The tourist town of Cherokee sits at the eastern entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Named for the soft, transparent haze that often cloaks them, the Smokies can take on the golden light of morning or the pale lavender of evening. Rainy days wrap the mountain ridges in low-hanging clouds. Thousands of visitors drive the 50-mile winding road between Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and are rewarded with breathtaking vistas of the Smoky Mountains and the ongoing play of light and haze.
But Cherokee is more than a tourist town—as a Cherokee Indian Reservation, it is home to 6,000 of the more than 9,000 enrolled tribal members.
Jim Cooper grew up there. Though his life on the reservation was sometimes challenging, with few material possessions and few opportunities for jobs or higher education, he remembers with affection growing up in a family of nine children, who relaxed together by clogging and dancing in the mountain tradition. For him, swimming with friends after school in the Oconaluftee (Laughing) River or poking yellow jacket nests with sticks seemed like great fun. These memories are combined with memories of his father’s strong work ethic.
“I grew up with the idea that if I wanted a good life, I had to work hard,” remembers Jim. “For example, when I was 12 years old, I carried water for 20 cents a day to workers who were building a cafe. When the cafe opened, I asked for a job washing dishes for 50 cents a day. ‘You’re too small to reach the bottom of the sink,’ said my boss. ‘Sorry.’ Then I noticed a milk crate nearby, pulled it over and stood on it—easily reaching the bottom of the sink. I got the job.”
Today Jim is a respected businessman in the North Carolina hotel and restaurant business, a leader in the community, and an advocate of preserving Cherokee heritage.
“You can’t just talk about Jim Cooper the businessman,” says a ward member, who knows Jim well. “You’ve got to talk about Jim Cooper the Christlike example, Jim Cooper the community leader, Jim Cooper the Cherokee Indian, and Jim Cooper the father. His influence is felt everywhere.”
Whether it’s helping finance a missionary, finding a job for someone in need, or helping a single mother pay her heating bill, Jim is generous with his resources. He has also given his support to several people to help them deal with the challenges of alcoholism. One of these grateful friends says, “I’m only one of hundreds who have reason to love and appreciate Jim.” This friend speaks for many because much of what Jim does is done anonymously.
A naturally gentle and generous man, Jim says, “I love the hymn ‘Because I Have Been Given Much’ (Hymns, no. 219). The words ring true, ‘Because I have been given much, I too must give.’ I care about other people, and I think I’m a good friend. Cherokee helping Cherokee is part of our tradition, and I want to share with them and others in need.”
Jim credits his baptism in 1949 as a 20-year-old with helping him make the most of his life. He met the missionaries at the restaurant where he was working. The first in his family to be baptized, Jim led the way for other family members. During the next 30 years, a brother, four sisters, and his parents joined the Church.
Leaving the reservation to fulfill a mission and attend Brigham Young University provided him with opportunities for spiritual, social, and educational growth that strengthened his future.
Preparing for his mission resulted in a strong testimony of tithing. “I had to earn my own money to go on a mission and I knew I had to rely on the Lord to help me, so I promised my Heavenly Father that I would work hard and pay a full tithing,” says Jim, who borrowed money from his brother-in-law and leased a small restaurant in Cherokee. From April to September, he worked from 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. six days a week. By the time his mission call to Oregon came, he had enough money to pay back his brother-in-law, buy his mother a new refrigerator, and go on a mission.
“I gained a testimony of tithing from that experience,” he says. “Since then I have never ever deviated from the principle of tithing. I know that if we do our part, the Lord will bless us. If I have any financial success, it’s because I learned early to live the Lord’s way of financing.”
After his mission, Jim still had enough money to go to Brigham Young University. Here Jim started the Smoky Mountain Cloggers, and they performed all over Utah. It was also here that he met Janene Moyle of Alpine, Utah, who became his dance partner and “leading lady.” They married in 1954 in the Salt Lake Temple. As a returned missionary with a college education and a temple marriage, Jim had come a long way from the days he used to dance for dimes as a boy on the streets of Cherokee.
