Oral History: Lucy Cooper


Narrator: Lucy Cooper
Interviewer: John Tortorice, Skye Doney
Videographer: William Tishler
Date: 5 October 2018
Transcribed: Skye Doney
Total Time: 26 minutes
Editing: Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop

Lucy Cooper Biography:
I came out to Wisconsin in September 1964. I had grown up in a sheltered environment in a middle class white section of Winston-Salem, N.C., and graduated from an all girls’ prep school called Salem Academy. My parents were FDR Democrats and somewhere along the way I became a liberal who agreed with Martin Luther King and exasperated my segregationist father. My high school principal propelled me to UW-Madison because of the History Department, and she persuaded my parents to let me try it.

After 6 weeks of culture shock and homesickness, I never looked back. I made friends and one of them, Peter Abbott, knew about Professor George L. Mosse, and told me I needed to take his class. I did indeed, and am so glad. I have never stopped reading history and approaching it with a healthy degree of skepticism for conventional wisdom of right or left.

Alas, I was not as serious an academic as I now wish I had been. I mostly majored in the efforts to end the war in Vietnam, then went on to UW Law School and moved to Milwaukee to work for Legal Services.

Many memories of college have faded with time, but not my memories of Professor Mosse’s classes and his inspiration to keep reading and learning.

Skye Doney: Alright, so the first question is, what is your name?

Lucy Cooper: My name is Lucy Cooper.

Doney: Well, thank you for being with us today. We’re going to chat a little bit about your background, your experience at Madison, and then we’ll wrap up talking about the class a little bit.

Cooper: Okay.

Doney: So where are you from?

Cooper: Well, I’m originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I came out to Madison in 1964. I graduated from one of those southern girls prep schools in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, graduating class of 32 girls and came to the great big University of Wisconsin. Propelled by my high school principal, who thought that I would enjoy the History Department. She had been a history major herself at Temple University and saw how much I really enjoyed the history classes at Salem while I was ignoring a number of other things that I was supposed to be doing, and I didn’t know anybody. And it was probably the biggest single shock of my life. But after six weeks, you couldn’t have pried me loose.

Doney: That’s interesting, so you said your teacher was a UW-Madison graduate? No, sorry.

Cooper: No, no Temple. She had been a Temple graduate in Pennsylvania. I don’t know how she got into education and how she got into girls education, but was lucky for me. She did.

Doney: But she knew about the History Department in Madison? Fascinating.

Cooper: Oh, yes. Yeah. Well, the History Department, in Madison was pretty famous. It was the wild mid Westerners and the progressive thing she thought I was a radical. I was not a radical when I came to Madison, I was a Lyndon Johnson liberal.

Doney: Did you major in history?

Cooper: I did.

Doney: And did you take courses with Professor Mosse?

Cooper: I did.

Doney: Which courses?

Cooper: I’m trying to remember. I know I took the introduction to European history. That’s the one I remember the most. And I was in that class with my good friend Peter Abbott. I met Peter in, in Integrated Liberal Studies. I don’t know if they still have it, but it was a special program and it’s, it’s I just met some wonderful people there, but Mosse didn’t teach an ILS. I took one of his big lecture courses and later I began but dropped out of a seminar when I was either a junior or senior. But, but by then what I was really majoring in is ending the war in Vietnam. So I was telling John [Tortorice] earlier that the last two years, I don’t think I really did academics. And I realized that I wasn’t going to do justice to the Mosse seminar and I shouldn’t be taking up a space because it wasn’t. You know, you can hide in a big lecture course.


You can’t hide in a seminar.

Doney: Sure, how did you get involved with the student movement?

Cooper: Well, if you had the slightest interest in politics, you couldn’t not be involved. And in 1964, the big emphasis was on civil rights. And I felt pretty strongly about that. In fact, one of the reasons I had come out to the Midwest is I knew, I would embarrass my parents if I stayed in North Carolina because my father was a rock-ribbed, segregationist and would have been mortified if his little girl had been in demonstrations right under his nose. So it then shifted in, I believe, I’m trying to keep this straight. In the spring of 1965, after Tonkin Gulf, the antiwar movement began to gather steam and it fit right in with the History Department in Madison because you remember William Appleman Williams? Yeah, they’d always been anti-interventionist and very suspicious of America becoming a new empire. And so there were a number of young graduate students who had been attracted by the, the spirit of Wisconsin. Mosse writes a lot about that in his autobiography, which is a wonderful book. I’m so glad you put me on to that. that was great. So that’s how I got involved. One thing led to another. And what was the organization? The Committee to End the War in Vietnam. It wasn’t specifically SDS, although SDS people were involved in it. And I just went to the meetings and wrote things, and went to the demonstrations and it was taking up more and more and more of my time. And by my junior year. I did enough enough, to pass my courses. I mean, I never flunked, a course, dropped a lot of courses, but but I wasn’t, that wasn’t my focus, my focus and this is the most important thing happening in the world. We have to do something.

