[Commonwealth Journal] A salute to Somerset's statesman: Sen. John Sherman Cooper honored at Virginia Theater ceremony

August 23, 2023

On Tuesday evening in the Virginia Theater, Kentucky State Senator Damon Thayer raised his glass of bourbon to toast the late U.S. Senator John Sherman Cooper — and a room full of people did likewise.

Thayer, creator of a new bourbon bottle honoring Cooper, offered his toast to “one of the most consequential Kentuckians of the 20th century” and “a son of Pulaski County.” Both statements rang true, but Cooper’s impact was more than just within this state’s boundaries — indeed, the Somerset-born statesman helped shape the course of the entire world in his lifetime.

Tuesday’s event, “A Toast to John Sherman Cooper,” was a celebration of Cooper’s life and accomplishments — which Retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Daniel Venters presented in detail to the packed house at the Virginia, including many members of Cooper’s family. Among them were Cooper’s sister-in-law Cornelia Dozier Cooper, who lives in Somerset and is one of the community’s most renowned arts patrons, and the senator’s great-nephew Stoll Vaughan, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who performed several numbers on the Virginia stage.

“John Sherman Cooper’s story is the story of America and the world in the 20th century,” said Venters. “His life and his career parallel the most significant events of that century that define the world we live in today.”

That’s because Cooper’s political career overlapped with some of the most significant chapters in the history books. He served as county judge for Pulaski during the Great Depression, and took the struggles faced by the population to heart, as something he himself would work to alleviate; “It was said that he helped as many as he could with money from his own pocket,” said Venters, who noted that Cooper “carried the weigh of that responsibility (to help others) to the detriment of his own health and well-being.”

On each table at the Virginia was a card with Cooper’s face and one of his most notable quotes on it, a reflection of his from that dark era in this nation’s past: “In a period of poverty, stress and fear, I discovered that the human touch holds the magic of restoration and the miracle of security. There I learned that old fashioned kindness has healing in its wings. I can never get away from this lessons. They have overshadowed with their appeal and admonition every high place in which I have stood.”

The local attorney — who has a place even in sports history, playing on the Centre College Praying Colonels football team who famously beat undefeated powerhouse Harvard in 1921, one of the sports’ biggest all-time upsets — was on the battle lines in World War II, enlisting in the U.S. Army at age 41.

“Traveling across war-torn Europe with (General George S.) Patton’s army, John saw first-hand the destruction of a civilization, the horrible aftermath of the Nazi’s extermination of the Jewish population in Europe, and notably the aggression with which Soviet Russia encloses the nations of eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, especially eastern Germany, including Berlin,” said Venters. “These experiences also left their indelible mark on John.”

East Germany would return to Cooper’s life in 1974, as the Pulaski politician helped steer America’s foreign policy ship amid choppy international waters in the Cold War. President Richard Nixon asked Cooper to serve as the first American ambassador to that communist country; President Gerald Ford officially appointed him to the post after Nixon’s resignation.

“I can’t say it was exclusively the work of John Sherman Cooper, but it is worth noting that 13 years later, the Iron Curtain collapses and the Berlin Wall in East Germany came tumbling down,” said Venters. “I have to believe his work helped to plant the seeds of freedom for eastern Europe.”

It was the second time Cooper had served as a U.S. ambassador overseas; in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower made Cooper ambassador to India, following that nation’s independence from Great Britain.

“Home to nearly one-sixth of the world’s population, India teetered on the choice between communism, offered by Russia and China, and freedom, offered by the western democracies. Given India’s recent oppression under British colonial rule, its choice was not assured,” said Venters. “President Eisenhower knew that John Sherman Cooper was the man he needed. ... (Cooper) earned the trust and confidence of Prime Minister (Jawarhalal) Nehru and the people of that nation. Today, India, the most populous nation in the world, still stands as the world’s largest democracy.”

Cooper was also appointed by President Harry Truman in 1949 as an American delegate to the United Nations, and helped, the U.S. state department organize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. “For 75 years, that alliance that Senator Cooper helped to create has been the single most formidable deterrent against Russian aggression and remains so today as the NATO countries assist Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion,” said Venters.

Cooper’s political career began with one term in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1927 at age 26; he was elected as Pulaski County Judge two years later, just before the Great Depression. He was unsuccessful in running for the Republican nomination for governor in 1939, but even while he was still in Europe following World War II, he was elected as Circuit Judge of the 28th Circuit locally, and came home to assume that duty. When A.B. Happy Chandler vacated his U.S. Senate seat in 1945 to become the commissioner of professional baseball, Cooper was elected to serve out the remainder of that term, becoming the first Republican ever elected by the people to the U.S. Senate.

He returned to the Senate in 1952 to fill out the deceased Democrat Virgil Chapman’s term, becoming the first member of the GOP to be elected from Kentucky to the U.S. Senate more than once, in a time when Democrats dominated Kentucky politics. Cooper repeated this in 1956, replacing the vacated seat of the deceased Alben Barkley, another Democrat, and was elected again in 1960 and 1966, winning the highest number of votes for any candidate in Kentucky history and was then the longest-serving office holder in Kentucky history.

