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Century-Old Engineer Helps Shape City Projects — Still

Fri March 11, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Brice Stump

SALISBURY, Md. (AP) Philip “Pete” Cooper has beaten all the odds.

He is in good health, drives each day, maintains a busy, if not hectic, social life, still gives professional engineering advice, keeps house and has an excellent memory. He still exercises, hasn’t missed Sunday services in years at Bethesda United Methodist Church and stays in touch with city politics.

All this at 100 years and six months of age.

He is what every senior citizen envies. He really does have it all.

“You have to have some [special] genes or you wouldn’t make it. My dad died of colon cancer at 85. My mom died when she was 90. My brother Joshua died of colon cancer at age 95 and my other brother, Bill, was 98 when he died. My sister Charlotte was 98. My thought is, moderation in all things. I still enjoy a touch of wine and have never smoked,” he said.

Yet there was something else remarkable about the family. All were very successful.

“My father, Caleb, a farmer and carpenter [with a ninth grade education], was on the Wicomico County School Board. My mother, Mary, was an English teacher, a graduate of Towson State Teacher’s College in 1893, the only student there from Wicomico County at the time. She was a pioneer.

“My brother Winfred, who preferred his first name, Joshua, when he was cadet at the Naval Academy, became captain of the Battleship Iowa during the Korean Conflict. The flagship was the biggest in the world at the time,” Cooper explained. “As it turned out, I saw more of Joshua as a captain of a destroyer in the Pacific when I was in the Seabees more than I did in the States.

“Bill was director of citrus research in Florida, and was director of three national research projects. He was asked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to write the history of citrus in the nation, which he did. He wrote several other books. My sister, Charlotte, graduated from John Hopkins as a nurse and later became supervisor of nurses at a major D.C. area hospital. I was the youngest in the family and the only one remaining.”

Cooper was born in August 1910 on the family farm 5 mi. out of Salisbury.

He began working in the fields for the internationally known W.F. Allen Co. of Salisbury as a boy. There, he learned the differences between white and black workers and the culture of his day.

“One day I made the mistake of bringing one of the black boys home for dinner, when I was about 10 and he was near my age. I didn’t know any different. I was politely told he couldn’t have dinner with us and had to make my excuses. He was such a nice boy, he and I worked together all day and we were friends,” Cooper said of the incident.

“As a kid, I started out at 8 cents an hour hoeing strawberries. By the time I was old enough to go to college at 17, I was up to 16 cents an hour. I became a civil engineer. I didn’t know what an engineer did, I just knew they were important people and you couldn’t get along without ’em,” he said, smiling.

There are many people who remember Cooper for his 28-year tenure as Salisbury’s city engineer and Public Works director. Yet it is what he has seen in his lifetime that makes him a living link to history.

Cooper may be the only one still living who remembers coming to town and seeing only horses, wagons and carriages on Main Street — not a single motorcar. In his youth, the marvels of the day included steam and sail boats linking the Shore with Baltimore and the western Shore. Men worked the field with teams of mules and horses. Folks here lived by the light of kerosene lamps. No television, no radio, no planes.

“As a boy, I heard stories about these things called automobiles and I thought they would never get to the farm because wagon wheel ruts in the road were so plentiful and deep,” he said. “I didn’t think cars were going to amount to anything, they couldn’t even get to our place. Of course, I was only seven at the time.”

He grew up with people who remembered Lincoln’s assassination and even worked with “Uncle John,” an elderly black man who may have been a slave in his youth. Even the farm where he was born had direct links to the Civil War.

“It was a grant to my grandfather Nehemiah Fooks who fought in the Civil War. Because of a war injury he was given 500 acres near Union Church. That’s the farm I was born on,” he said.

And there begins a life of considerable accomplishments and experiences. To this day, millions of motorists pass over or near works bearing his mark.

When the August storm of 1933 cut the inlet in Ocean City and heavily damaged the bridge going into the resort, it was Cooper who was instructed to make emergency repairs to allow immediate, but limited, road access again over the wooden structure.

“I was a state roads commission inspector and we went to Ocean City and saw the break in the dunes — the inlet had been cut,” he said. “The timber bridge had 300 feet where support pilings were swinging in the water. The next day I went back and was told by my supervisor that the bridge had to be in operation by Labor Day — just two weeks away. We used 60-foot telephone poles and joined them to others to make poles 90 feet long. We pulled them out on the bridge and made one full ’stretch’ for the 300 feet and put a guard rail on each side.

“We got a driver in an empty milk truck to make the test crossing on the 12-foot wide lane — he was a brave man.”

Seven years later he was a project engineer for the construction of the permanent bridge at the site, the Sinepuxtent Bay Bridge.

“It was considered the best of all bridge assignments in the state at the time, and I think it is one of the finest bridges ever built,” he said.

Under Cooper’s supervision as Public Works director in Salisbury, a number of history-making projects came into being. The discovery and drilling into the Naylor Mill Paleochannel underground river — that can store up to 7 billion gallons — is still where Salisbury gets much of its water supply. The engineer had a hand in the building of Riverside Drive in 1957, opening up what was the “a forest” to vehicular traffic. He was instrumental in the development of the Salisbury Zoo in 1955, the building of the South Division Street Bridge in the 1970s and the making of the Downtown Plaza in 1968. He helped in the building of the Riverwalk Project and its park. Cooper also was involved in the building of Eastern Shore Drive and the planning of Route 50 which came through the heart of the city.

“Each morning, when I wake up, I thank God I’ve made it another day. I don’t take any special credit, just thankful that I have lived this long. It isn’t good to look way ahead, say to be 110. I just say ’I’m 100 and one more day,’ not putting much emphasis on the future. I don’t have any control over the future, so I ’surrender’ my ’control’ and do the best I can,” he said.

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