Shelbyville, Tennessee , United States
|| September 28, 1895
|Died||May 18, 1969
Aug 07, 2015 03:54am
|Info||William Prentice Cooper (1895–1969) was an American politician who was Governor of Tennessee from 1939 to 1945. |
A native of Bedford County, Tennessee, he attended Vanderbilt University and then Harvard University. After service in World War I, he opened a law practice in 1921, and served in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1923 before being elected district attorney. In 1936 he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate. He attracted the favorable attention of Memphis political boss E.H. Crump, who had experienced a falling-out with his one-time protege, Governor Gordon Browning. With Crump's help, Cooper achieved the Democratic nomination for governor in August, 1938. At this point in Tennessee history, the Democratic nomination for statewide office was considered "tantamount to election", as it was in much of the South in that era.
Cooper was Tennessee's wartime governor during World War II, which brought about the basis for the greatest social change in the history of the state up to that point. Large facilities were built, including Fort Campbell, most of which is in Tennessee despite its Kentucky address, some POW camps, and the Oak Ridge facilities where the atomic bomb was developed. Of course, the state government under Cooper played only a supporting role in these activities, which were under the direction of the federal government's War Department.
Cooper was also an advocate for education, and during his tenure the state began to provide textbooks for students in the lower grades without requiring that their parents purchase them, a major change. He was also dedicated to higher teacher pay, but very limited in how he could provide for this due to the state's very limited tax base. He was also dedicated to public health, and during his tenure a statewide network of tuberculosis hospitals was built which served the state for about three decades.
Cooper served three consecutive two-year terms. During his tenure, the state debt was greatly reduced. Staying active in public service, Cooper was later U.S. ambassador to Peru. He served as a delegate to the limited state constitutional convention in 1953, which proposed several major changes which were subsequently adopted by the voters, including, perhaps most notably, the extension of the gubernatorial term from two to four years.
Encouraged by pro-segregation interests, Cooper challenged freshman U.S. Senator Albert Gore, Sr. in the 1958 Democratic primary, but lost handily (with Gore taking about 60% of the vote). From then on, he was regarded as something of a Democratic elder statesman. Prentice Cooper State Forest, atop Suck Creek Mountain near Chattanooga is named in his honor, as are buildings at virtually all of Tennessee state universities.
Cooper, a bachelor while in office, later married. His son Jim Cooper, born in 1954, has served on two separate occasions in the United States House of Representatives. In his first race in 1982, he successfully ran against Cissy Baker, the daughter of then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, in a race featuring the offspring of two famous Tennessee political figures. After 6 terms, he made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1994 for the open seat that Al Gore, Jr. had vacated with his election to the Vice-Presidency in 1992, although unlike his father, he managed to win his party's nomination. He was beaten by noted lawyer and actor Fred Thompson. Eight years later in 2002, after moving from his rural-based 4th district to urban Nashville, he won the nomination for the open seat of Bob Clement, another son of a former Tennessee Governor, and easily won election to the House again, where he is currently serving his (as of 2007) 9th term.