By 1972, Jim and Janene had five children—Debra, Susan, Laurel, David, and Janene—and were living in Hickory, North Carolina. When Jim’s 79-year-old dad asked him to come to Cherokee to divide up 40 acres of mountain land, Jim had no idea this would become a major turning point in his life and career.
“I felt this was a serious burden,” says Jim, who knew it would be hard to divide mountain land nine ways among his siblings without bad feelings. “We had good feelings in our family and I preferred to keep it that way, so I went to my younger brother who ran a successful restaurant. I suggested we purchase the property along the highway, build a hotel and restaurant on it, and set up a trust fund to be divided among all of us. I was willing to undertake the project if my brother would be my partner. So we got a hotel franchise, broke ground in 1972, and opened it in 1973 with 102 rooms. We decided to stay open all year even though most tourist businesses traditionally closed for the winter. It was a success. In 1978, we added 52 rooms.”
Today Jim and his family members manage six hotels and four restaurants. “I have a great desire to take what I have, whatever it is, and make it better. I love clean things, attractive things, especially if it represents the Lord. I attribute this desire to President Spencer W. Kimball, who admonished us to be conscious of our surroundings and to make beautiful the things that the Lord has entrusted to us.” For example, last year the family planted a field of jumbo-sized pumpkins and used them with cornstalks, old wagons, and scarecrows to decorate their properties for fall. “I think we have the ability to change things for the better.”
Bishop Harry Hart and his family met the Coopers 25 years ago when they all lived in Hickory; they have been friends ever since. “I’ve worked for a lot of good men,” says Bishop Hart, who manages one of Jim’s hotels, “but I’ve never worked for a man with all the good traits of Jim. He’s very hands-on with all his properties. I’ll never forget the day I came walking up and he was sweeping the curbs in front of the hotel. I was shocked. Owners don’t usually sweep or do dishes or clean rooms, but Jim has done all of them. I tried to take the broom away from him and he said, ‘No, don’t worry. I enjoy doing it.’”
It is easy to see why Jim has been a bridge between the Church, the community, the tribe, and his businesses. “Jim’s a go-getter, a starter, an idea man, and he’s got imagination,” says a friend, “but that doesn’t take away from the other part of him that’s charitable, soft hearted, loving, and caring.” His gentle ways and hands-on approach endear him to others; his leadership abilities make him invaluable. Over the years, his involvement in political, tribal, community, and business boards and councils too numerous to mention has earned him considerable respect. After eight years as a Western Carolina University trustee, he was honored as Distinguished Citizen.
For example, when a visiting minister said that Latter-day Saints did not believe in Jesus Christ, one of Jim’s friends who was in the audience defended the Church, saying, “My best friend is a Latter-day Saint, and there is no doubt in my mind that he and his people believe in Christ. The Church is even named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Part of the reason Jim is able to bridge so many groups is his devotion to his own Native American ancestry, which is strongly intertwined in everything he does. Though only 1/32 Cherokee, Jim is still considered Native American by the tribe. Most tribe members have mixed ancestry because the Cherokee have a long history of intermarriage with others, especially Caucasians. He says, “My thinking is that the degree of blood and the shade of skin doesn’t determine your ancestry. It’s what’s in your heart, and I’m pretty much Indian. My yearnings are there. My longings are there. My kinships are there.”
With a Scotch-Irish mother and a father who was part Scotch-Irish, Jim’s once red hair and freckles shouldn’t have been a surprise to him. “Kids at school called me ‘Redheaded Woodpecker,’ and I didn’t think that was very funny,” says Jim, who had several brothers and sisters with dark hair and eyes. “I’d go to my Cherokee grandmother, who lived the Indian ways, and she consoled me by telling me my red hair eventually would turn jet-black just as my dad’s had done. It did—but the freckles didn’t go away.”
