Madison Cooper Jr.

Unassuming Madison
Unassuming Madison
Cooper Desk
Cooper Desk
Pensive Madison
Pensive Madison
Cooper Coffee Display
Cooper Coffee Display
Cooper Grocery Co.
Cooper Grocery Co.
Sironia Book Signing
Sironia Book Signing

Family and Early Life

Madison Alexander Cooper Jr. was born in Waco, Texas on June 3, 1894 to Madison (Matt) Alexander and Martha Dillon (Roane) Cooper. Madison Jr. would be the youngest of three children, along with eldest sister Lucille and middle sister Christine, who unfortunately died the year he was born. Madison Alexander was a businessman originally from Oxford, NC who moved to Waco in 1875 and after working all manner of positions in the banking, hotel, and grocery industries saved enough to purchase the Waco-based Moore Brothers Grocery company in 1892 and rename it M.A. Cooper and Co. Later in 1897 the business was incorporated and became the Cooper Grocery Co. Located at South Fourth and Mary, it was a staple of the bustling downtown Waco business scene during the transition into the twentieth century and turned the Coopers into one of the wealthiest families in Waco.

Little Madison Jr., or Madis as he was known in his childhood, was a good student at Columbus Street Ward School despite the taunts of his peers for his family's status in town. In the summers Mrs. Cooper would take the children to Michigan and Wisconsin to escape the brutal Texas summers, further isolating him from his classmates. Then in 1905, the Coopers decided to build a new home more appropriate for the size and status of their family. The three-story brick mansion located at 1801 Austin Avenue took two years to complete and became the new crown jewel of the suburban elite drive many Wacoans would take along Austin Avenue on the weekends. At the same time as the completion of his new home in 1907 Madison Jr. began work in high school, continuing to excel in many subjects including Latin. When it came time to choose a college Madison Jr. passed over many of the more established, church-related schools in favor of the one hundred mile Katy train trip to the University of Texas. Still very much in development after only twenty-seven years in existence, UT provided the social proving ground Madison Jr. was looking for at this point in his life. He enrolled in September 1911 and joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Madison Jr. pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, that is, when he was not attending or hosting parties in both Austin and Waco. When he graduated in 1915 he was well groomed for his role as a leading Waco citizen and socialite.

Young Adulthood

Upon returning to Waco as a newly-minted college graduate Madison Jr. was fully prepared to enter working world through his father's grocery business. From 1915-17 he worked as the produce and candy manager at Cooper Grocery Co. At the same time he began joining and investing in other Waco business ventures, notably backing the Waco-Dallas Interurban Rail project and becoming a director at Citizen's National Bank. Then in April of 1917 the prospect of American involvement in World War I captured the interest of Madison Jr. and he instantly began training with a small group of Wacoans before the official camps were even established in the country. In May he attended the first officer's training camp in Leon Springs, TX and graduated as a Second Lieutenant of the US Army in August. He then entered military intelligence training for nearly a year in Aurora, Illinois before finally departing for Europe in September of 1918. He joined the 360'th Infantry at St. Mihiel, France weeks before the famous large-scale American-led offensive. Within a couple of months the war was over, and after about half a year of general inactivity, Madison Jr. returned home a captain in May of 1919. He was discharged at Camp Travis and returned home to Waco and the family grocery business.

While slowly integrating back into civilian life, Madison Jr. began to view his collegiate training in English as more than just a degree on the wall and considered that perhaps writing was his true calling. He began writing short stories in the 1920s under the name Matt Cooper, and even managed to sell a few. It was during this time also that Madison Jr. began his involvement with philanthropy. Small gifts (the first only $50) were made anonymously to the local Community Chest fund in Waco, as well as larger, more public gifts to First Presbyterian Church of Waco and the University of Texas. He also sought out worthy students in the Waco area that required financial backing and provided them loans directly.

Meanwhile Madison Sr. slowly began to realize his son would probably not continue his legacy in the grocery business and decided to sell off all but a 10% stake in the company and move into semi-retirement. Madison Jr. continued to work at the store in the grocery merchandizing department and served on the board of directors, but he constantly found his attention diverted to other business interests. Then in 1929, he decided to completely commit to a new dairy operation in Waco, and invested $65,000 on 1,440 acres of Brazos bottomland to do so. The Cooper-Taylor Herd almost immediately disappointed Madison Jr. and was much more difficult work than anticipated. The coming depression era of the early 1930s did not help matters and correspondingly left Madison Jr. depressed and uninterested even in his usual activities around Waco social scene.