Doney: How did your interest in history influence your involvement with the Committee to End the War in Vietnam? and with the Civil Rights Movement.

Cooper: My interest in history was an interest in figuring out how we got to where we were. I was always interested in politics. My parents, even though I said my father was a rock-ribbed segregationist. They were also southern New Deal liberals. So we, we would watch the news at dinner because dinner time came when Huntley-Brinkley were on. I don’t know if you remember them. That was the big NBC news show in the [19]60s. And we would watch it. We would talk politics and we frequently disagreed. So I figured learning history would give me an idea of how we got there. But the other reason is I love stories.


I just love stories. I think that’s why I was so happy in law school. I viewed reading all those cases as figuring out the stories, particularly the family law and probate cases, but that’s another story.

Doney: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that, because how do you think your time studying history at Madison and in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program influenced your career trajectory? Or did it?

Cooper: There weren’t many jobs for history graduates. Well it was really more the antiwar movement. Because every time we would try to do something or say something, people would say, well, you can’t do that because the law, blah, blah, blah. The civics of it, the politics and kept running up to, well, if you want to know what’s going on, particularly on the free speech issues. I don’t know if you know this, but Madison had a major free speech case. Madison had rules very much like the University of California, about student organizations taking part in politics on campus. And after the Dow demonstration and a bunch of people were arrested, I think the university was trying to enforce some of those rules. And William Kunstler (1919-1995) came out and brought a civil rights action in federal court. And so it occurred to me that this is where the action was. And Wisconsin had a good law school and I got into it. And, and it was it was a good choice. A good choice, but in the background was always putting things in context. I mean, what history does is help you to put things in context. Whether that context is happy or unhappy. And frankly, Professor Mosse probably influenced me more.

Doney: Absolutely.

Cooper: You know, I took Goldberg too, I was in the Mosse-Goldberg group. And Professor Mosse’s outlook, really did influence me.

Doney: The way that he lectured? Or the way that he understood?

Cooper: That he was a pessimist. He was a pessimist who kept fighting. But he didn’t have some of the illusions about the brotherhood of man, they called it the brotherhood of man then, overcoming evil. And that we’re all gonna go off and be happy socialists together and defeat nationalism and racism. If we can just have the people understand. He didn’t believe that, he didn’t believe that for one minute.

John Tortorice: He always said he was an optimistic pessimist.

Cooper: I think that’s right.

Tortorice: That he believed in human potential, but he understood that humans didn’t learn much from history. He was very aware of that.

Cooper: And that there are, that there are certain stubborn characteristics that keep repeating and have to be confronted.


That’s why I liked his book “Confronting History.” I like the title.

Doney: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the class. How did you find out about the class?

Cooper: Cathy, Cathy Kendrigan, got herself on the list for L&S to get the newsletters and to find out what’s being offered. And she’s the one that spotted it. And stuck it under Peter’s nose and said, you need to do this. Lucy probably needs to do it too. So we’re all we’re good buddies and I didn’t know Cathy at the University of Wisconsin. We got to be friends later at Legal Action of Wisconsin. But she had been there at the same time. She’d been in the demonstrations too And then she and Peter got together. Yeah.

Doney: That’s great.

Cooper: And now I’m on the list, so I get, get news of other courses.

Doney: Great. There are a number of interesting classes coming up.

Cooper: Celtic traditions, is what Cathy and I in now. Peter passed on that one he says 30 minutes of Irish music and he gets bored. They’re connecting with the colleges.

Doney: That’s fair.

William Tishler: This might be a good moment to discuss connecting with the other people, with the comment just now.

Tortorice: Well I just wanted to ask one thing, your time in Madison was obviously very influential in shaping your life, shaping your post-UW life. What is the the main takeaway that you would emphasize in influence that Mosse, that UW had on you?

Cooper: Oh, you’re going to get me emotional and I’m going to cry in front of the camera.

Tortorice: Well, that’s okay.

Cooper: No, it’s not okay. It was so wonderful to be involved. And to think you could make a difference. I’m not sure kids today have that. And I hadn’t realized until I read Professor Mosse’s autobiography, how much he was involved politically behind the scenes. He kept that out of his lectures. He really did. And I really respect that. You could be a rock-ribbed conservative and still learn from Professor Mosse. And I’m not sure that that was as true of some of the others who let the emotion of the moment get into their classes. And he really was a wonderful professional.

Doney: Yeah. It was important for him to maintain that distinction. The classroom was a place for lots of different perspectives, and through which you can then maybe better understand the past. But the politics is personal, that’s, that’s outside. That’s, that’s different than the methodologies of understanding the past.

Cooper: Right.

