Omaha boxing legend Harley Cooper

Harley Cooper returned to Omaha after his military retirement and stayed in amateur boxing for decades as a coach and administrator. “I believe that everybody has a calling, and that was mine,” Cooper said in 2012.

Harley Cooper won two national Golden Gloves titles and kept the sweet science of boxing alive in Omaha on the amateur level for many years afterward.

He loved working with children as a vocational specialist at the Glenwood State Hospital School in Iowa and a coach with the Cornhusker Flyers track club.

Speaking of children, he was a father of 15. They gave him 96 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren.

They are his true legacy, wife Edie said.

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“There were so many things other than boxing, and when you get past all of those accomplishments, Harley was extremely hard-working and considered success as a challenge,” she said. “He had been a kid in Georgia in poorer conditions than we could ever comprehend, and he took value in college education and performing your job well.”

Cooper, 85, died Sunday in hospice care. Last year he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and recently learned he had cardiac damage from chemotherapy, said daughter Carla Cooper of Omaha.

His last honor came in 2018 when he was inducted into the national Golden Gloves Hall of Fame — 13 years earlier he was inducted in the coaches’ division. He’s the only Nebraskan to win multiple national Gloves, as a heavyweight in 1963 and the next year as a light heavyweight.

He was Olympic material, too. He made the 1964 U.S. boxing team for the Tokyo Games at light heavyweight, but wasn’t allowed to compete once doctors learned he had one kidney.

Cooper was the youngest of eight children in a poor Savannah, Georgia, family. At 17 he joined the Army. After a year, he signed up for the Air Force, and his military career spanned 22 years before he retired in 1973.

His first mention in The World-Herald was when he upset newly crowned national Golden Gloves champion John Horne of Omaha in the semifinals of the 1955 All-Air Force tournament in California.

Before his transfer to Offutt Air Force Base late in 1962, when he was 28 and a father of seven, Cooper had reached the semifinals of the 1956 Olympic Regional Trials and was a three-time Air Force European light heavyweight champion. He received the Commander’s Trophy in 1961 as the outstanding USAF boxer in Europe.

Harley Cooper

Harley Cooper is the only Nebraskan to win multiple national Gloves, as a heavyweight in 1963 and the next year as a light-heavyweight.

His sign-up for the 1963 City Golden Gloves caused a stir — there was an expense-paid trip to the Midwest Golden Gloves in Chicago on the line for the coach of the winning team, and every club in town wanted him. With the advice provided by World-Herald sports editor Wally Provost, Cooper chose to box unattached and “not cause any hard feelings.”

Winning the Midwest heavyweight title brought out an emissary from famed New York restaurateur Toots Shor seeking Cooper to turn pro. But the airman/boxer declined the offer, saying he wanted to stay in the military long enough to receive retirement pay, and returned to Chicago Stadium to win the national Gloves title before a crowd of more than 11,000.

Cooper announced his retirement from boxing effective at the end of the 1964 Olympic year. Before hanging up the gloves competitively, he repeated as city, Midwest and national Gloves champion. At the New York World’s Fair he won his spot on the Olympic team, only to not receive medical clearance on the eve of leaving for Tokyo.

His career record, based on newspaper reports, was 78-5.

He returned to Omaha after his military retirement and stayed in amateur boxing for decades as a coach and administrator. He was the director of the 2006 National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Omaha and a past president of the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association.

“I believe that everybody has a calling, and that was mine,” Cooper said in 2012. “That’s just the way I feel, man.”

He entered the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Hall of Fame in 1976 and was the light heavyweight on a 1983 list of the best Midwest Golden Gloves boxers of the past 25 years.

“All of my greatest achievements I made in Omaha,” Cooper said last year. “Boxing has been good to me. It was ideal for me. When I boxed, I gave everything I had. I got myself in condition and I just wanted to do my best.”

Other survivors include children Cathy Gordon, Rita Cooper and Harlynda Wilcox of Bellevue; Harley Cooper, Samuel Cooper and Geisla McGuire of Omaha; Rhonda Sanchez of San Diego; Daniel Cooper, Erika Turner and Monika Krueger of Germany; and Benno Cooper of Fremont from his first marriage (son Harry is deceased), and Michael Cooper of Chesterfield, Missouri, and Ira Cooper of Omaha from his second marriage.

Harley and Edie Cooper were married for 38 years. Michael played football at Iowa State and Ira at Nebraska.

Services are at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Westlawn Hillcrest Funeral Home, 5701 Center St. Interment is at Westlawn Hillcrest Memorial Park.