The Waco Tribune-Herald: Two unique graduates to walk Baylor stage

May 14, 2012

Article reprinted with the permission of the Waco Tribune-Herald

By REGINA DENNIS

Saturday May 12, 2012

For two of the 2,100 students graduating from Baylor University this weekend, it took some extraordinary circumstances and a great deal of support from family and faculty to get them across the stage of the Ferrell Center.

One, Jacob Cooper, leaned on professors and mentors as he overcame the tragic loss of his father during his second year of college.

The other is a seasoned senior who finally gets to walk the stage, 60 years after wrapping up his studies at Baylor.

At age 89, Portland resident Eddie Morris is the oldest participant in this year's commencement ceremonies.

Morris earned his degree in Bible studies and speech in December 1952. But he rushed away shortly afterward to attend Golden Gate Seminary in San Francisco. With a new wife and young son in tow, he could not return to Waco for the spring graduation.

"It's a great way to honor one of our alumni, someone who has been a supporter and someone who's loved Baylor for many years," said Wesley Null, the university's vice provost for undergraduate education. "He's like any other student. He's going to be right in line with all the other 22-year-olds and 30-year-olds and whoever else might be graduating, and walk in line like everybody else."

Morris' son, Steve, said his father first revealed last year that missing out on graduation has been one of his biggest regrets in life.

Steve Morris said his father also never graduated from high school because his family constantly moved around Texas, picking cotton. Eddie Morris earned his GED sometime during his six years of Army service, which placed him in Korea during parts of World War II.

Baylor officials approved Steve Morris' request for his father to participate in this year's graduation last fall, and he revealed the news to the elder Morris on Christmas.

"It's the best gift that I could ever give my dad," Steve Morris said. "What I did was just get the ball rolling on something he always wanted to do. My mom and dad, they're the ones that got to do all the great stuff."

After finishing seminary studies, Eddie Morris went on to pastor two different Baptist churches in California. He also worked as a State Farm insurance salesman for about 17 years.

He has five sons with his wife of more than 60 years, Lesta.

Eddie Morris will have about 40 smiling family members from five different states cheering him on as he walks on stage. He already has his diploma, but he will receive a letter from executive vice president and provost Elizabeth Davis.

"I think it'll be a very emotional time," Steve Morris said. "I think this is something for 60 years that he's always thought about it. Just talking to him, he doesn't believe it's going to happen yet until he gets there."

Cooper expects that graduation will be an emotional time for him, as well. He will graduate with double majors as a Baylor Business Fellow and economics student, plus two minors, biology and chemistry, and a 3.7 GPA.

But his achievements grew out of great sorrow. During his sophomore year at Baylor, Cooper's father died after a yearlong battle with colorectal cancer. He was 37.

"My freshman year, I kind of just watched my dad deteriorate," Cooper said, adding that the cancer spread from his dad's colon and liver to his lungs. "It was very hard to watch. I was home basically every other weekend . . . it was a very difficult time.

"It made me a stronger person. It definitely made me appreciate things a lot more," he said.

Cooper said he contemplated suspending his studies to return home to Sulphur Springs and help his mother and sister Caitlin, now 15. But his mom urged him to finish his education.

Channeling his energy into his schoolwork helped him push through. Cooper completed a pre-med semester abroad in Maastricht in the Netherlands during his junior year.

Last year, Cooper was a finalist for a prestigious Marshall Scholarship that would have covered the costs of pursuing a degree in the U.K.

Mission work

Cooper also embraced mission work. For the past three summers, he has traveled to Western Kenya with a group led by honors biology professor Lisa Baker, conducting a community health clinic that serves about 800 residents and completing service projects like building rainwater collection systems and planting fruit trees and gardens.

Cooper said Baker and her husband, Troy Abell, also a Baylor professor, were just two of many faculty mentors who supported and encouraged him after his father died.

"Really, it's only been the past year that it's hit me," Cooper said of coping with his dad's death. "My mentors at Baylor have been absolutely fantastic and really supportive in that area . . . (they) kept me here and kept me going."

Cooper's 22nd birthday was on Tuesday. Less than 18 hours after he receives his degree this afternoon, he will board a plane for Kenya to continue his mission efforts and work on a community health risk assessment to measure the group's progress and the needs of the region.

When he returns to the U.S., Cooper will begin a yearlong paid internship with the Baylor Health Care System in Dallas studying the after-effects of cardiovascular surgery.

He plans to re-apply for the Marshall Scholarship, which he hopes will help him attend the London School of Tropical Medicine to obtain his master's degree in public health. Cooper then wants to begin a dual-degree program to earn his medical degree and master's in business administration.

His school and mission experiences have inspired him to pursue a career in building public health delivery systems in Third World countries around the globe.

"(Graduation) is going to be kind of bittersweet, because I'm leaving a lot of really good friends, a really great school and a good community and a lot of supportive mentors," Cooper said. "But at the same time, I'm going forward with a really good education and really good hopes for a great future and being able to impact a lot of people in the world."