Tortorice: And also that ethical-moral basis of studying history.


I think that was very evident in his work.

Cooper: I do too, and that politics or thinking the right things are not a shortcut. You can’t take a shortcut from doing the research and doing the reading, that you have to take it seriously. And I think put things in in, in their place in time. So.

Doney: Yeah. Well, Bill, I think has a good point here. Do you want to talk a little bit about this, the Milwaukee group and how you guys came to meet in the forums. And we’re just we’re just curious about that process.

Cooper: Oh!

Doney: You knew Peter beforehand?

Cooper: Yes, Peter’s been my friend since we were 19. Cathy’s been my friend since we were in our 30s when we met up. And so the three of us just jumped into it. And then we started reading the comments and realized, and I think I’m the one that said “read this Rusty Borkin fellow.” He, he’s one of us, I can tell he’s one of us, because you know, you just have a name attached to a comment and you don’t really know anything else. So I said, he’s one of us. So Peter and Rusty, I think, connected and then Rusty and I would, you know write back and forth through the forum. And then I thought, you know, at the end of this, we really should get together. Peter pulled in his brother-in-law, who is a Holocaust survivor himself, Jim Wagman. Jim was not. Jim didn’t sign up formally to take the course. And then I pulled in a friend of mine who has spent he’s first-generation American, his his father came over from Germany and I think in the 1920s. And his mother was Austrian and has spent a lifetime in progressive, even radical politics and has taken up the cause of the Holocaust must never happen again. It’s, that’s Art (Arthur) Heitzer. Now, I don’t think Art signed up for the course. Yeah, Art actually signed up for the course. He didn’t turn and all the writings or the assignments, but he signed up for it. And so that was that was our Milwaukee group and then Cathy and then Sandy, Art’s wife, is my former law partner, Sandy (Sandra) Edhlund. And so she would come she never signed up when course, but so she would come and add her perspective. And so that’s how we get together. And then after the course ended, I thought, Well this, this is weird. We’ve been seeing this man on TV for four months. Let’s get together. So that’s when we set up the dinner. And then I just had a feeling Rusty would know something about this, this woman in Milwaukee who’s working on neighborhood development from the neighborhood up, that you don’t have to find always a rich person to come in and do it.


That there are ways of getting capital formation from neighbors. And so I wanted to call her and I figured Rusty would know how to get to her, and he did. So.

Tortorice: So this creation of community here in Milwaukee enhanced your learning experience.

Cooper: Oh yeah.

Tortorice: will continue I assume that you now have this community here of interest.

Cooper: You know, we had a small discussion group here that met at Peter’s house and at Sandy’s house. So we would we would get together independent of being on our computers.

Doney: How did the in-person aspect? How did that start?

Cooper: I don’t remember. I think it was probably Peter or Cathy’s idea. And Rusty didn’t come to those. That was, that was just the old friends. I mean, you have to remember, we’ve been friends for 40 years. Art and Sandy and I got to be friends in the 1970s, Peter, got to be my friend in 1960. Kathy in the 1970s, Jim Wagman married into the Kendrigan family. And so it was just, you know, some friends getting together on a Sunday afternoon.

Doney: That’s great.

Cooper: Yeah, it is, with a focus on our discussion. Doney: Yeah, one of the questions that I would like to ask us to do with the content of the class, if there were particular lectures or readings that stood out to, stood out to you?

Cooper: Two stood out to me the most, and I did not prepare for this interview at all. So this is just my impressions remembering I think I told you before that the one that impacted me a lot was that second one with all of the paintings because it was something I knew absolutely nothing about. And the glorification of the fallen soldier and trying to salvage something of dignity out of World War One. And then you get to how that fed into that awful part as the Nazis rose about we was robbed. This is basically what I’m thinking. And you know I felt it myself when I went to Normandy two months after our course, I went off to Europe and we were in Saint-Malo and it was pretty easy just go up to Normandy and I felt very strongly. I thought, I’m not sure Professor Mosse would approve of this.

Doney: The monuments worked.

Cooper: They worked.

 Doney: They evoked emotion, like they were designed to do…

Cooper: Oh yeah.


So that was and again, the art of that time is something I didn’t know anything about. And Professor Mosse was very, I thought it was very, very strong on art, he knew his art. The other part that just appalled me was when he was going through the literature or the popular literature. That plowed, and re-plowed, and re-plowed, that ground of antisemitism and how deep it went. I know, I wrote a long thing about Christian antisemitism because it’s something I’m distressingly familiar with. But his part about, I didn’t know about those novels. And of course it made me think about the myths that circulate in our culture. And they’re out there. I don’t read right-wing news sites. I think a lot of it shifted into social media now, but so many of the stereotypes, are in popular literature that intellectuals don’t think about. There was this terrible book and we all loved it because it had sex in it Mandingo (1957). Do you remember that? You wouldn’t, you’re too young.

