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Audrey Cooper, who ‘represented the best of Newton,’ dies at 97

A consummate volunteer, Mrs. Cooper was a lover of dogs.
A consummate volunteer, Mrs. Cooper was a lover of dogs.

Audrey Cooper was involved in so many nonprofit and political endeavors in Newton that simply running through a list of her commitments could be a challenge.

“Whew, that’s enough,” she said in a 1994 Globe interview, after rattling off several. “Every time I think about everything I belong to, it makes me tired.”

Only 70 then, she kept at it into her 90s, along the way receiving recognition that included being named an Unsung Heroine in 2011 by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.

Mrs. Cooper, who also was a go-to volunteer and activist for Democratic candidates, died May 22 in her West Newton home. She was 97 and her health had been failing.

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“She is an icon in the city,” said Susie Heyman, a former Newton School Committee member.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said Mrs. Cooper “was the most marvelous, wonderful, extraordinary person who walked the face of this Earth. She represented the best of Newton.”

Among Mrs. Cooper’s most lasting accomplishments was cochairing the committee that developed and established the Newton Senior Center in what had been the Newtonville Branch Library, and then serving on the center’s board and as its first president.

“Audrey is the person who took the idea of the senior center and breathed life into it at the funding level, the political level, and the community level,” said Jayne Colino, director of Newton’s Department of Senior Services. “She brought people on board who never would have seen themselves as being part of senior services. And she made it not about senior services: She made it about community services.”

Colino said Mrs. Cooper “saw basic human needs as human rights,” and wanted to ensure that “everybody had the same basic human rights no matter where they were in life.”

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Mrs. Cooper also worked for decades with Family Access of Newton, beginning when it was the Newton Community Service Center. As a board member, she helped establish Head Start, day care, and teen programs, along with an adult health initiative.

As a member of Newton’s Planning Board, she advocated for low- and moderate-income housing, and she also had been a commissioner for the city’s Council on Aging.

Such efforts were “fundamentally about ensuring that everyone is able to take full advantage of all that our community has to offer,” she once told the Newton Tab.

“That fundamental right has always been very important to my family and me,” she added.

For decades, Mrs. Cooper also was a Democratic Party activist, working on local, state, and national campaigns, chairing the Ward 3 Democratic Committee, and serving on the party’s executive committee in the city.

“Years ago, we were the young voices in the party making things happen,” she said in the 1994 interview. “Now, we’re the gray hairs everyone wants to hear from. And that’s OK, too, because we believe strongly that you have to have intergenerational interest to keep the party alive.”

By intergenerational, she didn’t mean people her age should sit on the sidelines cheering on those who did laborious campaign work.

When Joe Kennedy III first ran for US representative in 2012, he met personally with the door-to-door volunteer who visited the most residences each month. One month, the volunteer who knocked on the most doors was Mrs. Cooper, who was then in her late 80s.

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“Audrey was a light. She was a pillar of institutional knowledge and activism. She knew everybody and was willing to give so much of herself to make her community better,” Kennedy said.

“What always struck me about her,” he added, “were her grandmotherly presence and the ways she embraced that role not just for her family, but for the community — for the people of Newton.”

Born in 1924, Audrey Mishel grew up in Brookline, the younger of two sisters. Her parents were William Mishel, who owned a leather business, and Sara Shapiro Mishel, whose example volunteering extensively at what is now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center inspired Mrs. Cooper’s activism.

She graduated from Brookline High School and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Pembroke College, then the women’s part of Brown University.

In 1945, she married David Cooper, who also had attended Brookline High and Brown. “My mother always told me I could marry anyone, as long as they were a Democrat,” she told the Globe.

The couple settled in Newton, where they became community activists and accepted an invitation for both to join the board of the Newton Community Service Center, she told the Tab.

Mr. Cooper, who had been president of the Bennett, Goding and Cooper textile company, died in 2002, after years of living with Alzheimer’s disease, and Mrs. Cooper added the illness to her causes, joining her family in 2013, at 89, in the fund-raising Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

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That same year, the City of Newton honored her with the Russell J. Halloran Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions improving the quality of life in the community.

She previously had been honored by the Newton Human Rights Commission, in 2009, with its Human Rights Award for her lifetime of advocating for people’s basic human needs. David Cohen, then the city’s mayor, proclaimed Dec. 3 Audrey Cooper Day in Newton.

When Mrs. Cooper received the Unsung Heroine award in 2011, she told the Newton Patch that doing so much volunteer work “fulfills your life — that’s the important thing.”

Working as a volunteer and trustee for the Newton Free Library was among her longest commitments. On her resume she listed her term of service as “forever!”

She also had been a secretary at Underwood Elementary School in Newton for 27 years.

“There are generations of Underwood graduates who basically thought she was the principal and ran the school, and they loved her,” Heyman said. “I think she was one of the most beloved people in the community.”

Although Mrs. Cooper “did so much for the broader community, we always knew that her family was her first priority,” said her granddaughter Sara Pollock DeMedeiros of West Newton. “And really, so much of what she did for everybody, she did for us. She was trying to make the world a better place for her kids and her grandkids and great-grandkids and everybody else.”

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DeMedeiros added that her grandmother, who also was known for her love of dogs, “found great joy in helping and seeing other people thrive,” which at home meant being “a constant cheerleader for her family. She knew her passions and wanted us to find our own.”

A service has been held for Mrs. Cooper, who in addition to DeMedeiros leaves two daughters, Ranny of New York City and Marion Pollock of Newton Centre; another granddaughter; and five great-grandchildren.”

For many Newton activists, Mrs. Cooper’s life became a measure of how to become involved and improve the community.

“There are people in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s who are absolutely going to be trying to live up to Audrey’s standards. She’s right here with us,” Fuller said.

“If I could ever grow up and be Audrey, it would be my dream come true,” the mayor added. “She was just the best.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.