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Death of Deacon, 74, 'Impacts a Whole Bunch of Lives,' Friend Says

By Josh McGhee | December 24, 2013 12:44pm
 Willie Cooper, 74, of South Shore was pronounced dead at 5:08 a.m. Thursday, authorities said.
Willie Cooper
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SOUTH SHORE — If there was ever a day Steven Herron, 52, wished Willie Cooper was late to pick him up for work it was last Thursday.

But, Cooper was never late.

"I was walking out the door. Then 'boom boom boom boom boom boom..." Herron's voice slowly faded into a whisper Monday afternoon as he remembered the seconds before his best friend was shot and killed in front of Herron's home.

Herron and Cooper, 74, were both bus drivers for Aries Charter Transportation, but the two built a relationship when they realized they lived just around the corner from each other. They began car pooling to work to save gas and their relationship flourished as "they confided in eac hother about every day things," Herrron said.

Cooper, of the 6800 block of South Cramdon believed in being punctual. He would drive his grey 2013 Chevy Malibu to Herron's home in the 7000 block of South East End every morning at 4:30 a.m.

Herron would be on his porch smoking a cigarette waiting for him to turn the corner. Cooper would pull into the lot next to Herron's home and turn around and the two would begin their 25-minute commute to work. They would listen to the Tom Joyner Morning Show, some jazz or sports highlights from the night before.

"It was like clock work. He was never late," Herron said.

Thursday morning, Cooper called Herron and told him he was on his way. The call couldn't have been over a minute long, but Herron will always remember the last time he spoke to his best friend. Herron froze a few feet away from the doors as he heard the long round of gunshots before the even louder "boom" as Cooper crashed into the gate of the lot next to his home.

"Nobody runs outside their house or goes to the window when you hear shots like that," he said.

Herron's nephew peeked out the third floor window of the house and told him there was a car outside.

"That's when I said 'Coop' and I ran out the door. I didn't even think about them still being out there. I was just thinking about him," Herron said.

On Monday afternoon, Herron's tall frame was eclipsed by the demeanor of a man who has lost his best friend. He sadly described the details of the horrific day as he fumbled with an unlit cigarette.

"When I went to that car he was slumped over... bleeding everywhere... the doors were locked.... the windows were up... the car was still in drive... and I couldn't get in the car," Herron said.

"I couldn't get in that damn car," Herron said raising his voice only for a moment.

Herron called police, who shattered the window and pulled Cooper from the car. Though he knew "there was nothing they could do" Herron questioned police and paramedics about his friend's well being.

When a paramedic finally told him "Sir, I'm sorry your friend is gone" he fell in the street in front of his home and began crying.

About 4:45 a.m., Cooper was found shot repeatedly in the car, said Officer Janel Sedevic, a police spokeswoman. He was pronounced dead on the scene at 5:08 a.m., authorities said.

Police said the shooting occurred in an attempted car jacking.

"The most devastating thing is it impacts a whole bunch of people's lives, not just mine," Herron said.

Amber Neely, 20, said Cooper, her stepfather, "wasn't the average 74-year-old."

"He worked everyday to get to 74," she said, remembering him taking her to Six Flags a couple months ago and being surprised when he rode every ride.

"He was a homey person, a family man, just a nice sweet man, who always held out a helping hand," she said. "He was a father figure. He was there whenever we needed him as far as fatherly duties."

When police told the family about what happened, Neely and the rest of the family was in shock.

"Never. It can't be... No," Neely remembered saying after the news. "It's just sad because he didn't deserve that at all."

When Cooper wasn't driving buses, he was a deacon at St. Philip Niri Church at 2132 East 72nd Street. He began his ministry in 1989 and when his original parish closed in 1992 he began working at St. Philip's connecting his lost his parish with the new community, said the Rev. Thomas Belanger, pastor of St. Philip.

Cooper considered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. his main inspiration because King "never wanted to head a civil rights movement" but felt compelled when he saw his people struggle.

Cooper felt that same call and was very active with young black men, becoming a form of stability for those coming from broken homes. He would even visit prisoners in Cook County Jail, Belanger said.

"He was a very selfless man. Very caring, loving and compassionate. He was a role model for them," Belanger said.

Around 9:45 a.m. Thursday, Belanger received a call from Aries Transportation telling him of the death. It left him stunned. 

"But, they asked us come out to Aries to pray with them after their shift," Belanger said.

As Belanger prayed with the workers, a silence fell over the crowd as Herron approached from a car Aries had sent for him.

"I just felt they needed to know what happened so they didn't get the wrong story. They knew we were friends. They knew we ride together everyday," Herron said.

Belanger said when Cooper gave a sermon he focused on three main points — reconciliation, love and hope.

But, when parishioners heard of the death of Cooper they immediately connected it to his last homily. Belanger couldn't deny the irony.

The passage he choose from Matthew 24:42 reads: "Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."