Melvin Cooper will soon be retiring from the only job he has ever had.
Cooper has worked for the city parks department for 47 years and has been the director since 1989. He even did an internship for the department in 1970 while a student at the University of Georgia. He was first hired as a program coordinator and later held the role of assistant director for 16 years.
Cooper, who was born in Moultrie and spent most of his childhood in Commerce, said he has known he wanted to work in parks and recreation since he was 12 years old.
“I was working as a volunteer for the recreation department, dragging ballfields, backwashing the swimming pool, just kind of hanging out in the summer months when everybody else was on vacation. … From the time I was 12 years old, I really knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
Cooper has been working in Gainesville for about half of the parks and recreation department’s existence — the department was established 94 years ago in 1924. The city’s population has about tripled during Cooper’s time with the department, and he said developments like email and social media make it easier for the department to communicate with both residents and other city staff.
“Change is inevitable, and you’ve got to be able and willing to change and keep up,” Cooper said.
During his tenure as director, the Gainesville Civic Center has been renovated, Lake Lanier hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics and the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, along with many other facilities, opened.
Cooper’s long tenure with Gainesville Parks and Recreation is not that unusual for the department. He said 13 of the department’s 38 full-time staff members have worked there for at least 10 years. The people he has worked with have been his favorite part of the job, he said.
“Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you are. Train them and let them do their jobs,” Cooper said. “I’ve had some really good folks.”
Julie Butler-Colombini, marketing and communications manager for the parks department, met Cooper when she was 5 years old. Her father and Cooper refereed and umpired together, she said. She has worked with Cooper at the parks department for 14 years.
“His door is always open, and that means so much to someone on staff. … He is supportive of everyone who works for him,” she said. “He makes it clear to everyone that he expects a certain level of excellence from everything that we do.”
Cooper is a “bridge builder” who has forged partnerships with many organizations and people in the community, Butler-Colombini said.
“He’s been at everything that we do. He’s always there with a smile on his face and a hand extended, welcoming anybody that comes to an event, a ballgame or the Civic Center. That’s just him,” she said.
John Simpson, chairman of Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation board, said Cooper has not just helped the parks department but the community as a whole.
“I feel like I’m working with a legend — a man that has been in the community for 47 years — it’s quite an honor,” Simpson said. “We’re blessed to have Melvin Cooper not only as the director of Gainesville Parks and Recreation, but we’re also blessed to have him in our community in the city of Gainesville.”
When Cooper retires, he hopes to spend more time with family. His wife, Deborah, has always been supportive and instrumental in the parks department’s success, he said. They have two daughters, one who lives in St. Marys and one who lives in Texas.
Cooper learns his favorite jokes from his 8-year-old grandson — “Do you know what happens when a frog double parks? It gets toad” — and he hopes to spend more time in St. Marys with him.
“It’s been a wonderful journey, but I think it’s time for new direction and new emphasis,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s last day will be May 31. The national search for his replacement will begin Nov. 1.