April 21, 2020—This is my favorite Lewis Cooley story because it said so much about him. Lew was perhaps the best football player in the formative years of the new Hillcrest High, which courageously put under one roof the raucous and incompatible Carolina tribes of Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn. When the consolidation of schools actually occurred, we were surprised to note that the refugees from these other places were much like those of us from Simpsonville. They were of normal size and disposition, without horns or plated appendages, and even their language was recognizable.
Our senior year, Lew was the MVP, a county all-star, and went off to Wingate College where he was immediately competing to be the starting fullback. But after a couple of weeks, Lew set aside his athletic ambitions, hitched a ride in to Charlotte and caught a midnight bus back to Greenville. Arriving in the wee hours and not yet ready to face his inquisitors, he walked the dozen miles or more back to Simpsonville carrying two suitcases, and he never left his grandmother again.
Psychiatrists talk glibly of homesickness, the common ailment of so many first-year students. Those of us who knew Lewis should have known better, for his was no mere separation anxiety. It was, instead, the deep and undying love for his grandmother who had raised him, and his place in the world, which was the old mill village of Simpsonville. He simply did not want to be deprived of either, and so he wouldn’t be.
Over time, he became something like a medicine man, carrying around the tribal customs, a human depository for our history and legends. He was our ambassador, keeping up with the citizens of his realm. Not only did he stay up with his classmates but also his classmates’ parents, as well as various citizens-at-large. When Peggy Jo Giles was ill, she got visits from Lew, and so did her 100-year-old mother to whom he brought a flower on each of her birthdays.
He visited faithfully his old mentor and friend, Morris McKinney, who was a pilot in WWII, noted for buzzing the town in a P-51 Mustang and frightening Miz Ella Burdette’s chickens so badly they quit laying eggs for a week. Years after I left for Ohio, my mother would call to say, “Lewis came by yesterday … ” He was checking on me, but he was also looking in on her.
It was merely Lewis making his rounds, which he did forever, just part of his unbounded and eternally affectionate nature. He was also keeping us tied to our origins in a place and time that now seems as distant as the moon. He included strangers, too, because he never met one. He was visiting son Brian in DC once and would go out and stop people on the sidewalk.
“Dad, don’t you be talking to people on the street,” Brian said. “You just leave people alone. They don’t want to talk to you.”
This was hard for Lew to believe, for he’d always talked to everybody. He was planning on visiting me in Wilmington, Ohio, but, first, he had to know: “Do you all speak on the streets up there?” he asked. It was as if he didn’t want to visit if the people were going to be inhospitable.
When Lewis got a heart transplant back in the 1990s, he remained friends with his surgeon the rest of his life. “Little Jesus,” Lew called the doctor. For it was, after all, a miracle. (When he woke up, he found himself reciting his social security number.) When Lew got home from the transplant, his beautiful wife, Dot (who has an accent you can pour over waffles), heard Lew talking to someone in his study. He was talking to his new heart: “Now you’re here and things might be a little strange to you, but you’re among friends. It may take a few days but all of us are going to get along fine. Don’t worry about a thing.”
And Lew didn’t. Because of his ebullient nature, he became a poster boy for Emory Hospital, and he was also one of the nation’s longest-lived transplant patients. For those of us who loved him, it was strange that someone with so much heart even needed a new one.