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Obituary: Charles (Chuck) Cooney

Devoted family man, high school history teacher, archivist, friend

Pilgrim Place resident Chuck Cooney made his great transition at the facility’s Health Services Center (HSC) on November 2, All Souls Day/Día de los Muertos. He was supported in his journey with Alzheimer’s disease and his passing by HSC and hospice staff, his family, relatives and friends, near and far.

Born December 26, 1942 into a large Irish-American Catholic family in Philadelphia, Chuck described his parents as “hard working, fun-loving, good-natured,” and even, “saintly.”
While doing graduate work at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he met Nancy Hennessy, also a grad student at Marquette, at a civil rights march for open housing. They married in 1970 in Milwaukee and settled there.

“Nan and Chuck” honored and inspired the Pilgrim Place community by joining them twice, first in 2003 and again in 2014, having returned to Wisconsin to raise their granddaughter after a family tragedy.

He once wrote the following words when asked how he would like to be remembered:
“Chuck led a good life. He had an incredible wife, two beautiful children, two delightful grandchildren, loving parents, six siblings, two honorary ‘brothers,’ and close friends, many of whom encouraged his long stories and quick wit.

“He prided himself in being a Sputnik scholar. When the Russians outpaced the U.S. in the space race, many more college scholarships were awarded (not just for the sciences). Chuck, the first to attend college in his family, studied hard at LaSalle College, Marquette U and the U of Kentucky. He found his career teaching high school history in the Milwaukee Public Schools. When burnout loomed, he twice took leaves from teaching to serve as an archivist for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. There, he connected with young people wanting to tour the society.

“When he taught, he helped his students own history as ‘their personal stories.’ He was energized by the success of his students: to rise from poverty, to become elected officials or to be able to quote passages on democracy from the Progressive Party Platform of 1892.”

One of his students wrote him a letter after reading his comment in her yearbook. “Your remark on my keeping the strength to be different hit me hard; it made me look back on my years here at Riverside and consider how I have changed within and without,” she wrote. “You have enlightened me past the history course that you teach and hit a more heartfelt chord deep within me, more than I think you know. And for that I thank you.”

Mr. Cooney’s writing on how he would like to be remembered continued:
“Those who knew him understood how much he relied on Theodor Seuss Geisel as a mentor. Chuck produced many poems in the style of Dr. Seuss, which he read at parties where he poked fun at the honoree.

“Chuck was devoted to All Saints Gospel Choir for 30 years (the 60-member gospel choir of a predominately Black Catholic parish in Milwaukee.) They sang throughout southeast Wisconsin, witnessing to the power of the music and the reality of integration. They brought their music to France and Uganda and ‘wowed’ congregations with their energy and joy.”

“Chuck was a true ‘first responder,’” his family shared. “He was the first to help a lost child, offer a guiding arm or open his wallet to someone in need.”

He was proud of the many quarts of platelets he donated, ever ready to sign up for a medical trial or act as a “pretend patient” for third year residents at the Milwaukee Medical College. As a union representative he helped teachers voice grievances to Milwaukee school officials.

In retirement he enjoyed helping people as a hospital parking valet, a crossing guard and one year, as a “lunch mom” at his granddaughter’s school. As a downtown greeter for the city of Milwaukee, he quit to protest unfair treatment of co-workers. During a class on social action movements, one of his African American students challenged him by asking what he was doing to combat inequality. He pointed to his chest and said, “You’re looking at it, I’m right here!”

While active at Pilgrim Place, he joined his hands with other residents in the Many Hands Movers as they helped residents move in and within the community. He helped pick up donated furniture for the monthly sale and festival which raises money for residents who exhaust their funds. Fridays he was part of the peace vigil that met at the corner of Arrow Hwy. and Foothill Blvd. His sign voiced opposition to U.S. involvement in wars around the world. He could be spotted each morning walking his regular route through and around the perimeter of Pilgrim Place. In October 2020, he joined his walk with the Walk to End Alzheimer’s activities across the country. His walkers and spectators donated a tidy sum to combat the disease.

When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2015, he accepted its challenge in his customary way; he composed a poem called “Silver Lining,” then volunteered as a chaplain for the memory loss wing at HSC. He said patients didn’t mind if he had to search for a word and he didn’t mind if they forgot what he said! A practice of openness about his disease and letting his audience in on its humorous aspects helped to lighten the burden of Alzheimer’s on him and his caregivers.

Determined not to ignore the arts while living at Pilgrim Place, he took on the job of cutting hundreds of pieces of cardboard for the “glue in,” a popular art assemblage attraction at the annual Pilgrim Place Festival, wherein children create imaginative works while recycling all manner of donated small wooden, paper and plastic pieces. He believed that his work was fundamental to the fun and financial success of the festival. “Parents would buy so much more if their children were not hanging on them,” he said. “Children would want to come back each year to create another masterpiece.”

His closing sentiment upon being asked how he would like to be remembered was: “Above all, I hope to bring my sense of humor to what happens to me next!”

He is survived by his wife, Nancy; their daughter Kat Hermanson (Eric); grandchildren Zykiah Cooney and Zayne Hermanson; siblings Helen Taylor, Charlotte Teel (Raymond), Tom Cooney (Marty Mullen) and Kathleen Cooney; honorary brothers Tom Landers and Ed Archul; and numerous nieces and nephews by blood and by choice.

A memorial service will take place in Claremont in the new year.

Memorial contributions may be made to Pilgrim Place Residents Health and Support Program at https://www.pilgrimplace.org or by check to 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont, CA 91711; or The Alzheimer’s Association at https://www.alz.org/socal.org or by check to 2910 S. Archibald Ave., Suite A215, Ontario, CA 91761.

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