It’s not often someone sticks with a job for 47 years.
But it’s clear Melvin Cooper found his passion and found it early.
The retiring director of Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department 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 never left. And the city has benefitted from that passion ever since.
He’s become a leader in his field for numerous reasons.
Cooper has said it’s just in his personality to strive for excellence. And he’s brought that to the department, which has on numerous occasions earned Agency of the Year from the Georgia Recreation and Park Association.
Julie Butler-Colombini, marketing and communications manager for the parks department who has worked with him 14 years, said “he makes it clear to everyone that he expects a certain level of excellence from everything that we do.”
Part of that excellence is keeping priorities straight, with a focus on the community he serves.
Though the population has about tripled since he started, he still makes time to visit with community members enjoying the parks or various city events.
That personal touch remains important as the city grows, but so does the work of the department in general.
Its services are a vital piece of providing quality of life to Gainesville’s residents, old and new. A thriving parks and leisure system makes the city a desirable place to live and work.
Myriad recreation leagues appeal to parents looking to instill in their children a sense of teamwork and character, both priorities for Cooper.
Special events such as the upcoming 15th Annual Mother Son Halloween Dance, Trick or Treat on the Trail and later Christmas on Green Street, offer ways for residents to come together and enjoy their community and their families.
The city’s parks offer similar opportunities for quality time with friends and loved ones as well as spaces to play and exercise. More structured fitness opportunities are also available at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, a facility added 10 years ago and one in which Cooper can be proud.
“I was out on the deck the day that we opened up the pool, and it was kind of like me watching a baby being born,” Cooper said on the center’s 10th anniversary this year.
Cooper has also worked to build relationships and partnerships, such as those at Allen Creek Soccer Complex and the Lake Lanier Olympic Park, to best serve the community with the resources available.
And those from other agencies have come to rely on him.
Hall County Parks and Leisure Services Director Mike Little has said he depends on Cooper for his wealth of knowledge and experience.
Merrianne Dyer, former superintendent of the Gainesville school system, has said Cooper had a “steady hand” in working on the excellence of the facilities and programs and called the beautiful parks the “hallmark of Melvin’s work.”
Greg Johnson, director at Elbert County Parks and Recreation, noted on the parks department’s Facebook page that Cooper is “one of the most respected men” in his field.
In his time, much has changed in Gainesville and the parks department from the advent of social media and demand to market the department using those new tools to societal changes that often demand rethinking ways to serve Gainesville.
While Cooper recalls driving a bus to the city’s neighborhoods in previous years to pick up children for day camps — no paperwork required — programs have shifted since then.
The city will continue changing as Cooper leaves the helm. His are big shoes to fill, but he’s set the department up for success and we’re confident it will remain on course.
And his service to the city should be celebrated with more than cake and flowery words. After almost 50 years of devotion to Gainesville, we would suggest its leaders find a way to honor Melvin Cooper’s name.
Cooper Park has a nice ring to it.