In June 1897, Baylor trustees began searching for a “scholar rich in saving common sense and ripe in young manhood; a man of Godly piety; a man of executive ability capable of not only doing much himself but of getting work out of others; a man who could appreciate his fellow workman; a man who could bring the institution favorably before the public through his own speech or writing, and furnish similar opportunities to others connected with it; a man who could unite the faculty and bring the student body in close touch with himself; a man of business sense, but of much more university sense. . . a man who would not regard himself too busy to attend to the institution’s affairs while shoveling the snow off his own sidewalk.” The man they believed best fulfilled those requirements was Oscar Henry Cooper. An 1872 graduate of Yale University, Cooper’s first job had been the presidency of Henderson Male and Female College.
In January 1879, Texas Governor O. M. Roberts invited several of the state’s top educators to advise the legislature on starting a university. Along with Cooper, advisors included Waco University president Rufus Burleson and Baylor University president William Carey Crane.
Burleson and Crane suggested establishing a program whereby the state would operate a dual system of public and private institutions under a single board of regents. The 27-year-old Cooper was opposed and presented a plan for a state university which the legislature soon adopted. Thus, he played a leading role in establishing the University of Texas where he taught near the end of his career.
Following his Yale study, Cooper became principal of Houston’s high school. He served as State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1886 to 1890 and helped found the Texas State Teachers Association. He held the position of superintendent of Galveston public schools when named Baylor’s chief executive.
Cooper’s presidency was fairly productive. His most notable achievements were securing increased recognition of Baylor’s degrees by the prestigious “Eastern” universities and acquiring from F. L. Carroll and his son George W. contributions of $75,000 each—the largest single donations to education in Texas up to that time—to construct a chapel and library building and a science hall. He enjoyed moderate success in reducing the school’s indebtedness. On March 31, 1902, Cooper resigned to accept new educational responsibilities within the Lone Star State and became president of Simmons College (later Hardin-Simmons University). In 1909, he established Cooper’s Boys School. For his contribution to education in the city, Abilene ISD named its new high school for him in 1960.
Oscar Henry Cooper was born in Panola County on November 22, 1852, to Dr. William Henry and Katherine Hunter Rosser Cooper. On November 24, 1886, he married Mary Bryan Stewart, granddaughter of James H. Starr, prominent Texas physician and Secretary of the Treasury for the Republic of Texas. The couple had four children. Cooper died in Abilene on August 22, 1932.