating the bank’s building on the former site of his father’s tailor shop at 200 North Main. But while he had an impressive professional resume, his real passion was fundraising and volunteer service.
Over the course of his life, Cooper championed a long list of local charitable causes, including the United Way, Temple Israel, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the Memphis Food Bank, various cancer research projects, and, most famously, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In the early 1970s, Danny Thomas requested his help with a fundraising drive that ended up raising over four million dollars. (Later, a wing of the hospital was named after him.)
When St. Jude considered a move to St. Louis in 1985, former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett says Cooper was the first to call him with strategies for keeping the hospital in Memphis. Drawing on his friendship with then-governor Lamar Alexander, he acquired millions in public revenue to indirectly benefit St. Jude, in addition to raising millions more privately. Hackett says Cooper “had as profound an impact on our city, and my life personally, as anyone who’s lived in Memphis.”
Hackett thought it fitting to put his friend’s name on a street that connects Memphis’ east to west, “just as his life and leadership did. He supported causes that brought people together.” The naming of the street didn’t exactly follow the rules. Without consulting the city council or telling Cooper himself, Hackett had the sign for Sam Cooper Boulevard printed, and unveiled it at a meeting with ALSAC. “No one knew what was going on,” he recalls, amused, but Cooper was thrilled. The council okayed the move after the fact, and Sam Cooper Boulevard was officially dedicated in 1986.
According to Cooper’s daughter, Joyce Graflund, he and Thomas (who remained friends all their lives) loved ribbing each other about their namesake streets. She says they kept a running tally of how many potholes their streets had or how many fender-benders had occurred there recently.
Sam Cooper’s influential life ended in 1999. His work on behalf of others had earned him countless awards and honors, including a presidential Thousand Points of Light Award. But his favorite was the Memphis street that bore his name. “My dad had many honors in his life,” Graflund says, “but this was the one that gave him the most pleasure.”
For even more information and anecdotes about Sam Cooper, check out “Sam Cooper: Fund Raiser Extraordinaire, Businessman, Public Servant, a Leader of Leaders” by Dr. Selma Lewis, from the Southern Jewish Heritage newspaper, Winter 1995.