Remembering Jack Cooney
In a time when many public figures are embarrassing our community, it is well to remember and salute the exemplary life of a longtime Broward resident. Jack Cooney, war hero, successful businessman, family man, community leader, died this week at 88.
Although retired from business, Jack Cooney remained active in civic affairs almost until the end, living with a verve that traces to his early years and distinguished World War II career. Those beginnings were in Minnesota, where his mother died when he was 8 years old. They were living in St. Paul.
“My father took jobs when he was very young in order to transfer in his frosh year of high school to Cretin High, which was the equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas in our area,” said his son, attorney David Cooney. “He worked his way through high school because he wanted the best education he could get. He played on a champion water polo team.”
Cretin was a military academy and Jack Cooney graduated as cadet colonel, the equivalent of being valedictorian. He won a scholarship to Notre Dame, but declined because he could not afford the room and books. Instead he attended the University of Minnesota. On graduation day in 1943 he wore his military uniform beneath his cap and gown. He was soon overseas.
Mark McCormick, president of this magazine’s parent company, recalled speaking to Cooney about his war experience:
“A couple years back I was at cocktail party with Jack Cooney. At the time Jack was 86 years old, and was known to most of us as a retired business executive turned community activist, a trusted voice of experience and leadership in the business and charitable community.
"I knew Jack had fought in the European theater, and as someone who spends most of his nights watching the History Channel, I was curious about his experience. I asked him what battles he was part of. He replied,' All of them.' There was no braggadocio in his tone. It was as matter of fact as it was accurate."
He landed with the 75th infantry division in Normandy, a few days after D-Day. He was supposed to be part of the army artillery but due to heavy casualties Mr. Cooney would be moved over to the infantry unit.
Soon Mr. Cooney was to replay the part of Alvin York (World War I hero) by convincing a dozen German soldiers with rifles who were hidden in the baseman of a French house to surrender without firing a shot. Mr. Cooney had approached the home alone with only his Colt .45. For this action he was awarded the Silver Star. A few months later he began a short political career. His outfit liberated a Belgian town, Dinant, and his commanding officer appointed him mayor for a week until a local official could take over.”
Years later he returned to Europe to be honored by the city. Taking over as temporary mayor happened several times as the Allies drove toward Germany. Cooney left the army with the rank of major and an impressive list of 14 decorations, beginning with the Silver Star and including two Bronze Stars and the Crown of Leopold from Belgium and the storied French Croix de Guerre. He left the service with the rank of major. Even by wartime standards, his rise in rank was remarkable.
After the war Cooney joined Univis Corporation, where he started in sales and ultimately rose to president. He brought his family to Fort Lauderdale in 1960 and immediately plunged into civic and charitable work. A notable achievement was helping save what is now known as the Honda Classic golf tournament. The tournament had begun in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic. Publicist Jack Drury, who represented Cooney for years, recalls the scenario. Says Drury:
“When Haft-Gaines pulled out as sponsor and we lost the Jackie Gleason contact, we were sitting with a tournament and no sponsor. The PGA was going to cut us out. Jack was directly responsible for getting American Motors to sponsor it for one year, then we got American Honda and they’ve been the sponsor for 27 years. Jack was chairman of the board of the foundation. He was always very community minded.”
For almost 50 years Jack Cooney was involved in numerous civic works. Among them were former chairman and long time board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County, and member of the Broward Workshop, the Executives Association of Fort Lauderdale and the local Boy Scouts Council
Jack Cooney was married for 61 years to Peggy. They raised seven children and had 16 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Oct. 3 at 10 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, 4595 Bayview Dr., Fort Lauderdale.