by Mark Dryfhout
"It was the middle of the war, and I wanted to serve my country; just like everybody else," Wayne Cooper said simply. He didn't have grand visions of being a hero or winning medals; he was just a regular guy whose father owned a sign-making company.
Having just moved on from high school at the age of 18, Cooper jumped on the opportunity to enlist in 1943 during the climax of the largest war in the 20th century. During his service, Cooper was an electrical repairman serving with the Navy in the South Pacific. Even now, Cooper continues to make contributions to his country and those who serve it in his own unique way.
Now in his late 80s, it's hard to believe that Cooper was once the young Navy recruit framed in the black and white photos displayed in the house the elderly veteran owns. Cooper is a soft-spoken and humble man who smiles often, laughs freely and always seems genuinely invested in listening to whoever is speaking. It's hard to imagine his mellow personality survived through the terrific struggle of the war in the Pacific.
Cooper served aboard an overcrowded repair ship, which he referred to as "just a peanut," during World War II.
"On the morning of June 9th, we sailed out with an armada of several hundred ships for the invasion of Saipan," he wrote in response to people asking about his military service. "We arrived there early in the morning of July 15th and it was a very exciting experience. After six days into the invasion, we were struck with an anti-personnel bomb... we had several casualties and I was fortunate not to be one of them, the Lord had his hand on my shoulder and kept me safe. After the island was secured, we went into the invasion of Tinian, where I stayed until the war ended. Tinian is where the plane took off to drop the atomic bomb on Japan."
After returning home from the war, Cooper joined his father in the sign-making business, which was founded in 1922. Wayne Cooper went to study neon electrical engineering in New York City under the GI Bill, bought his own equipment and built a sign shop in 1948 on Military Road in the Town of Niagara. From that point on, Cooper made a living building neon signs for various businesses that were springing up in the Niagara Falls area.
Cooper credited his father for launching his career.
"My dad always told me to do a good job or don't do it at all. I think that's where I got my start in my career," he said with a chuckle. "I often wondered how I had time to do all this woodworking when I had to run a business and support four kids," he added.
Years later, after relocating to North Tonawanda, Wayne Cooper still has a major role to play for his company and country. Though his sign-making days are over, he is still a valuable worker as part of the company. Old Glory Flags, founded in 1997 as a branch of Cooper Sign Co., specializes in selling American flags, as well as flag cases hand crafted by a WWII veteran.
If you didn't guess, that woodworking veteran is none other than Cooper himself, who has been crafting cases for about six years. The cases that he constructs are meant to display funeral flags; folded American flags that are presented to the family of a fallen soldier as part of the military funeral ceremony.
John Cooper, Wayne Cooper's son, offered some insight into how the idea was born. "I think the idea was that he was capable of doing (sign cases) and doing a nice job on them. ... We were looking for something made in the U.S., made by a veteran also, so it was just natural. ... People really are happy to know that the flag case they're buying was made by a WWII veteran. That definitely is something people enjoy knowing."
"I think the families should be proud of the person that served," Wayne Cooper said. "I think that's the reason people have them. ... I guess they're certainly pleased with them, I don't think we've ever had one come back, have we, John?"
"Nope," replied his son.
"It's an indication that people are well satisfied with the workmanship," added Wayne Cooper.
After 90 years of family dedication and proud heritage, the Cooper Sign Co. and Old Glory Flags have continued to be prosperous small businesses. Cooper, through all of his childhood, parenthood, success and service continues to remain charitable and humble.
Anyone leaving Cooper's home is offered a small pocket Bible. "No one leaves this house without a Bible," he said with a smile.
This veteran didn't join because he wanted a hero's welcome. He didn't serve for the medals. Cooper served for serving's sake, which is evident in his continued service to the armed forces even after his military days are behind him.
"I'm proud to be an American," he said.