Election season amidst a global pandemic have you down? Let this spirited 100-year-old New Jerseyan pick you right back up.
Mildred Cooley is a trailblazer, say family and friends.
At a time when her male peers went off to the military, Cooley began pursuing a lifelong career in social justice, woman’s rights and the environment. She joined the Red Cross after graduating and has traveled to six of the seven continents. Then, when she moved to New Jersey, she helped break the glass ceiling, rising to management in New Jersey Corrections.
And she’s voted in every presidential election since FDR, even mailing home her ballot while abroad.
But if you tell her you’re impressed by a life well lived, she turns self-deprecating, sporting a wry sense of humor that befits a sassy centenarian from New Jersey.
“I’m a basket case!” Cooley replies. “I’m way overdue to get the hell out of here, but here I am.”
Cooley is well aware that this may be her last presidential election, and she eagerly cast her ballot, with the help of a family member since she struggles with her vision these days.
“Everybody should vote,” she says emphatically. “It was drilled into us how important it is for every individual to get involved with the country and politics. This country is certainly flawed in many respects, but it’s up to all of us to make it a better place.”
She marvels at the state of things from inside Seabrook Senior Living in Tinton Falls. It’s been a difficult time for Cooley, says her nephew Fred Mingo, and she’s sick of being confined.
“Today’s world is crazy as ever,” she says. “When I think about how isolated people are today and to have to wear a mask walking down the street…”
For Cooley, life began in Westlake, Ohio, near Lake Erie, where she helped on the family farm and took produce into market in Cleveland.
She graduated from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, in June 1942 with a major in sociology and a minor in psychology. She was the captain of her college basketball team and lettered in both high school and college.
She began work as a psychiatric aid in a mental hospital in Connecticut, then as a counselor in homes for at-risk youth in Boston and Chicago. She even did a stint at the Bendix Aviation Corporation in 1944, inspecting B-24 airplane carbonators and training new inspectors.
“I was very fortunate because my parents paid good money to send me to school, and I didn’t want to go because I hated school, but they made me go,” Cooley remembers. “The war just started and it was a shock. I was sitting with some students when they announced we had joined it. And they immediately started drafting all the young men.”
Cooley was eager to join the efforts, wanting to go overseas, too. She joined the Red Cross, but the women weren’t allowed to travel overseas until age 25, a point that irritated Cooley.
“You got caught up in the events you saw, everything that’s going on in the world, and you wanted to be a part of it,” she says. “I thought, I can’t stay home picking grapes and peaches all my life, so I joined the Red Cross.”
She worked first at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., where she was responsible for Black mental health patients, working on wards with depressed, catatonic and suicidal patients. The Red Cross gave her a scholarship to help her earn her master’s degree at the nearby National Catholic School of Social Service.
Cooley says she was always attracted to social work.
“I wanted to do that or be in archaeology,” she says. “I wanted to go dig in the dirt. And of course social work was a lot easier to get involved in. I enjoyed working with people, and it just went from there.”
She worked at the U. S. Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va.; at the Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center, in Allaire, New Jersey; and at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland.
When she was finally able to go overseas for a two-year tour in 1950, Cooley was sent to Japan and then Korea, working in various hospitals as a recreation worker, case worker and assistant field director.
“It was a fabulous experience,” Cooley says. “You’ve got to remember how long ago that was, and Japan was like the storybook oriental country. It was very unique. And not only that, but they were interested in seeing you, and you were interested and seeing them.”
She remembers how Japanese schoolteachers would ask her to come and speak to their students.
“Local schools would beg to have you come on over to their classroom,” Cooley remembers. “And you thought you were the king of the world, just sitting up there, telling them about America.”
She says she was outgoing and made friends easily throughout her travels, often being invited into homes for a meal.
After Japan, she was stationed in Pusan, Korea, at a Swedish hospital where she met patients from all over the world. On their days off, Cooley and others would “hop in a jeep” and go out to the countryside.
She remembers the local people being awed by a Sears Roebuck catalogue she had with her.
