HomeCampusChinatown's Beloved School Principal Turns 93

Chinatown’s Beloved School Principal Turns 93

By Shirley Ng, AsAmNews Staff Writer

(Editor’s note: Sadly we learned that Samuel Cooper passed away Sunday, October 17, 2021. AsAmNews last heard from him on the previous Thursday when he thanked reporter Shirley Ng for this article.)

For three and half decades, Samuel Cooper taught in New York City Chinatown public schools, enjoying every bit of it.

Cooper is a well-loved man and still very active to this day. When I met him last month at his 93rd birthday party in upper Manhattan where he now lives, he was surrounded by friends and former staff members at his birthday party.

Samuel Cooper (center) celebrates his 93rd birthday at a local diner near his home with friends and former staff members of the schools he worked at. Photo credit: Shirley L. Ng

Cooper is a WWII veteran and lived on East 6th Street in the Lower East Side. His wife Barbara Cooper was a school teacher at Public School 188 and Public School 2 also in the Lower East Side. She died a few years earlier.  

In the summer of 1948, Cooper was offered to work as a summer camp counselor. 

“I found myself liking children and working with them, that’s why I became a teacher and that changed my whole life,” he told AsAmNews. It was his first experience working with children and he loved it, leading him on a path that would forever change his life.

“When I was a young man I never knew I was going to be a teacher, because I liked to write and wanted to work for a newspaper,  Cooper told AsAmNews in an interview.

Friend Franklin Ford with Samuel Cooper at his 93rd birthday party in Upper Manhattan.
Photo Credit: Shirley L. Ng

Cooper graduated from Long Island University in 1949 with a masters degree in education. He began his teaching career the following year as an English substitute teacher in 1950 at Seward Park High School located at 350 Grand Street in the Lower East Side. He’s also a Seward Park alum, class of 1946.  He told AsAmNews he actually attended Stuyvesant High School for about a year first before transferring out. Stuyvesant High School is an elite school in Manhattan, focusing on science and math even to this day. 

He explained to AsAmnNews that he left Stuyvesant High School for another local area high school, Seward Park because there were no girls.

“Stuyvesant High School was an all-boys school and I like girls, ‘he said. This was the mind of a young boy with a mission. 

Stuyvesant High School did not admit female students till 1969. The ratio of boys to girls must have been pretty high at the start. Seward Park High School is now comprised of three different schools in one building.

At Junior High School 65 (JHS65), Cooper taught English and Social Studies as a substitute teacher in 1951. Then he became a full-time seventh grade teacher. The school was formerly located at 46 Forsyth Street and was replaced with Intermediate School 131 (IS 131), now located at 100 Hester Street . Cooper’s first year’s salary as a full-time teacher was $2400. 

Samuel Cooper with his former school secretary at PS124, Mary Yee. Photo credit: Shirley L. Ng

“I thought I was stealing money because I got paid for doing something I would have done for nothing. That’s how much I like working with children,” Cooper told AsAmNews.  

In 1967, he became the assistant principal of JHS65. After his role as assistant principal, the obvious next move for him was to become a school principal, which he served from 1968-1970 at Public School 23 (PS23) on 70 Mulberry Street. Cooper enjoyed his time there and found the children to be such a blessing. 

“I feel so lucky that the people in Chinatown picked me to take care of their children,” Cooper said.

“Mr. Cooper saw the other side of me and knew I could do really well in a different type of school,” said Tommy Gunn, a 1972 graduate of PS23.

Gunn was the kind of student that learned creatively and Mr. Cooper recognized that in him. When most of the PS23 students were districted to attend JHS65, including the boys that bullied Gunn because he is half Chinese, Mr. Cooper made a suggestion that according to Gunn, changed his life. He felt his adventurous life is credited to Mr. Cooper’s suggestions to attend the Clinton School that focused on the arts and writing.

As an adult, Gunn had been a magician, a member of the The Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, ran the biggest night clubs in New York City for over 15 years, was the director of technology for 15 locations around the world, had a merchants marine captain’s license for a 100 ton vessel, and so much more.

“Mr. Cooper told me about an experimental school, the Clinton School that changed the course of my life. I am very thankful for that. My life’s greatest adventures would not have existed if I had gone to JH65, ” said Gunn.

After PS23 was decommissioned in 1976, it became the home to several community organizations till a large fire displaced them in January 2019. It was announced just last Tuesday that the city will now budget almost $170 million dollars (previously $80 million) to restore the brownstone building with an added elevator and gymnasium.  Cooper was the school principal till 1980.

Looking back, Cooper recalls how he escorted the school children on the last operating day of PS23 to their new school, Public School 124 (PS124) on 100 Division Street just four blocks away. The new grade school was also known as The Yung Wing School, named after the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale College.  Cooper was the first principal of PS124 in 1970 till he retired in 1985.

Johnson Tong, was just a kindergartner at PS124 in 1984 and remembers Mr. Cooper.

“I remember him greeting the students when I started kindergarten. He was out of the office to check on his students and faculty. He was a gentle giant. He is the coolest guy and principal I know. I remember when a photographer for a newspaper was writing a story on him and taking his picture, he wanted me in the picture also,” said Johnson Tong, a former student at PS124.

All smiles. Samuel Cooper at his 93rd birthday party in Upper Manhattan. Photo credit: Shirley L. Ng.

Jean Lau, was at Cooper’s birthday party. She said she was a paraprofessional at PS42 in 1986 working with students who recently arrived from other countries.

“I am so appreciative of his willingness to bring National Dance Institute (NDI) to PS 124,” Lau said. “I was working at PS42 at the time and cornered the artistic director,  Ellen Weinstein in the stairwell to ask her to include the program at another school, PS124, but I needed to ask the principal, Mr. Cooper first.  Weinstein agreed and Mr. Cooper welcomed the program.  To this day PS124 ‘s partnership with NDI is still on!  Mr. Cooper was always open for suggestions including a push for fundraising activities for an air conditioner in each classroom.”

Cooper was an active member of the Chinatown Lions Club and heavily involved in the Chinatown community. The community leaders knew who he was. If he needed something for the schools like air conditioners, he knew who to reach. 

Even at 93 years old, Cooper is just not sitting back and kicking up his heels. He walks a mile each day, has a good appetite and enjoys meeting friends for lunch once a week. He likes to read and visits the local library.  If he isn’t reading, he’ll catch a baseball game of his favorite team, Yankees or spend it with his son and grandson.

When asked about his life, Cooper replied, “I’m a lucky lucky man.”  

Indeed he is. 

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