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2018 Economic Impact Awards Lifetime Achievement in Business: Harry Cooper

Posthumously Awarded

Posted online

Flying high in one of his airplanes was a favorite place to be for James Henry Cooper.

Better known as Harry Cooper, legacy is cemented in a love of planes, parks and people – according to those close to him.

Cooper was the third-generation owner of Harry Cooper Supply Co., a multimillion-dollar wholesale distributor in Springfield and Joplin for plumbing, heating and electrical supplies. He died April 22, 2018, at the age of 91.

Under his watch, along with his brother Jack, the company grew to operate offices in Branson; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Pittsburg and Salina, Kansas. Cooper Supply peaked with $86 million in revenue in 2007, according to company officials.

The family business diversified over the years, acquiring Springfield Flying Service at the Downtown Airport and Independent Broadcasting Co., which managed KTTS radio and, later, KOLR TV.

Harry Cooper graduated from the Naval Academy in 1951 and served as a naval aviator from 1953 until his discharge in 1956 when he came home to work for the family business.

Here’s more on Cooper, in the words of those who knew him well.

GIVING
“His mother, Mildred, wanted to get in on development of the parks. We went to lunch at Hickory [Hills] with them, and she said, ‘Danny, I would like to see this park have some beautification.’ She pulled out her checkbook from this little purse and she began to write. I saw a two and a five and thought it was $250 to get started. It was $250,000. I said, ‘That’s going to buy us a lot of flowers.’ I carried that check around in my pocket the rest of the day, hoping it would multiply. I’d never received a check in that amount from someone. That was my first time meeting her, too.”

—Dan Kinney, retired director of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board

BUSINESS
“In 2007, we had our best year ever. It was $86 million between the Joplin store, Harry Cooper Supply here and Branson. Trust me, that Christmas, there were big, big smiles around this place.”

—Jan Stahle, longtime friend and sales manager, Harry Cooper Supply Co.
 
“When he named me the manager of the Branson store, I asked him, ‘What’s my budget?’ ‘Budget? We have no budget. Just make sure you sell enough so we don’t have to close the doors down there.’ That kind of put fire in my behind. I made sure we grew, from four employees up to 20 down there. Of course, we sold that piece of property a couple of months ago.”

—Jan Stahle

“I met him in a professional sense back in the early 1980s. Through the years, I got a chance to work with Mr. Cooper. Of course, in a business relationship, there are a lot of good times and there are a lot of not so good times. Mr. Cooper was one of those who wanted you to look him in the eye and tell him the truth. He didn’t want to take unnecessary risks.”

—Gary Garwitz, retired partner at BKD LLP

“Harry always told me, ‘Jan, my dad always told me the fourth generation is where they go out and sell it.’ I don’t know if that’s true. I know John [Cooper] has a very strong interest in the business. I really hope it stays in the family.”

—Jan Stahle

MILITARY
“He would have liked to stayed in the Navy. I firmly believe that. His father told him, ‘You’ve done your duty. You’ve served your country. Now, I want you to come home and run the business.’ He was very disciplined and had a lot of respect for his father and mother. Jack was in the Air Force in Korea, and they both left the military and came back.”

—Bill Johnmeyer, former vice president of Springfield Flying Service, Downtown Airport manager and corporate pilot

FLYING
“He always flew left seat with me, and I didn’t mind at all. I’ve seen a lot of corporate pilots when the owner wants to fly the airplane they just get real grumpy. I enjoyed seeing him fly.

“We never had a cross word in 45 years. One time, and I was probably out of line, … I told him we were so many feet low. He turned back at me, of course he was grinning when he said it, and said, ‘You know, this is my airplane. I’ll fly it like I want to.’ He started laughing. I knew my place.”

—Bill Johnmeyer
 
“Through the years, we had bought 17 airplanes. He always heard me out if there was something I had an objection to. He and Jack wanted to buy an airplane that I didn’t think was suitable, and we talked about it. Finally, he told me, ‘I don’t want to buy anything you don’t want to fly.’ I really felt good about that. But he said, ‘If you don’t find me one like you want in a week, I’m going to buy the other one.’ They were building about five a week – the oil boom was going on and half of them were going to Texas – and I found one somebody ordered but didn’t take.”
—Bill Johnmeyer

MEDIA
“That TV station made money every year and he was very proud of it. I remember being at the house over a weekend and Harry said, ‘Well, got an offer this week for selling the TV station.’ Of course, we asked how much. He said, and John and I looked at each other: ‘Well, Harry, what do you think it was worth?’ ‘About half of that.’ John said, ‘Let’s go see how much this will bear.’ He got about three times as much as the offer. That TV station certainly made his lifestyle much, much more. In plumbing wholesale, we’re not getting rich here, folks.”

—Jan Stahle

“He always wanted a jet airplane. After he sold the station, he went out and bought his beloved Citation. The last time he flew it was probably 18 months ago. He loved the jet.”
—Jan Stahle

IMPACT
“He paved the way for so many other things for the Parks system in Springfield. That part of it went unnoticed. Never did I make a presentation that I didn’t use the Cooper complex as an example of what can be done when businesspeople come together.”

—Dan Kinney

HUMBLE
“We presented him a plaque one time and he said, ‘Dan, if there’s one more plaque, I’m done.’ He just wanted to see people enjoying the park.”

—Dan Kinney

“We had a new employee here two years ago. Harry walked up to the electrical counter and said he needed something. The guy goes and gets it and says, ‘Now, do you have an account here, sir?’ Harry says, ‘Partner, yes, I have an account here.’ He calmly said, ‘James Henry Cooper.’ The kid’s face turned completely red.”

—Jan Stahle

BUYING & SELLING
“On decisions of selling businesses, it just seemed like it happened right when it should have. He used to say, ‘I probably missed out on some good deals by not being quicker. But I think I missed out on more bad deals by being slower.’”

—Bill Johnmeyer

AEROBATICS
“He decided he wanted to compete. So, he bought a single plane, a new one from the factory, an S1T. He went to contests around, and the first one he went to … he won a great, big tall trophy. First time, amateur in his class.”

—Bill Johnmeyer

WEALTH
“If you were talking one on one with Harry Cooper, it wasn’t like one of you was a successful businessman and entrepreneur and philanthropist and the other was just a regular joe. He was meeting you and it felt genuine. Ninety-nine percent of the people he was around, compared to them, he was a multi-multimillionaire and they weren’t. But he never rubbed that in your face or gave anybody that attitude.”

—Gary Garwitz

“I became so close to him after Mark died in ’82. He always told me I had to be debt free. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Easy for you to say. This is what I’m making a year.’ But he was very generous every Christmas. He’d say, ‘Jan, before I die, you’re going to be debt free.’ I was debt free about 12 years ago. And then I got greedy to an investment. Harry said don’t do it. I took out a second mortgage on my paid-off home and invested in a venture in Branson, called Playtime Pizza. Three and a half years later, I had a big debt and they closed the doors. He called that one.”

—Jan Stahle

“He took his role as philanthropist very seriously. And frankly, he encouraged others to, also. He wasn’t the type to call you from the phone bank, but when it came to other wealthy people, he was very willing to, not strong arm, but say, ‘Hey, here’s a good cause you should consider.’”

—Gary Garwitz

Mike Coonrod, video producer for sbjLive, contributed.

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