Jim’s love of his Cherokee ancestry has motivated him to do all he can to support the preservation of the Cherokee culture. His service as a trustee with both the Museum of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Historical Society are two of his many involvements. He is especially proud of an outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, which is performed in a mountainside amphitheater next to the Indian Village. Viewed over the years by nearly four million people, the drama tells the story of the removal in 1838 of the Cherokees to the plains of Oklahoma. A few tribal members successfully hid in the mountains, and it is their descendants, including Jim, who make up this eastern band of Cherokee.
When the Cherokee were removed in 1838, they took live coals from one of their council fires with them to Oklahoma, where a continual flame has burned ever since. In 1951, a delegation from the eastern Cherokee brought back the eternal flame that now burns at the amphitheater. The flame serves as a reminder that though the tribes are separated they are still one in their heritage, their beliefs, and their future.
Though Jim is well known because of his public service, the entire Cooper family has a positive influence in the Church and the community. “The Coopers are always there,” says Bishop Hart. “There is never a question whether or not they will be there or do what is asked. Jim has served as branch president, district president, and in Primary as Blazer leader. Janene has served in most positions in both the ward and stake Primary. Often the Coopers bring flowers for sacrament meeting, visit the sick in the hospital, and bring food for ward dinners. Jim loves calling square dances at ward activities.”
Family prayer and family home evening have helped unify the Coopers. Each summer Jim arranges for his nine grandchildren to get together daily at the Coopers’ little cabin on the river. The cousins spend the summer swimming in the river, doing crafts, singing, gardening, and learning the Cherokee ways.
In November 1977, family, church, community, and tribe came together for the Coopers in an unusual way that changed their lives. Janene was out of town for the day at a stake meeting, and Jim was in his hotel office when a museum employee called him. A local girl from the tribe wanted to give her five-month-old son to the Coopers.
“I went to the museum thinking maybe this little mother had some trouble and I could help her,” remembers Jim. “She said to me, ‘I have a two-year-old boy and a baby. I’m not married. I can’t take care of the baby anymore. I’ve looked at a lot of people and I thought you would be the best person to raise my son.’ I didn’t know what to do. But I did have a sense that this was a child of God and I didn’t want to offend one of his little ones. After legal arrangements were made, we met again and she handed me the baby. Then she said to the two-year-old, ‘Do you want to kiss your brother good-bye?’ He said yes. So I held this baby up and the other little boy gave it a kiss. Then the mother said to the baby, ‘I’m going to give you to the best daddy in the world.’ I felt really inadequate.”
Though the Coopers were surprised at this sudden change in their lives, they fell in love with Jonathan. However, says Jim, “We soon realized something was wrong. Jonathan had a couple of seizures, and he was still not talking by the time he was three. As he grew up, learning was difficult for him, but loving wasn’t difficult at all. There was hardly a day that went by that he didn’t say ‘I love you’ to his mother.”
As a full-blood Indian—Shoshone-Cheyenne-Cherokee—Jonathan grew up looking the way Jim had always wanted to look. Jonathan needed some special attention. Jim gave it to him. They became very close.
Jonathan’s accidental death at age 18 in July 1995 devastated the Coopers and the community. Hundreds came to the funeral. In the months that followed, the community to which the Coopers had given so much had an opportunity to return their love and support. “Everybody loved Jonathan,” remembers Jim, who has found comfort in gospel teachings. “Even now he is the first thing I think of each morning and the last thing I think of each night.”
Jonathan is buried in the little cemetery near the amphitheater where the eternal flame burns. Restoring the cemetery had been his Eagle Scout project. Jim still visits the grave often, and Jonathan’s efforts have assured perpetual care of the cemetery.
Exemplifying the Savior’s counsel to “let your light so shine” (Matt. 5:16), Jim stands as a light in his community. In many ways Brother Cooper is like the eternal flame burning nearby that links the western and eastern Cherokee tribes. A small flame casting light over a large area, Jim heartens his family, the community, and the Cherokee culture with his kindness, generosity and genuine love. He stands as proof that one person can make a difference by loving people and working to make things better.
“I try to be a disciple of Christ,” says Brother Cooper. “Admittedly I fall short. But I have felt the goodness of the Lord many, many times in my life and I am grateful for it.”
“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.
“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
“And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:17–19).