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
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
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.