The Ann Nixon Cooper I Knew

A grandson looks fondly back on his grandmother, the 106-year-old voter who became a star when Barack Obama saluted her in his victory speech election night. To her grandson and the community that knew her, she was already a star.


My cellphone rang late Monday afternoon and the iPhone screen said "Ann Cooper" was calling. But I knew it could not be her. Despite 107-plus years of good health, her circumstances had taken a turn for the worse in recent months.  It was my mother on the line, calling from my grandmother's house in Atlanta. She gave me the sad news that the now-famous "106-year-old Atlanta woman" whom Barack Obama mentioned in his election-night victory speech had died earlier that day.



Like any such loss, her passing weighs heavily on family and friends, perhaps especially on my mother, Joyce Nixon Cooper Bobo, her only surviving child. When President-elect Obama singled out Ann Nixon Cooper's life as the lens through which to view his rise to office, he could not have appreciated just how special a person she was. The CNN story that brought her to the attention of the nation and to candidate Obama captured some, but only a bit, of what made her such a special person. To be sure, it made for a "good news" story to feature a 106-year-old black woman heading out to vote for the man about to become the first African-American president of the United States. But personally, it made even deeper sense to bring the remarkable life of Ann Nixon Cooper to a larger stage.


Others can talk about her public involvements and social service. I knew her as a loving grandmother and fountainhead of a family. And it is that side of her to which I want to pay tribute.


I grew up in Los Angeles, far from the Atlanta manse where my grandmother lived and raised her family since the 1930s.  Over the course of my life, I made fewer trips to Atlanta than I would have liked, but the connection to Grandmomma ran deep and strong from my earliest moments of consciousness. Of course, I was too young and unaware to recall our first meeting. But to this day, one of my most cherished possessions is a photo taken when I was about 2 years old, with all my aunts and uncles standing around a long sofa with my grandmother seated at the center and grandchildren of all ages fanning out on either side, including my newborn brother, slumped against the arm of the sofa for support.


Over the years we made trips to Atlanta that deepened the connection to Grandmomma and the Atlanta- and Tallahassee-based wings of the family.  Two sentiments are soldered deep into my soul as a result of these visits. First and foremost, I appreciated and loved my grandmother as the wellspring of a sense of rootedness, connection, solidity and utter and completely support in a chaotic world.  Her voice, her touch and her smile made me feel I had a sure and safe place. She provided the place and the spirit to bring together a small army of cousins who reveled in each other's company and friendship.  Second, and almost inseparable from the first, Ann Nixon Cooper was a woman of rare equanimity, poise, grace and love of life.  Anyone who met her was instantly taken by her smile, the joy of her easy laughter and the heartfelt warmth of her touch.