About this series: This is the seventh in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
Melvin Cooper has a ritual. Every morning he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and makes two stops on his way into the Gainesville Parks and Recreation office. First, he stops at the dry cleaners. Then, he makes his way to a service station. After grabbing a copy of the day’s newspaper and a 24-ounce coffee, he spends a few moments driving around Gainesville making sure everything is in order at the city’s parks.
His morning routine is just about the only part of his work day Cooper can depend on being the same.
“Some days I take lunch and some days I don’t,” he said, laughing. “It’s something different everyday and that’s what keeps the job so interesting.”
The 64-year-old Gainesville man has spent the past 41 years in the parks and recreation department. For nearly 25 of those years, he has been the director. It’s a position that keeps him on his toes.
Cooper started working for the department as an intern in 1970 while he was in college at the University of Georgia.
He returned to work full time in 1972 and has never left. Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation Department has been his first and only full-time job.
Cooper attributes his lifelong tenure with one department in the same city to his childhood experiences and the discovery of his love of community and outdoors.
When Cooper was 8 years old, both of his parents died from heart disease. The third-grader then moved from Moultrie to Commerce to live with his aunt and uncle.
It was there where his atypical childhood created the drive to work in his dream job.
“Being raised by an aunt and uncle, my summers weren’t filled the way most other kids are of that age,” Cooper said. “I didn’t go to the swimming pool or watch cartoons or go on trips, but I worked as a volunteer.”
His summers were often spent dragging and lining ball fields and backwashing swimming pools.
“By the time I was 12 years old, I knew what I wanted to do,” Cooper said. “I set my goals to do what I’m doing and I’ve been doing it for that last 41 years.”
Cooper laughed and said he achieved his goals because his “Type A personality” made him strive not for perfection but for excellence. And that meant staying with Gainesville’s Parks department. Cooper laughed and said he has, of course, been offered other positions in other communities in the state or country, but he’s never wanted to leave Gainesville.
“I mean, where else can you go that on little league opening day ... you’ve got all the little boys’ baseball and girls’ softball teams on one field and your local community hero throwing out the first pitch of the day,” Cooper said. “You’ve got babies in strollers and parents are watching the game with their other children on their laps and their dogs on their leashes. It’s that small-town atmosphere that I love about Gainesville. I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
His love of Gainesville and its parks started with Cooper tasked to doing “a little bit of everything,” from maintaining facilities to working with athletic and program directors.
“We used to have a portable recreation center that was pulled around by a truck,” Cooper said. “We moved into neighborhoods that didn’t have parks or recreation facilities in them at the time. So we’d set up a mobile recreation center with Ping-Pong tables and a pull-down basketball goal. It had games and all kinds of things.”
Cooper laughed and said he used to drive a bus around the city in the summers. He would pull into a neighborhood, blow the horn and invite children to come to day camps.
“Kids would come running out of their house to get on the bus,” Cooper said. “No papers or registrations or applications or anything lie that. If you wanted to come to day camp, we had a place for you.”
Cooper laughed and said things have definitely changed since he started. These days the day camps are more organized and rely on a partnership with Gainesville City Schools.
Gainesville City School System Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the department and the school system have a fairly unique relationship in which they share facilities and resources to prevent duplication of services and save taxpayer dollars. The day camps are housed in Gainesville schools during the summer.
Dyer said she spent her childhood summers working in the parks and recreation department as an aid to a swimming instructor. She remembers crossing paths with Cooper when he first started working at the department and has watched as the department has improved and offered more programs.
“Since he’s been there, (he has) had a steady hand in working on not only the excellence of his facilities and the programs but in working with the school system,” Dyer said. “ ... I think Gainesville has always had high-quality parks and recreation, but it was characteristic of the times. It was smaller and there weren’t as many facilities and amenities. I think that is the hallmark of Melvin’s work, the beautiful parks we have, excellently maintained parks and they’re used.”
Since Cooper took over as director in 1989, the department has added facilities and programs such as the Lanier Point Softball Complex and Frances Meadows Aquatic Center. Knowing the department’s economic and physical limitations as the population has grown throughout the years, Cooper has sought out and formed partnerships with area organizations.
“I learned a long time ago, you can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. “So one of the things we’re greatly involved in is community partnerships.”
One specific partnership is operation of the Allen Creek Soccer Complex and the Lake Lanier Olympic Center between the Gainesville Parks and Recreation and Hall County Parks and Leisure Services. Similar to the school system, the symbiotic relationship between the two agencies allows tax payer resources to be used more effectively.
But the partnerships do not only have financial benefits. Cooper’s partnerships have resulted in him being a role model, resource and friend.
Hall County Parks and Leisure Services Director Mike Little said he first met Cooper in 2000 after he was hired to manage the soccer complex.
“Since then he’s mentored me. And being out at the soccer complex for a number of years, he taught me a whole heck of a lot,” Little said. “Now that I’ve moved into this (director) position, that relationship has carried over and I rely on him to help answer questions for me when I get in a tough spot. We’ve become good friends.”
Little praised Cooper’s wealth of knowledge and experience working alongside other parks and recreation professionals with creating a greater sense of community.
In 2000, Cooper said he was “having difficulty” educating the city’s residents about the departments efforts and achievements. So he decided to reach for the “lofty goal” of national accreditation.
It was granted by the Commission for Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies, making him feel “an overwhelming sense of pride.”
Cooper also reached some unexpected milestones. He served as the president of the Georgia Park and Recreation Association from 1992 to 1993 and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2010.
While he does not boast about those accomplishments, others point them out. In fact, Little thinks it’s great to have someone who is so accomplished in the field so close.
However, these accolades do not affect the man who makes it a point to check all of the parks each and every morning. He feels his responsibility is more toward providing a safe and fun place for the community to relax and play.