Venters noted that Cooper’s time in the Senate was centered around issues including the Cold War, civil rights, and Vietnam. “He was a sponsor and staunch supporter of civil rights legislation,” noted Venters. “He was an early advocate supporting President (John) Kennedy’s military intervention in Vietnam, but he was also one of the first in Congress to recognize the inability of America to control events in Vietnam by force and the futility of further military operations to achieve the purpose.”

Cooper also served as a member of the Warren Commission, investigating the death of Kennedy, who was a close friend of Cooper’s.

Being reminded of Cooper’s rich place in American history is important and not to be taken for granted, as Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bobby Clue noted at the outset of Tuesday’s event. Even though Cooper’s statue stands on Somerset’s Fountain Square, younger generations may be unaware of the significance Cooper — who passed away in February 1991 at age 89 — has had on the world they live in today.

“Recently I was talking with a group of high school students, and the topic of famous Pulaski Countians came up,” said Clue. “I immediately steered the conversation toward Senator John Sherman Cooper, and the group looked at me like a deer in headlights. I asked the group to raise their hands if they knew who Senator Cooper was, and not one single student raised their hand. This was incredibly concerning to me, to think that Pulaski County was home to one of the greatest statesmen in Kentucky history and the legacy of Senator Cooper was fading to an entire generation.”

The perfect opportunity to remember Cooper’s legacy, a collaboration between Clue and SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler, arose thanks to the release of the Kentucky Senator Bourbon brand and its new release honoring Cooper, the fourth Kentucky legislator to be featured by the brand created by Thayer, the state’s Majority Floor leader in Frankfort, out of Georgetown, and his business partner Andre Regard.

The eight-year-old bourbon, 107 proof, has been dressed in an attractive bottle with a golden color scheme representative of Cooper’s alma mater Centre College, and the crowd at the Virginia Tuesday was able to sample the bourbon after the toast to Cooper’s memory and achievements.

“It is such a privilege for Andre and I to be able to honor Senator Cooper in this way,” said Thayer. “(He was) such an amazing American, such an amazing Kentuckian, who helped change the trajectory of our country and our world. ... I write a bio on the back of the label for each senator (with a dedicated bottle) and trying to distill John Sherman Cooper’s accomplishments into one paragraph to fit on the back of a bourbon bottle is pretty hard.”

Thayer recalled traveling to Somerset this past winter to get permission from Cooper’s family to name the bourbon bottle after their distinguished relative, so as to put a fitting senator with what they considered a very special eight-year-old bourbon; Kentucky law says that they had to get that family approval to use the name, image or likeness of a person deceased less than 50 years, he noted.

“I brought in a sample of the label, a mocked-up version of the bottle, and told them the story of Kentucky Senator Bourbon,” said Thayer. “We showed it to Frank (Cain, Cornelia Cooper’s son), and he said he wanted to talk to Mrs. Cooper and shortly thereafter we got permission, and hence the printing of the bourbon labels began. We bottled it in June and it is sold out. We’re getting rave reviews on the color of the bottle; it really shows out very well on the shelf.”

The John Sherman Cooper bourbon is only distributed in Kentucky, though those in other states were made purchase it online via (“They’re already sold out,” said Thayer) and it’s also available at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., which is “one of the best bourbon bars in the country,” he said.

“We wanted (the brand) to say high-end, classy, super-premium, hard to find, and that’s what we’ve become,” said Thayer. “... This is a release we’re going to treasure for a long time. ... Our slogan for this brand is, ‘Kentucky Senator Bourbon: Serving up great Kentucky bourbon with a side of Kentucky history.’ I think by honoring Sen. Cooper, we’re probably elevating that to an extremely high level.”

In addition to the toast and speeches by Clue, Thayer and Venters, and the performance by Vaughan, Cain also shared a selection of old family photos featuring Sen. Cooper with the crowd at the Virginia, and an auction was held for two bottles signed by Thayer and Regard (Cornelia Cooper was also gifted one); the proceeds from one bottle (won by Derek Vaughan, Stoll’s father) will benefit the Cornelia Dozier Cooper Endowment Fund for the Arts and the other’s proceeds are directed toward the Somerset Veterans Memorial Park (a bottle bought by Shane Weddle). Additionally, old articles and photos about Sen. Cooper obtained from the Commonwealth Journal were displayed on the walls of the Virginia lobby for people to examine.

The celebration of Cooper was appropriately timed, as Wednesday marked what would have been the senator’s 122nd birthday, having been born August 23, 1901.

“It couldn’t have been better,” said Cornelia Cooper, who was married to the senator’s brother Richard Cooper, of the event following its conclusion Tuesday night, speaking to the Commonwealth Journal. “We recognized a great senator, and I hope we all follow in his footsteps.”