Weekly Local Biography

  John Cooley

John Cooley was delivered at home by a country doctor in a community so small that it didnít have electricity, much less a hospital. The son of ďpea patchĒ farmers, his family had a lot of land but not much money. His early school career was adjusted to meet the needs of the farm. He, like most of the children in his area, attended half days when it was planting or harvesting time. But, he says, every day in his life has been an education. Despite what he now understands was a subsistence life; it was a life with joy, laughter, and music. The huge piano stood in a house that didnít even have a refrigerator, but somehow the family found the money for him to study music at school.

He remembers when the family moved closer to the highway at the end of World War II so that they could link up to the electricity line. He remembers when the refrigerator was delivered. He remembers funny stories about growing up in rural Mississippi in the United States, funny things his parents said and did, life in a community so small that his mom and dad would hear about any slight infraction of the rules long before he got home from the party.

He couldnít get enough of music or education in general, and decided he had to go to college. His older brother and sister had long left home, so he headed to Houston the summer he graduated from high school and worked with his brother at a chemical plant. He had enough money to start junior college, and he came home. He rode the school bus to the college, then came home in the afternoon and helped on the farm. But, more and more, he felt he was leaving Mississippi.

He was voted ďMost Outstanding StudentĒ by faculty and students alike at junior college where he was in plays, the choir, lots of clubs, and homecoming activities. He continued to study piano. He graduated and went on to university for a degree in business. He took classes in typing along with business courses, and that decision made a difference later. He was drafted into the Army as soon as he graduated, and spent his two-year stint in Oklahoma. Because he could type, he became the company clerk. It was an easy life, but John wanted desperately to travel. He was eager to leave the Army. He almost didnít make it. Just as he entered the military separation center, the Cuban missile crisis exploded in America. Johnís group was discharged as planned, but those just a week behind had their tours of duty extended six months.

A college friend offered work in New York City. The big city called him. He knew all of the plays, theaters, and stars. Moving to New York was like coming home. After two years, though, he realized that a young man with a bachelorís degree from a small southern college wasnít going anywhere in the Big Apple. So he went back to college and obtained a degree in education and a masterís degree in guidance counseling. He went to work in the public education system in Mississippi, but travel stayed on his mind. He devoured holiday magazines.

Back he went to New York and what would become a lifetime career in safety products and equipment. Friends owned the company, and it was growing fast. John worked his way to sales and marketing, specializing in selling a deck coating for aircraft carriers that prevented the planes from sliding overboard when they landed. The concept of international business was new. Johnís typing came in handy again when the company received multiple telex messages from abroad, inquiries about their products. Nobody else could operate the machine, so, by default, John became the international sales contact. The owners sent him abroad to investigate marketing options, and his first trip to Asia turned into a month of meeting contacts all over the region. ďThe King and IĒ was playing on Broadway, and he stopped by Bangkok. It was dirty, noisy, congested, and decidedly not beautiful, and he almost left before he explored the city. Unable to book a flight out, he begrudgingly set out to explore on foot and discovered wonderful people and fine sights. He returned to points in Asia several times a year.

As he reached retirement age, the family sold the company. The new owners offered him an attractive early retirement package, and he took it. He returned to Mississippi, moving to be with his mother. They were close companions, and she traveled with him on holidays until her death at age 94 a few years later. Then John took stock of his life and made a few startling decisions. A gay man, he wasnít married, didnít live with anyone, had no real business or family responsibilities. His show garden was beginning to feel a lot like farming. An idea simply descended on him: Move to Thailand!

So five years ago he did just that, settled into a condo in Chiang Mai and made friends. Like many newly retired folks, he spent a good while being retired. Period. Then he began to put his creativity to work. He has always loved the musical theater, and his first venture in Thailand as an organizer and producer of music came early this year. With a professional musician from England and the talents of local singers, he organized an evening of music for friends. Encouraged by the response, an evening of Cole Porter music was produced at a local restaurant. More is planned. Heís on a roll.

We talked about the local gay community. It is thriving and vibrant, full of talent and creativity. John says that itís ďalive with liberationĒ.

Remember the poor boy from the family with a lot of land but almost no money? I smile. Mississippi is rich in oil, and oil has been discovered on that land.