“The Koreans were fascinated with that,” she says. “Asking, ‘What is this?’ Well, this one was a lawnmower, one was a hairdryer. It was easy to meet people if you were outgoing enough.”
Cooley’s boldest move, the one that still wows her family, is after her tour was over, when she and a few friends decided to start their trip back to the U.S. by hopping aboard a British P&O freighter.
Cooley got to see the world over several months on board, with stops in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Casablanca and Bermuda.
“It was a fantastic time, and then I was young enough that I could do all that stuff,” she says with a laugh. “It was a very good age, my middle 20s, and I was young enough not to be too stupid. I was stupid but not too stupid.”
Was she fearful as a young women traveling alone to exotic locales?
“No, it really didn’t make that much difference,” Cooley says. “There were women around. And you meet people. It’s remarkable how interested people are. Stopping at all these ports, if you were gregarious and really wanted to know what’s going on, it was very easy because people love to talk to you about their lives and they love to show you, so I just took advantage of those things.”
She says she feels fortunate to have lived in a time of so much change, with so much to explore.
“Now the world seems alike in so many respects,” she says. “Back then it all was more primitive and I was young. Now, if I just took a trip outside of Seabrook to Trenton or something that would be exciting to me!”
When she returned home, a professor she knew from the National Catholic School of Social Service told her there were jobs in corrections in New Jersey. She moved to Trenton in 1955 and never left New Jersey, relocating to Red Bank after retiring.
Cooley worked first at the New Jersey State Home for Girls, serving as a supervisor of the guidance unit. Then, in 1968 she was the only woman appointed into a top staff position at the Skillman Training School for Boys, as the school’s director of professional services.
“I loved working with the inmates,” she says. “The staff are kind of stuffy, but I got along well with them, too. A lot of people don’t like working with teenagers, but I loved working with teenagers. I just kind of hit it off with the teenagers because I was part teenager myself.”
As to becoming a women in management? Cooley didn’t think much of it then.
“I didn’t see things that way,” she says. “I was just who I was and that was all it was. Women were really in the backseat then.”
Cooley also defied convention by never marrying or having children, but says she feels the many children in her extended family are like her own.
She got others excited about traveling, including her nephew, Fred Mingo, who she brought to Asia and Africa when he was just a teenager.
Mingo and the rest of the family call her “Bobbie,” a nod to her signature hairstyle.
“My aunt is an amazing woman,” Mingo says. “She was an inspiration to me and many others, something I saw and appreciated even more as I grew up and had children of my own. I love listening to her stories, especially about her many worldly travels, and how she fearlessly went about meeting others and learning about their lives.”
Cooley was also always involved with the environment, contributing monthly to a multitude of charitable and nonprofit organizations. While in retirement she volunteered for years at beach cleanups in Sandy Hook and with the court system and foster children.
As Cooley turned 100 on Oct. 23, she celebrated with a Manhattan, which she used to drink nightly.
“I’m surprised I lived this damn long,” she says. “Why I did, I have no idea. I think my parents would be shocked. But I’m waiting to see them, and they’re dragging their feet in pulling me up or down or wherever the hell I’m gonna go. For my birthday, I had a Manhattan. It wasn’t too effective, but the staff really made a great effort, and I appreciate what they did. I still have the balloons floating on the ceiling.”
Cooley is also in love with New Jersey, congratulating this reporter on how lucky I am to be a native.
“I think New Jersey is a great little state,” she says proudly. “It’s small. You’ve got New York on one end, Philadelphia on the other, and carrots and tomatoes in between. A few big breweries around, and the ocean so you can go in for a swim if you want. It was easy to live here and get new experiences.”
Her advice to the rest of us?
“Get involved,” she says with conviction. “And make sure that other people and the kids coming up get involved, too. Whatever you can do, just spread your wings, look around you, see what’s happening around the world and contribute to it. That’s the important thing I think.”
It’s an outlook that has served her well for a century.
“I was just an individual prancing around, doing these crazy things and enjoying how different people are and how wonderful they are,” she says. “There are a lot more wonderful people than there are stinkers. And it’s a great world.”
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Jessica Remo may be reached at [email protected].