Focus on Writing

Disinterested in his struggling business ventures, Madison Jr. turned once again to his writing in the early 1930s. He decided to take three correspondence courses in creative writing from Columbia University. These resulted in a new sense of confidence, but also a call from his professors that his style was better suited for a novel rather than his preferred short story formula. It was only after a few more years of short story submission rejections from various publishers that he took the advice to heart. A successful sale in 1939 of a short story entitled "The Catch of Sironia" encouraged Madison Jr. to continue writing about the new fictional world he had created.

Before he could delve too deeply into this new setting, tragedy struck twice within the same year for the Cooper family. Never fully able to recover from cataract surgery, Mrs. Martha Roane Cooper passed away at her home on March 24, 1939. Seemingly weakened by the loss of his wife, Madison Sr. suffered a fall outside his home in early 1940 and consequently contracted pneumonia, succumbing to the illness on April 24, 1940. Cooper Sr.'s last wish was for his funeral procession to lead past his iconic grocery store on South Fourth Street on route to Oakwood Cemetery to join his wife in eternal rest. Madison Jr. and his sister Lucille had already received their shares of the Cooper family fortune via Madison Sr.'s prodigious planning, so the only remaining issue was what would come of the house. Madison Jr. decided to remain, inviting the long-time house servant Bertha Lee Walton to continue her residence on the premises in order to maintain the house and make sure he got his three square meals a day.

Now alone in the grand Cooper home, Madison Jr. sequestered himself in the upstairs attic office he created for his literary pursuits. He became detached from the Waco social scene, even famously limiting his time with visitors to his home by using a kitchen timer, the ticking of which unnerved quite a few friends and business relations. The 1940s would prove to be "the decade of Sironia" for Cooper as he slowly worked through the epic undertaking. All the while no one else in Waco truly knew what eccentric Madison Jr. was doing in that attic of his. . .

Wartime Efforts

The other major event in Madison Jr.'s life in the 1940s obviously was World War II. Beginning in 1940 he began writing to the US Army inquiring if he could obtain another commission to serve. After the Army turned him down, Madison Jr. wrote a number of editorials asking if World War I veterans were no longer needed by the modern army. In addition, he wrote to any senior officer or politician he knew trying to find an alternative way in, but was met mainly with polite rejection.

Though hurt by the US Army's rebukes, Madison Jr. still found ways to serve his country during the war. His properties produced food and timber for the war effort, and he purchased US treasury bonds whenever a drive was held. More impressively, he turned his Victorian home into a personal USO mission. Lieutenants stationed around Waco were invited to use his home for anything ranging from simply a place to freshen up or to receive phone calls or organize meetings. Also, every Saturday beginning in 1943 until the end of the war Madison Jr. opened his home to a group of four to six enlisted men for a nice home-cooked dinner and lodging for the night free of charge. Bertha's meals, supplemented by the secure supply of meat from Cooper's farms, gained some notoriety during this time, earning her a commendation from the US Army for "services rendered."

The Grand Gesture

Through the early 1940s Madison Jr. continued his practice of anonymous charitable giving to various Waco institutions. In 1943 alone he gave funds to over a dozen organizations. While he enjoyed this form personally, he felt that a public trust was also in order. On September 1, 1943 he established a perpetual trust as a memorial to his parents named simply "The Cooper Foundation." With an initial endowment of $50,000 the interest-only fund would certainly be limited in scope at the current return of 2.5%. Nonetheless Madison Jr. gathered six members from the leadership of Cooper Grocery Co. to serve as the initial board and tasked them each with creating an idea within a month to match his vision of providing aid "for any charitable, educational, or benevolent purpose which in the opinion of the trustees will make Waco, Texas, a better or more desirable city in which to live." Grand ideas were not easy to come by however, as it was a full three years later that the foundation granted their first gift - $100 to the Waco Fire Department to purchase a trailer for their water rescue vehicle.

A more impressive gift came in 1945. With the end of World War II and the nation no longer requiring his foodstuffs, Madison Jr. decided to donate his entire dairy operation to Texas A&M for use as an experimental and demonstration farm for Central Texan farmers. Assessed at a value just below $200,000, Cooper included stipulations that if the gift were ever abandoned or misused ownership would revert to the Cooper Foundation. Sure enough, in 1948 Texas A&M relinquished control due to a larger opportunity available to them through the US War Assets Administration. The foundation then decided to lease the land and use its income to augment their endowment - a very real case of "the gift that keeps on giving."

