Updated: Aug 7
The local community was rocked Wednesday when a man widely known as "Cooper Jack" was killed after being struck by a vehicle in the Oaklawn crosswalk on Central Ave. in a hit and run accident.
Never seen in anything less than slacks and shined shoes as he walked the streets of and around downtown, some loved this sharply-dressed seemingly homeless man who was a local staple, and some didn't prefer him. But one thing is undeniable: Cooper Jack added flavor to Hot Springs.
Rumors have floated for years that he was a former "pimp" who came to Hot Springs from Memphis. Some looked at him as a local icon, and some just looked at him as a man with a tight grasp on the bottle. Regardless, friends and foes alike have seemed to be unable to come to a consensus as to whether it's in fact "Cooper Jack," "Coopa Jack" or "Kooba Jack."
Perhaps the mystery — from his past to his name to his wardrobe — is what intrigued the masses and fueled the theories for decades. And now that he's gone, his legacy left is just as strong as his presence was: People have family, people battle addiction and people are colorful individuals, even when they are people of the streets.
Cooper Jack’s given name was Donald Ray Thompson. He was 65, born Jan. 17, 1958*, in Hot Springs. After attending grade school here, his family moved to Memphis. He returned to Hot Springs, where his siblings resided, in the late 80's.
"He was well loved by his family," Thompson's older sister Betty Young said. "It may have been some that didn’t know he had family here or he had family, but he did have family and he was well loved by his family."
Another lesser-known fact about Thompson? He was an incredible artist.
"At one point in time he could draw well," Young said. "Anything you put in front of him, he could draw it. But he got older and was free spirited, and always on the go. You couldn’t hold him down."
When talking well-known facts about Thompson, he undoubtedly loved his flamboyant wardrobe. Young said her brother had always dressed that way, and that their dad had a similar tendency.
She was even able to clear up the spelling and origin of her brother's nickname.
When Thompson was about 10-years-old his brother Curtis nicknamed him "Cooper Jack." Young said she doesn't know where he came up with the name, but it stuck. Sometimes they would just call him "The Jack."
With his extensive time on the streets of Hot Springs — always dressed to the nines — Thompson was undoubtedly one of the most well-known members of the community. A few acquaintances and friends spoke of their times with him.
Robbie Brindley, the photographer credited for the following photo, explains why he was compelled to photograph Thompson — a man he only knew by reputation and in passing.
"The reason he was a subject for me simply stemmed from my admiration for him," Brindley said. "I've always enjoyed fashion and that side of expressing oneself, so it was organic for me to be interested in him.
"I loved his style and would get really excited when I saw him wearing something really great. There was also this entire mythology with him that I thought was really wonderful."
Brindley goes on to say, "just like all of us, he had bad days."
"I knew things could get sloppy with him, and I wanted to present him in the best light possible, because I think of him in the best light possible," he said. "He was an important fixture in Hot Springs.
"I love this town more than anything in the world, and he was a piece of that puzzle that made it whole. Just because a puzzle piece gets crinkled sometimes, doesn't make it less important. You still need that piece to create a whole picture."
One of many friends Thompson made while frequenting the streets was Mike Melancon, a social worker and director of clinical services with the Tuggle & Shelby Clinic. How Melancon knows Thompson is separate from his work with the clinic; he has done homeless outreach for the past 25 years.
“A lot of people knew who he was on the streets, and a lot of people helped him,” Melancon said. “Some people liked him, and some people did not like him, for whatever reason. But he never did anything negative with me, or towards me. … I say for the most part everybody was friendly with him, but he did make some enemies in the area. But I'd like to say 90% of the folks he had interactions with it was friendly.”
“I never really labeled him as homeless,” he continued, “because sometimes he had places to stay. Sometimes he didn't, and what made him so popular was his dress. ... He was very flamboyant in his suits or his hats that he would wear, or his shoes.”
Melancon said Thompson would refer to himself as an “old gangster-type person.”
