HYDE PARK — Keith Cooper was a father, a grandfather, an Augustana Lutheran Church member, a Hyde Park community pillar and a Vietnam War veteran.
Among Cooper’s many roles, he was particularly dedicated to mentoring young men. Cooper took an informal, personal approach, allowing him to cut through the “red tape” that might otherwise delay them from getting the help they needed, said his daughter, Keinika Carlton.
“With him, he was like, ‘Look, let’s just get you doing something positive,'” Carlton said. Traditional mentoring programs “could be slow-moving, where my dad was just like, ‘Let’s do this today or tomorrow.’
“He wanted to make sure things happened quickly, because he understands how kids can get caught up in street life and a life of crime quickly.”
Cooper died July 14, 2021, after he was assaulted at Kimbark Plaza in Hyde Park during a botched carjacking days before his 74th birthday. Two teenagers were arrested and charged with murder.
Cooper’s loved ones have created a fund in his honor to support young people who forgo the “traditional” path of a four-year college degree.
The Keith Cooper Fund will give cash to Near South Side residents ages 16-26 who are entering a trade, certificate or licensing program through a community college; starting a business; or launching a career in the arts.
Organizers raised more than $15,000 of the fund’s initial $25,000 goal at a June fundraiser.
“It’s unfortunate the two young men who took his life were young — who knows what kinds of opportunities they had,” Carlton said. “This is our way of trying to eradicate the issue of youth not having access to resources and opportunities that keep them from from the street life.”
Neighbors can nominate a young person for the fund’s awards, and eligible residents can apply for themselves, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fund is just one of several ways Cooper’s South Side community is uniting to honor him one year after his death.
A screening of Jordan Peele’s new movie, “Nope,” will be held 7 p.m. Friday at the Emagine Cinema, 210 W. 87th St. in Chatham.
Tickets are $25, with proceeds going toward the Keith Cooper Fund. To buy tickets, click here.
Friday would’ve been Cooper’s 75th birthday. Carlton, whose own birthday is July 28, initially planned to celebrate the milestone with him on a trip to Brazil.
“My dad was a huge horror movie lover, just like I am — that’s where I got it from,” Carlton said. “He was big into sci-fi, and Jordan Peele was one of his favorite filmmakers. His new movie, we definitely would’ve saw it together.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to honor his memory and celebrate his birthday than to have a screening on his birthday [while raising] money for the scholarship fund.”
NON:op Open Opera Works will also premiere a vocal composition, “Memoria de Memoria,” 7 p.m. Saturday at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave.
Twelve of the Adrian Dunn Singers will perform “Memoria de Memoria,” which incorporates the names of 793 Chicago homicide victims last year and builds into a speaking and singing of Cooper’s name as its centerpiece.
“Keith loved people, loved Augustana, loved jazz and music, and loved serving,” said Christophe Preissing, NON:op artistic director and composer. “I think ‘Memoria’ brings a number of those elements together, and he would’ve liked it.”
Cooper spent his early life at Augustana. While looking through his possessions after his death, Carlton found a record confirming his perfect Sunday school attendance as a teen, pastor Nancy Goede said.
Cooper “drifted away” from the church in adulthood before returning as a “very active” member “who was always there” to serve the church’s monthly free breakfasts, Goede said. He also served one term as the congregation’s president.
“We always looked to Keith as the idea-maker,” Goede said. “He was somebody who we really miss now.”
Some regular recipients of the breakfasts only learned of Cooper’s death when the program returned from a pandemic hiatus in May, as they asked where the trusty volunteer was, she said.
In 2019, Cooper participated in “Blood Lines,” a NON:op production at Augustana that honored people killed in the 1919 Chicago race riots. Cooper and his neighbors read the names and details of the 38 victims.
“Memoria de Memoria,” which loosely translates to “Memory of the Heart,” will be somewhat of a callback to Cooper’s involvement in the 2019 performance when it premieres Saturday, Preissing said.
The “immersive” performance features 12 soloists stationed around the church, speaking the names of Chicago’s homicide victims in 2021, Preissing said. Every 10 seconds in the piece represents one day, and the victims’ names will be spoken on the “day” of their killing.
The piece builds from Jan. 1 to “a little bit past the midway point” on July 14, where Keith’s name will be sung powerfully, before gradually fading out to Dec. 31, Preissing said. Attendees will also be encouraged to walk around during the performance and leave items in the victims’ honor.
“It’s interactive in that sense, and everyone will have a different experience depending on where they are,” Preissing said. “Some people in attendance will be closer to sopranos, others to basses. The idea is that each one of these 793 [victims] were individuals. Each one of them was unique and had their own story, their own life.”
Saturday marks “Memoria de Memoria’s” first performance. Preissing is also in talks with a conductor who is interested in taking the piece to this year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada, he said.
The piece’s premiere and the possibility of future performances “further speaks to how the community loved him, and the way he loved his community,” Carlton said. “It’s very comforting to know people in his community are still thinking of him — still wanting to celebrate and honor him.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: