– Posted Fall 2019
Meet Our Traveling Tradesman
Harry Cooper (Class of 1972)
did not set out to be a world traveler. From a humble beginning, his mission was simple: to learn a trade, and secure a job. So that’s just what he intended to do and that is where this success journey begins.
The idea of pursuing a vocational education came about when Harry’s 8th-grade teacher recommended that he apply to BVT in 1968. Harry went home to speak with his father about this opportunity.
“My father—who had a 6th-grade education and worked as a laborer in a foundry to provide for our family of four—firmly believed that his peers who had learned a trade, always did better than he did as a common laborer,” said Harry. “I recall him saying, Harry, you know they will always need carpenters. Go, learn a trade, and then if you decide to do something else, you’ll always have that trade to fall back on.”
With that advice, Harry traveled to BVT from Millville to visit the school. At that time, Millville had particularly low enrollment numbers for BVT. Harry chose to apply to our Carpentry program on his father’s recommendation, and learned a few months later, to his surprise and delight, that he was accepted.
“Having the opportunity to attend BVT was an honor,” said Harry. “Probably the biggest difference then, BVT was an all-boys school. Girls were not permitted to apply. We had some intramural sports but did not compete athletically with other schools. The focus was on the vocational programs while meeting the requirements for a high school diploma.”
As a freshman, Harry participated in a six-week exploratory program where he was assigned to Drafting, Machine Shop, and Welding. For each trade, he spent one week in related and the other week in shop. “I often rely on my BVT training, but recently I’ve re-learned many of those skills I had originally learned during exploratory in the welding program. I now live on a small farm, where I put those welding skills to good use,” said Harry.
Having no prior trade experience, Harry found that pursuing his trade was challenging and keeping up with his classmates was difficult at first, but rewarding. He discovered that some of his classmates had previous trade experience working in the family business during the summer. “While I had to work hard to compete at BVT, my classmates and teachers helped me every step of the way. I remember that my instructors were amazing people who had very accomplished careers, loved teaching, and passing their knowledge on to us students. They lead by example and left a lasting impression on me,” said Harry.
As a senior in Carpentry, Harry took part in co-op and worked as an assistant at a local cabinet shop in Blackstone. Upon graduation he transitioned smoothly from primarily part-time apprenticeship to full-time work, earning a little more than the minimum wage of $1.65/hour. “My parents expected me to get a job after high school, so I continued working in the cabinet shop as a helper while envisioning the day I would be a full-fledged cabinet maker. However, the shop owner didn’t want me to learn everything about cabinet making, because he had two such apprentices leave and open a competing business. It was that lack of opportunity that made me ponder my future and ultimately spurred my decision to join the Navy,” said Harry.
“My father had enlisted in the Navy during WW–II and was a member of a Seabee unit assigned to the 5th Marine Division and participated in the battle of Iwo Jima. He was impressed with the tradespeople the Seabees recruited who did construction on Iwo Jima once the invasion was over. So when I spoke with him about maybe joining the military rather than being drafted, he naturally suggested the Seabees,” said Harry. Harry found that BVT gave him the confidence and courage to adapt, change, and pursue new opportunities. In 1972, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Harry enlisted in the Navy. “Looking back, said Harry, I don’t think my parents really understood, until after my basic and advanced training, that I could go to Vietnam. By then, the war was quite real, and many of my colleagues did go to Vietnam. By literally the luck of the draw, I was assigned to the unit responsible for South Pole construction, and I did not go to Vietnam. For those of us veterans who were trained for war, but never went, there is a bit of disappointment in having drawn a non-war assignment.”
“During my enlistment, I rose from laborer to crew leader. I completed residential construction on US Navy housing projects, including framing, drywall, roof construction, interior finish, concrete, and masonry, with an opportunity to see the world and work in some truly unique locations. “Having the chance to live and work in Antarctica, the southernmost place on earth, was the most fantastic experience in my professional life,” said Harry.
“The South Pole sits on almost 9,000 feet of snow/ice. I spent six months there working in the harshest climate on the planet. I was assigned to lead interior finish crews to construct three modular buildings inside a geodesic dome at temperatures that range from a low –75F to a high of +13F. These modular units would later serve as a research community for the next three decades. We lived in tents while building the station and worked 12-hour shifts six days a week with most Sundays off,” said Harry.
“At the pole, said Harry, the sky is the bluest blue you have ever seen. Imagine a deep blue sky meeting the white snow that extends to the horizon in every direction. It’s breathtaking! There is no indigenous life at the South Pole, and when you get beyond the sound of the generators, you can hear your heart beating. During the summer, the sun circles once a day, but does not set.”
After spending six months working in the harshest climate on the planet, Harry was then assigned to work where it never snows. Trading in his snowsuit for a diving suit, Bermuda was his next destination, where he would spend nine months supervising a team to build underwater forms and pour concrete for a seawall project.
“My aspiration when I first joined the Navy was to do well, and one-day pursue college through my GI Bill,” said Harry. After four years with the Seabees, Harry transitioned to civilian life with plans of becoming a vocational teacher. He furthered his education at Central Michigan University with a Bachelor’s degree in education and also completed a Master’s degree in Industrial Management.
Unfortunately, teaching jobs were sparse in 1980, and the salaries meager. Harry decided to return to the Seabees and was assigned to projects in a supervisory capacity. During six additional years in the Navy, Harry found himself detailed to the US State Department, where he oversaw and completed construction projects at US Embassies worldwide.
Following active duty service in the US Navy, Harry became a Civil Service employee of the Federal Government in 1989, where his expertise developed in secure construction. During these nearly four decades of government service, Harry traveled extensively and had the opportunity to work on all seven continents and in an active war zone. “In a variety of roles with the CIA, I was tasked with approving secure construction projects worldwide. This work included flying a modular building overseas to ensure top security during the construction,” said Harry.
“I never dreamed of becoming a world traveler; it just happened,” said Harry. “Because of my travel with the Navy, employers saw me as experienced in foreign travel. Assignments came my way, and I thought little of it until realizing one day I had visited all seven continents. After traveling to Antarctica, the other six continents were more comfortable to visit. My life and career have exceeded my wildest expectations.”
BVT has always encouraged lifelong learning and finding and pursuing one’s passion. When it comes to Harry’s career, he has an impressive resume, reflective of that sentiment. “Too many people downplay the value of vocational education compared to focused college prep. My vocational education has propelled me to achieve beyond my expectations,” said Harry.
Since retiring from the CIA, as a senior executive with a rank equivalent to a two-star general, Harry now works part-time as a modular construction consultant. “While most of my CIA career was not devoted to construction (actually policy and law), the only thing I want to do after retirement is to regain my roots within the construction industry,” said Harry.
As Harry prepares to launch his encore and prepare for his second act, he credits BVT for giving him the skills and confidence that have served him well over the last 50 years. Harry said, “I hope that my story encourages those pursuing a vocational education to know that the trade learned is not the limit, but just the beginning.”