Peter Novak is a fictitious character. In the novel he spends much of his adult life in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town on the Monongahela River. Peter and the other characters in the book are imaginary, but the City of Clairton is a real city that housed steel mills and coke plants. In the more than one hundred years after Peter Novak’s arrival, the city has gone through boom and bust cycles. From just a handful of residents in the early twentieth century the community blossomed to more than 20,000 residents by mid-century. But as in all cycles, the steel industry flattened and the once booming population was reduced to fewer than 6,000 souls by the end of the century.
From this amazing city came people in all walks of life who made their marks on America. Businesspeople, military leaders, civic leaders, inventors, and so many others had their roots in Clairton. One such giant is Walter Cooper. From an earlier blog post I give you the history of an amazing man from Clairton.
Clairton yields failures? Anybody who reads the newspaper or listens to the airwaves in the greater Pittsburgh area has heard it. Clairton is home to a bunch of losers. Being a minority in Clairton is a double whammy. That’s the way is it and that’s the way it always will be. No consideration is made for the young men on the two-time state championship football team who will go on to college, earn degrees and play in the NFL. No consideration is made for the dozens of this year’s grads who will go on to community college, university, or other post-secondary schooling. Many would rather believe the stereotypes.
But suppose a poor minority lad was born and raised in the poorest section of town. Let’s further assume this young man’s parents had little schooling themselves. Say the kid was a good football player AND a good student as well as a bit of a rabble rouser. You know the type. The kind of kid who, along with a few of his fellow jocks made trouble for the school administration and caused them to open up the cheerleading squad to all races. The administration would be happy to see him graduate and take his football swagger to Washington and Jefferson University.
But let’s say once he got to college and a coach wanted to put him into typical “jock” classes. He refused and instead demanded to take the most challenging courses that the “other kids” were taking. Maybe this type of student would return home during the summer and, along with eight fellow students, press U.S. Steel for employment. Finally, this young man would graduate with honors and a stellar career on the football field as well as in leadership roles in student government. Such a resume would make him a no-brainer to hire, one would think. He chose to be a scientist because he did not see other black scientists. Finding a company to hire him would prove to be daunting but he would persevere.
The year was 1932, the young man was Walter Cooper and in his own words, “I looked around and I saw black doctors, black lawyers, but no black scientists. I chose that as a challenge.” He went on to receive advanced degrees including a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1956, and was quickly snatched up by Eastman Kodak Company as a research scientist working there for the next thirty years, earning three patents and publishing many research documents.
Dr. Cooper not only worked as a scientist by day but was also heavily involved in community development and civil rights issues, particularly those involving educational opportunities and motivation. He saw business and enterprise as a means to achieve equal opportunity. His efforts earned him numerous awards including an honorary Doctorate from his alma mater, Washington and Jefferson. Just a few of his many honors and distinctions include serving as the Chairman of the Education Committee of the NAACP, Chairman of the Urban League’s education sub-committee, Board of Trustees at Washington and Jefferson, Regent of the State of New York, Board of Directors of the Genesee Hospital and Rochester General Hospital, and a list of other leadership roles and awards. Clairton High School should require the reading of Dr. Cooper’s papers as mandatory reading. His oft-quoted comment, “Not to educate a child is the worst form of child abuse,” sums up Dr. Cooper’s philosophy. Dr. William Cooper, Clairton lad. But wait, there’s more, an elementary school was named in his honor and my best guess is that he is the only Clairtonian who has been named Chevalier of The Republic of Mali.
Clairton is a real place with real people. Stay tuned for our next book, a continuation of the lives of Peter and Katie Novak and other fictional Clairton residents.