Sironia, Texas

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Madison Jr. had spent the better part of a decade working on a monster of a novel in his upstairs attic, which in 1951 was in proper enough shape for Cooper to submit to a publishing company for consideration. Because of the size, he only submitted a small portion of his work, so it was quite comical when publisher Houghton Mifflin replied that they would be interested in the story once he was able to bring it more to the point of completion. Soon the firm had all the material they could ever wish for, and they began a lengthy editing process with Madison Jr., the major sticking point of which was the title. Eventually the work would simply be known as Sironia, Texas.

Released on November 3, 1952, Sironia was a record 840,000 words and 1,731 pages long for an American novel covering two volumes. It told the story of a fictitious Texas town set in the 1900-1920s as the Southern aristocracy was waning and the merchant class was gaining steam. Sironia included eighty three characters and twenty one plot lines, many assumed to be based on local Waco history. While many local Wacoans attempted to find themselves or family members hidden in the pages of Sironia, Madison Jr. would never admit to any direct correlation. (all his subsequent background documents were later burned at the time of his death) Sironiagarnered national press attention, spent eleven weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and earned Madison Jr. the 1952 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. Besides its length, Sironia won fame as an interesting social critique of rural America at the turn of the century.

The End of Two Eras

Meanwhile all was not well in the world of Cooper Grocery Co. With the sudden death of Vice President and General Manager U. C. Sterquell after a traffic collision in 1947, his fellow VP Edward Barrett decided to promote Madison Jr. from secretary to VP to fill the void. This act began an internal debate on the operation and future of the company that lasted years. Madison Jr. attempted to level the authority of the board and garnered the support of the remaining major stockholders to leverage his plans for the company. After years of internal strife and legal battles however Madison Jr. agreed to part ways with the company, securing a handsome buy-out of the shares he owned and represented from president J. R. Milam, Jr. In 1954 the business officially became the J. R. Milam Company, ending over fifty years of Cooper Grocery history in Waco.

Now sixty three years old in 1956, Madison Cooper Jr. was still very diligent in his daily and weekly routines. One such example was his thrice-weekly constitutional mile run at the old Waco Municipal Stadium. September 28, 1956 was one such day like any other it seemed for the staff and volunteers of the stadium as they greeted and wished the now-famous author well after his run. It was not until a couple hours later that stadium attendant Albert Fortune noticed Cooper's idling Packard in the parking lot. Opening the driver side door he just caught a limp Madison Jr. from falling out of the vehicle. Police and emergency vehicles were promptly called, but it was to no avail. At Providence Hospital family and friends gathered to hear the news: Madison Jr. had passed away, the result of a major heart attack following his run.

The Legacy

As with most incidents in his life, Madison Cooper Jr. was fastidious in the preparations for the event of his death. In a triple-sealed envelope entrusted to Cooper Foundation board member R. B. Hoover, Madison Jr. dictated in multiple documents the details of his funeral arrangements, disposition of personal effects, management of the estate, dealings with the executor of the will and the public and the future course to be taken by the Cooper Foundation. Concerning the funeral, Madison Jr. asked only for a simple service at the gravesite of his family's plot in Oakwood Cemetery conducted by his boyhood pastor. He was laid to rest in a simple coffin box wearing a standard black suit, wrapped in two army blankets.

As for the Cooper Foundation, the institution would remain as it was, but for one major addition. In his will, Madison Jr. stipulated that the entirety of his fiscal holdings would be transferred via perpetual and irrevocable trust to the foundation, the sum of which eventually totaled just over $3 million. In addition, the stately Cooper home would become the official headquarters of the Cooper Foundation, with Bertha remaining in residence as caretaker. In order to appease the tax-dodging nay-sayers, Cooper also stipulated that no family member would be allowed to serve on the foundation board or have any say in the use of the funds until the year 2000.

BUIOH would like to thank Marion Travis for the use of the following work in drafting this biographical entry. It is highly recommended for those looking to learn more about Madison and the Cooper family:

Marion Travis, MADISON COOPER, Copyright 1971© Word Incorporated, Waco, Texas; Copyright © renewal 2000, Marion Travis.