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Center Snapshot - Larry Cooper

Image above: Larry Cooper, who works in safety assurance in Structures and Materials, gets great enjoyment from telling the NASA story to school children and making sure they understand that their parents can't give them success. The students can only get that for themselves.Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.

Larry Cooper was a 19-year-old, going to college to play baseball. Life was sweet, and his self-imposed mission was to enjoy every bit of it.

Then he was going into the Army, which was involved in Vietnam. He had his paperwork and departure date, in part of the result of fulfilling that mission to enjoy that sweet life.

Then he was suddenly and accidentally blinded in his right eye, nearly killed and with medical bills, little college and an uncertain future.

He found that future at NASA Langley more than 34 years ago.

Since then, he and wife Debbie, who works at NASA Langley with the Federal Aviation Administration, have raised three sons.

And since then, he has told his story and NASA's story to anyone who will listen. He estimates that plenty have listened.

"I try to talk to at least 1,000 kids a year," says Cooper, who works in the Safety Assurance Branch. "There are so many good things going on at NASA, and people don't know about them: health things, science things. We need to get kids to learn to use these things."

He tells his story by volunteering with the center's public Outreach office, going to schools, fairs, anyplace a crowd gathers.

The feedback is heartening and sometimes heady.

Singer/composer Stevie Wonder wanted Cooper to get him a ride in the space shuttle. Actor Hal Linden wanted to talk about space. Sen. John Glenn wanted to talk about the old days at NASA Langley, and his wife, Annie, wanted to know how the Peninsula shopping centers were faring.

But the most valuable feedback may have come from a guidance counselor at a Ahoskie, N.C., high school.

"There was a young girl there whose family were farmers," Cooper says. "Her grandparents were farmers. I think the family was just used to making their living from the land, and she was going to be a farmer, too, or marry one.

"She heard me speak about NASA and about opportunities, and her counselor said that (the student) got a used computer and learned how to use it. She was going to 'tech' school and break that chain of farming. It was so cool to hear that."

It's part of the message he gives everywhere he speaks and has for 25 years now. It's part tough love, part challenge.

"I want the kids to understand that their parents can't do it for them," Cooper says. "They have a responsibility to themselves and for themselves. I'm not going to take them to Mars. They're going to have to take themselves."

He has been to state fairs in Virginia, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky. Schools all over the region. Oshkosh, Wis., and Tampa, Fla. California. When exhibits break, he repairs them. The show goes on. So does the story.

"I love travel and I love meeting people," Cooper says. "And I've been a lot of places and met a lot of people.

"I missed the boat when I was younger, and I don't want them to miss it."

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Jim Hodges
The Researcher News