“He had a — and I won't go into his past history because I don't know if there's truth to it or not — not in this state, but in the Memphis area — but he had a colorful past,” he said. “I never talked to him about it ... because that's not why I was having conversations with him. But I know he had been picked up by the police here and there for whatever reason. And most the time it was public drunkenness, that type thing, but as far as I know there was never anything serious.”
Melancon describes Thompson as “not a typical homeless person,” and said even Thompson didn’t consider himself homeless.
“He always had some place to go. He was always going somewhere."
Melancon said Thompson would frequent the clinic for nothing more than conversation.
“He would joke about the condoms we would give out,” he said, laughing. “I offered him condoms all the time. I would say, ‘look,’ and he use to laugh at me, telling me oh, he didn't need those, he didn't need those.”
Another thing Melancon found to be funny with Thompson was his picky eating. He always wanted chicken — or what he called “yard bird” — and it had to be from Popeye’s.
“He didn't really like the biscuits and stuff like that, it was just the chicken. … I've seen him where I gave him a dollar hamburger, and I saw him where he'd throw it down too. He wouldn't eat it. ” he said, laughing.
“He would sleep at different places, that type thing. He never really had a residence of his own, he never had his own house — he didn't have his own apartment or anything like that, or a vehicle — but that didn't mean he wouldn't sleep in somebody's vehicle or sleep on their porch or various places,” he said. “There were places he would frequent where he would just lay down and go to sleep. But he loved his clothes. ... For someone that's on the street, his clothes were always pretty clean. They weren't real wrinkled all the time, or dirty. He took pride in that.
“… He always had shiny shoes, and I don't know how he kept shiny shoes walking the street so much, but he shined his shoes. I don't think I've ever shined my shoes. … He still had a lot of dignity to him, and he was proud of who he was. I mean, obviously ... he dressed a lot better than I did.”
Melancon said last winter when the snowstorm came, he got Thompson a low-end motel room.
“He left that room cleaner then when he got in there. That's the type of person he was. I mean he was very flamboyant because of his style, but he left it cleaner than when it was before,” he said. “And so many people, they don't know that side of him.
“… He had an addiction, yes. And his might of led to him being on the streets at times, but that doesn't define who he was. … He's no different than anyone else out there, it was just his circumstances were a little different. … He was so colorful. Even in his situation he was so colorful. … He was some flavor for Hot Springs, I'll just put it like that.”
Another friend Thompson made was Father George Sanders at St. John The Baptist Catholic Church. The two have been friends for eight years, and Sanders said Thompson visited him almost daily.
"He and I have had a lot of heartfelt discussions. We've laughed a lot, we've told stories," Sanders said. "He wasn't highly educated. ... I forget how far he went in school, but he was a jovial type fella. He liked to laugh, and we talked a lot about his past."
"... We just talked about life. Usually in the wintertime he was always wanting to talk about trying to get off the streets, but when it got to be warm again he'd forgotten about that. And he promised several times to let me take him to a rehab, but I don't think he was ever seriously ready to go back to a rehab.
"He went to Teen Challenge ... a few years ago. He went there and I think 18 months is what he told me, I forget what he told me. So he went through the whole program. So he was dry for that long, but for whatever reason once he got out of the program he came back to the streets and before long he was drinking again. He couldn't get loose from that bottle."
Sanders said he wants people to remember Thompson is a "symbol of all the faceless, the outcast and the marginalized people in Hot Springs."
"So often they're close enough to us that we could reach out to them, we could love them," he said. "Just his presence reminds us of all the misfortunate people around here that could really use a hand out; could really use someone to care for them and just give them a kind word and set with them, take them to breakfast or whatever.
"So I want Cooper Jack to be remembered. I want people to remember him as a symbol of all of those in our society that have lost their voice and have no place, and we need to reach out to them. I hope his life reminds us to be a little bit more kind to our neighbor."
*Melancon, who had documentation on Thompson, provided the birth date. The year contradicts the year printed on the poster at the memorial. The source of the poster is unknown.