Maj. Kelvin Kenyatta Cooper • 1965 – 2020
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Someone held his hand as the virus took him, but it was someone he had never seen before the hospital, masked, gloved.
Nurse Jamie promised she would. That was hard, his sister said. It’s hard to get closure when you can’t be there to say goodbye.
In all the numbers, there are names. Kelvin Kenyatta Cooper, a Sumter native and retired U.S. Army major, died at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans on April 21. A month before the 1984 Mayewood High School graduate’s 55th birthday, the brother of five, father of three, husband and son succumbed to the coronavirus ravaging communities across the world.
The Coopers are no newcomers to medical hardships.
Cancer killed one of his sisters five years ago on its third attempt. They could hold her hand for that end.
“Coping with a second child in five years is tough,” said Karen Wrighten, Cooper’s youngest sibling, of their mother.
Wrighten lives in Charleston now, and other siblings live in Charlotte and Atlanta, so the separation from their mother who still lives in Sumter is hard.
“We couldn’t be there for him. We couldn’t go see him. He was the brother that no matter where he was overseas, he was somehow there for a milestone. He was supportive of all of us,” Wrighten said.
Cooper’s wife, Nicole, is holding up “as well as she could.” Their triplets are 10. The girl, Laila Nicole, was able to ring the bell signifying her brain tumor was gone just before her father came down with COVID-19, something Wrighten described as “beauty in our brokenness.”
Wrighten, her siblings and her mother were not allowed to attend the funeral in New Orleans, one of the hardest-hit cities in the country. They held a service over Zoom and plan to have a memorial service with full military honors and burial this fall.
Cooper’s father was in the Air Force, and he instilled his love of country, God and family in his family, especially Cooper, Wrighten said. The fourth-oldest sibling lived fully. He was the die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan in a sea of Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. According to his obituary, he was “clearly their No. 1 fan.”
He actively participated in civic and fraternal organizations after he moved to his wife’s hometown of New Orleans following his military retirement. At the time of his death, he was president of the Gamma Rho Chapter of Omega Psi Psi Fraternity Inc.
Cooper began college at Johnson C. Smith University before joining the Army. After several years, he completed his bachelor’s in criminal justice from Benedict College. In 1995, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant officer and retired in 2012 as a major.
He liked to fish, and he loved to travel. He worked hard. Played harder.
“He was willing to give everything for everyone,” Wrighten said. “He did it for his country, his family without any question.”
His family nickname came to be Jack Bauer, the star of the TV show 24, because of his affinity to “just randomly appear” at family gatherings and milestones.
“His niece got married in Tallahassee. He was on some special operation, and he sent a video just before she walked down the aisle with the 24 music and everything. We were thinking, is he going to just walk in?” Wrighten said.
After retirement, he completed his master’s from Concordia University and worked as director of Army instruction in Lafourche Parish schools.
Wrighten said his death has brought stories of inspiration and impact to his family in hearing stories from people they have never met.
“So many people have emailed me and found me on Facebook to tell me about him. Especially the students. It’s so amazing. One girl reached out to me and said she graduated from high school last year, and he changed her life. She didn’t even want to live, but he encouraged her and inspired her. It’s little things like that in our time of turmoil have given us a beacon of hope,” she said.
His favorite teacher from Sumter, Diann Frierson, wrote the family a letter.
“From the days of Mayewood until the day he embarked on his journey as an adult and beyond, he was destined to make his mark on the world. His presence and the impact he made while on this earth was displayed in every area of his life; as he was a great student, officer, loyal son, supportive brother, loving husband and father. I take great pride in knowing firsthand that Kelvin didn’t leave the world as he found it,” Frierson wrote. “Saying goodbye is hard, but I shall always remember Kelvin’s beautiful and infectious smile. May you take comfort in knowing that God has assigned one more angel to watch over you from above.”
They don’t know how, from who, where Cooper contracted the virus. Like so many cases, it happened unexpectedly.
At first, his symptoms weren’t bad. He had a fever, wasn’t feeling well. Wrighten said he was misdiagnosed with the flu and got pneumonia before it got worse. The whole time, he had still been communicating with his family over social media.
Then, he became unable to breathe on his own. He was put on a ventilator. Started to get better. Took a turn for the worse.
His organs became affected, his lungs too overwhelmed to keep fighting. He was in the hospital for nearly a month.
Wrighten wants people to think of her brother and everyone who has died as more than a statistic. Put a name and a face to the cases.
“Don’t think you’re immune,” she said.
Thanksgiving is the family’s biggest feat, an annual reunion that started with their father’s dying pledge in 1992 – Wrighten was a senior in college – to always be together for the holiday. They’re so epic now, Wrighten said, the family has outgrown their mother’s Sumter home.
“We kept telling him, ‘When you get out of the hospital, we’ve got some Thanksgiving jokes.’ He’s the germophobe of the family,” she said. “We’re in awe, but we’re still trying to push through. His birthday is May 19. We’re going to do something.”