Tortorice: There was a movie too.

Cooper: Yeah, but perpetuating the myth of the hyper sexy Black people. There was Frank Yerby (1916-1991) who I heard was a Black man who wrote novels perpetuating those same myths. And you don’t even realize it because it’s so much fun to read at the time. Gone With the Wind (1936).

Doney: The lost cause theory.

Cooper: Yeah, the last cause theory, yeah. And we have we have our own literature of that, but I hadn’t, I hadn’t known any of that. And, you know, we kept debating back and forth in our group. Well, how much of this was cultural and how much of it was economic? That’s a well-known historic, historiographical debate. But, but it’s one that we still have today. Look at, look at the Trump factor. We’re still fighting about why it is he won, and we’ll never resolve the issue. Anyway.

Doney: Yeah, one of the main things that I always hope people get out of these online classes is just the ability to identify the myths that surround them, and the way that they’re being manipulated.

Tortorice: And how they operate.

Cooper: Right.

Doney: How do you build it? How do you mobilize it? Because if you’re just a little reflective, that’s a very powerful tool to have in the political sphere. Let’s just think a little bit about that meme from Russia that pops up on your social media page.

Cooper: Yeah.

Doney: What are they trying to get you to do here?

Cooper: What are they trying to get me excited about? Yeah. Yeah.

Doney: Well, so my final question and then we’ll just open it up a little more, did your understanding of racism and antisemitism change after the course at all?

Cooper: It deepened. It made me, again less optimistic that, that it’s easily fought.


And of course this is all happening in the context of Donald Trump has been elected to president and watching him. And whatever you think of the man I was, Peter and I were talking, he’s not a moron, he is a media genius. And he knows where the hotspots are, and he knows how to push people’s buttons to encourage racism and divisiveness. He’s been doing it all of his life. And so I’m, I’m studying the Mosse material at the same time. In real time, I’m watching what’s happening. And all my lefty friends are making fun of him and watching the comedy shows making fun of him. And I’m thinking, folks, this is working. Watch what’s happening. You’re not stopping his agenda. He’s changed immigration in this country. I mean, as awful as it is. And there’s some small victories, some injunctions, some people, a few people getting liberated

from their little cages. But by and large, he’s won. And we’re going to go back to an immigration policy that we haven’t had since 1924. And that’s, that’s happening as I’m reading all of this and thinking, you know, this stuff works. We have to think of of ways to counter it. And I’m not sure I’ve thought of a way. I mean, here, here in Milwaukee. We’re trying to improve turn out in the neighborhoods that don’t turn out. I mean, it arguing with a Trump supporter or Hillary hater is an exercise in futility. But getting back to the course, I’m studying the course at the same time, I’m dealing in real-time. And my pessimism has deepened. The effect, the effect of the course, particularly working in a political arena in real-time, I think has deepened by understanding of how very, very powerful tribalism is. I don’t just want to say racism. It’s tribalism because it’s not just hatred of a different race. That didn’t do it. Everybody, that’s why all these people walk around and say, “I am not a racist, but.” It’s a sense of you get your own community together by defining it against the other. And that’s, that’s what I see happening. It’s too easy to use terms like racism and it really is and I fall into it too. But it’s, it’s the sense of you feel good when you feel like you’ve got your group and it’s us against the world. And by damn, we’re going to win this time. And the stoking of the resentments.


And it just laid out so perfectly in the course. And by Professor Mosse and he had lived it. And I think the real power of any course with Professor Mosse is, if you know anything, you know this is a man who lived it and his whole family lived it. He didn’t just study this from afar. That story about him getting out of Germany at 11:45PM on the night before they closed their borders to Jews, whoo, that was powerful.

Doney: Yeah, absolutely. John, did you have a couple?

Tortorice: Well, I just wanted to say, thank you, of course. But what you said about satire, not working resonates with George’s history because his family newspaper tried to use satire against Hitler.

Cooper: Right.

Tortorice: And of course, it didn’t work at all. Even though Hitler hated the paper, and sued the paper.

Cooper: Closed it.

Tortorice: A tried all these things. But you know, making fun of someone like Trump doesn’t work. It’s a waste of energy, really.

Cooper: It just agitates and confirms his enemies. And I understand we, we need shows like [Stephen] Colbert and Trevor Noah to keep our own spirits up. But the idea that in our talking to each other and our bubble and making acerbic fun of Jeff Sessions, Trump, Lindsey Graham, any of them. It doesn’t change anything it just makes you feel better.

Tortorice: Exactly, it’s a waste of energy and it’s very satisfying, but it’s like eating cotton candy, it doesn’t really do anything, do you any good.

Cooper: But you gotta have your cotton candy fix every now and again. Okay.

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