NPPA's Executive Director Emeritus Charles H. Cooper, 92

NPPA executive director emeritus Charles Cooper, in a file photograph from the Herald-Sun.
NPPA executive director emeritus Charles Cooper, in a file photograph from the Herald-Sun.


By Donald R. Winslow

DURHAM, NC (December 19, 2012) – Charles H. Cooper, the executive director emeritus of the National Press Photographers Association, died this morning of heart failure at his home Durham after a long illness. He was 92, and his wife Nell was with him bedside.

Cooper’s work for the NPPA for more than four decades “stands as a deep and lasting legacy," the organization's current president Sean D. Elliot said today. 

Beginning in 1957, when NPPA was only 12 years old, Cooper served as a volunteer and was the organization's insurance administrator until 1963. He was the organization's national secretary from 1956 to 1958. Cooper was NPPA's membership director in the mid-1960s, and became the executive secretary in 1965. Cooper served as the executive secretary until 1982, when he was named executive director. Cooper retired from NPPA in 1997.

Graveside services are planned for Saturday, December 22, at 11 a.m. the Maplewood Cemetery, 1621 Duke University Road, Durham, NC.

"Charles Cooper's leadership and vision moved the organization forward for so many years, and his legacy lives on in so many of the achievements of the organization, and in the NPPA offices," NPPA's current executive director Mindy Hutchison said today. 

Hutchison remembers the last time Cooper visited the NPPA offices, when he told her about how he and his son built by hand the beautiful floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcase that lines one long wall of the staff's board room. Housed on those shelves are hundreds of classic photography and photojournalism books, a magnificent collection, along with every issue of News Photographer magazine since its 1946 founding. 

When Cooper was 64 in December 1985, he retired from his full-time position as chief photographer and photo department manager of the Durham Morning Herald and The Durham Sun to devote more of his time to NPPA, News Photographer magazine reported in March 1986. At that time Cooper had served as NPPA's executive secretary and executive director for 20 years, and he needed the additional time in order to supervise the move into NPPA's first permanent headquarters.

A selection of Cooper's photographic legacy is online here on the Herald-Sun Web site.

"I met Charles Cooper when I joined NPPA in 1959, when he was chief photographer of The Durham Herald," former NPPA president Ken Cooke said today. "Charles and his wife Nell were in the process of pulling all the loose ends of the organization together and establishing a home office in Durham. When I say 'home' office, I mean it was literally in their home. It started small. Out went some of the furniture, and in came things like an Addressograph machine, typewriters, and stacks of paper. They put in some phones, and when you called the NPPA office, day or night, either Charles or Nell would answer."

Cooke remembers the Coopers "gradually built this small operation into a masterpiece of orderly administration. They had no computers, secretaries, or cell phones. When Charlie had something to communicate, he'd cram six or eight sheets of carbon paper into the typewriter so the entire executive committee was kept informed of what was going on."

When the Coopers built a new home, even more space was allocated for NPPA. "Instead of putting a recreation room in the basement, they added a shipping department," Cooke said. "File cabinets took over what could have been at TV room. It was a folksy place and fun to visit, but it was as efficient as any well-run business."

NPPA's 1976 president Rich Clarkson remembers Cooper "was always a very responsive perfectionist, but he could change with the times ... as long as everything was done exactly right."

Clarkson remembers, "I instituted a plan to replace the manual membership system – which Charles kept perfectly – with a new, computerized system. Charles and Nell were aghast with the idea, and their membership mailing lists were partially kept on a huge machine with maintained stacks of metal cards used to print mailing labels on a Rube Goldberg-type machine, which newspapers used then for their mailed copies. And there were racks of metal address plates. The records were kept in books with individual handwritten entries. But everything was in perfect order." All of this was in the basement of their Durham home.

"Charles was convinced that changing to these newfangled computers would never work. But I forced the change, and it wasn't very long after that Charles adapted and he loved the change."

Clarkson, who has been around NPPA for many decades, recalls that in the early years "more than any other person, Charles gave stability and ensured things got done. With no national office at the time, and the yearly change in leadership, Charles was probably the most significant person in NPPA's early years. And the good thing about it was that everyone understood that, and I think we all thanked Charles and Nell appropriately at the time."

Another NPPA past president, C. Thomas Hardin, remembers Cooper "held NPPA together with their hearts and with their labor for many generations. We should always be grateful for their chapter of NPPA's history. Claude Cookman's book of the beginning of NPPA and its first 40 years, 'A Voice Is Born,' outlines Cooper's enduring contribution."

In 1989, John Long was NPPA's president and he remembers Cooper for his fiscal responsibility. "His approach helped NPPA to grow and prosper, and the many benefits he created for members was extensive. Charles and Nell were the rock that we one-term presidents relied on for stability. He had the institutional knowledge, and he built this organization carefully."

Cooper received his photography training in the Army Air Corps during World War II, flying over Germany to photograph troop movements and potential bombing targets as a member of the the 654th Bombardment Squadron, 25th Bombardment Group (Reconnaissance), with Jimmy Doolittle's Eighth Air Force stationed in England. He was awarded six bronze stars for his service.

Cooper was the first photographer hired by the Herald and Sun in 1945 and he set up their inaugural photography department, working as the sole photographer for both newspapers until 1950. He won first place honors in the North Carolina Press Photographers Association's contests in 1953, 1954, and 1955, and worked for the local newspapers here through four decades.

In a 2009 interview with the Sun-Herald, Cooper said the photograph he remembered best was of a Durham Christmas parade in 1955 – a challenge like none he had ever faced, Sun-Herald reporter Keith Upchurch writes tonight in Cooper’s former newspaper. 

“I took about three cases of flash bulbs and spent the entire afternoon in a light drizzle,” Cooper said. “Duke Power let me install flash bulbs in each light pole from Five Points all the way up to Church Street, so I could take a picture of the parade, which was always at night in those days.”

Cooper had just one chance to get the shot, because Duke Power was to flip the switch that cut on the flash bulbs when he signaled he was ready. The plan almost fell apart, however, when communications got fouled up. But then, as Cooper stood on scaffolding at Five Points, two blocks of flash bulbs went off at once, and he got his picture.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “I must have been out of my mind to have tried it.”

Cooper received NPPA's highest honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award, in 1961. He also received NPPA's honor named after the organization's founder, Joseph Costa, in 1977. During his career he also received NPPA's President's Award in 2001, the J. Winton Lemen Fellowship Award in 1958, and the Morris Berman Citation in 1956. He also received both the Burt Williams Award and the Kenneth P. McLaughlin Award of Merit.

Cooper is survived by his wife, Nell, and two adult sons: Charles H. "Chuck" Cooper II, and John Phillip Cooper. There are also four grandchildren, and one great-grandson. Nell and Charles Cooper would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming January 2nd.

Graveside services are planned for Saturday, December 22, at 11 a.m. at the Maplewood Cemetery, 1621 Duke University Road, Durham, NC. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the American Heart Association in the name of Charles H. Cooper.

Charles Cooper (third from right side) during a Southern Short Course planning session in 1961.

Charles Cooper (third from right) during a 1961 Southern Short Course planning session.