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In memoriam: Eugene Cooper, 68

Larger than life, the anthropology professor affectionately known as “Coops” inspired generations of students with his fierce intellect and outspoken personality

Gene Cooper
Eugene Cooper specialized in Chinese folk customs, speaking fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

Eugene (Gene) Cooper, professor of anthropology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has died. He was 68.

Cooper died at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena on Oct. 18 from pneumonia and septic shock. His death came just days after announcing his diagnosis of multiple myeloma to colleagues. He had, however, been optimistic about treatment and determined to continue teaching.

Born on May 18, 1947, to a Jewish socialist family in New York City, Cooper was the son of a New York Department of Labor employee and a high school secretary. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was the first member of his family to graduate from college, receiving his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1968. He earned his masters and Ph.D. in anthropology and East Asian studies at Columbia University in 1976.

He taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Hong Kong University before joining USC Dornsife in 1980. In a career at USC that spanned 35 years, “Coops,” as he was affectionately known, won the respect and affection of generations of students to whom he generously devoted his time, vast knowledge and unrelenting honesty.

A sinologist who specialized in Chinese folk custom, Cooper was also an expert on Chinese civilization, the overseas Chinese diaspora, economic anthropology/political economy, marriage, family and kinship, peasant society, popular culture and American folklore. He consulted with businesses, industry leaders and legal professionals on Chinese rural industrial production, the import/export sector and Chinese habit and custom.

A fluent Mandarin and Cantonese speaker, Cooper was one of the first foreigners to enter China after the Cultural Revolution and had met the wife of Chinese Communist revolutionary and People’s Republic of China founding father Mao Zedong.

A revolutionary spirit

Gary Seaman, associate professor and chair of anthropology, described Cooper as the lodestone of USC Dornsife’s Department of Anthropology for 35 years.

Our deliberations in the department will be less profound without him.

Gary Seaman

“As the poster tacked up outside his office door with the triumvirate of Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund founding fathers proclaims: ‘Everyone talks about the weather: NOT US.’ Cooper never talked about the weather,” Seaman said. “He was a serious man and a serious thinker. Our deliberations in the department will be less profound without him.”

Cooper’s long, bushy handlebar mustache and corduroy jacket with elbow patches were a familiar sight at events on the University Park Campus.

Jennifer Cool MA ’94, PhD ’05, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, knew Cooper for 25 years, first as a member of her dissertation committee and then as her mentor when she joined the department in 2010. She described her teacher, colleague and friend as “smart-as-a-whip, Brooklyn-bred, a revolutionary spirit.

He embodied all a professor should be — brilliant, tough, caring, passionate — and funny as hell.

Jennifer Cool

“‘Coops looked like you’d expect an anthropology professor to look, one of my students remarked as she shared the news of his death with a classmate,” Cool said. “Yes, he looked the part. But it was more than a look. He embodied all a professor should be — brilliant, tough, caring, passionate — and funny as hell. He was always game for a stimulating conversation, as quick to defend an ideal as to champion a colleague.”

An exceptional teacher and mentor

Nancy Lutkehaus, professor of anthropology and political science, said Cooper was a dedicated and renowned scholar of the anthropology of China.

“To his colleagues and friends he was also an irreverent, irascible character, in the best sense of the term,” she added. “Although Gene never hesitated to speak his mind, he was also one of the most principled, caring individuals I knew. An exceptional teacher and mentor — as the many comments coming in on Facebook demonstrate — Gene’s teaching and dedication to the discipline of anthropology touched the lives of people worldwide.”

Among Cooper’s more recent research topics were China’s market temple fairs of Jinhua municipality in Zhejiang province, which he researched during the 2006-07 academic year spent at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey. The resulting book was The Market and Temple Fairs of Rural China: Red Fire (Routledge, 2012).

An earlier book, Adventures in Chinese Bureaucracy (Nova Science Pub Inc., 2000), chronicled his personal tales of woe and intrigue as he endured five years of false starts, detours, dead ends and disappointments while seeking approval from Chinese authorities to mount an ethnographic research project in rural China.

An unusual talent

Cooper’s elder son, Raphael Cooper ’01, who graduated from USC Dornsife with a bachelor’s degree in visual anthropology and a minor in East Asian languages and studies, described his father as “a man of music, knowledge and humor.”

Gene Cooper performs on TV

Cooper performed on a TV talent show in 2005. (Photo/courtesy of Jennifer Cool)

Indeed, as an accomplished musician and lover of bluegrass, Cooper had an unusual talent: singing Chinese folk songs in fluent Mandarin. In 2005, he was flown to Beijing as a finalist on the TV series, Arts of Our Land, a weeklong talent show featuring non-Chinese people performing Chinese arts.

He had impressed the show’s producers months earlier at his audition in Los Angeles, singing a famous Cultural Revolution song, bluegrass-style, in perfect Chinese. At the show’s finale — a live broadcast on Lunar New Year — he sang a country and western rendition of “Lift Up Your Veil,” a Chinese folk song about a husband’s first encounter with his bride, accompanying himself on guitar, to a television audience of more than 100 million. He took second place.

True to his beliefs

A diligent and stimulating adviser, Cooper read and responded to students’ work with interest, insight, speed and wit. He received the USC Mellon Award for Mentoring in 2008-09.

“He spoke his mind and challenged others to do the same,” Cool said. “Under the Brooklyn-tough exterior, he was always a mensch, a champion for social justice, whether on the scale of the world system or of nominating colleagues for recognition.”

Professor Andrei Simic was in Serbia when he heard of Cooper’s death.

He was in truth spontaneous, unself-conscious and authentic in a way that very few people are.

Andrei Simic

“The word that immediately comes to mind when thinking about Gene is ‘authentic,’ and he was in truth spontaneous, unself-conscious and authentic in a way that very few people are,” he said. “He was always true to his beliefs and values, which he expressed with courage and passion, even in the face of opposition and disapproval. Yet, at heart, he was a sincerely empathetic and kind human being whom I will miss more than I can adequately explain here. When I return to the department in January, I will do so with a heavy heart and will surely be conscious of the emotional and intellectual vacuum that has been left by Gene’s death.”

Cooper is survived by his sons, Raphael Cooper and Gabriel Cooper, his younger brother, Robert Cooper, and his wife, Xiao Zhen Zhang.

A private family cremation will be held on Oct. 26. A memorial service is being planned for a later date.

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