Many educators have earned notoriety for accomplishments outside the field of education. Such is the case with Besse Cooper, a retired school teacher who was famous as the oldest living person in the world until she passed away on June 21, 2011.
Besse was born on August 26, 1896, in Sullivan County, Tennessee. She was the third of eight children born to Richard Brown and Angeline Berry. When she was only five years old, Besse used to walk from her family’s home to school in order to make sure one of her brothers got to class. Her time in the classroom developed into a deep appreciation for school. All of her life, even at a young age, she was an avid reader.
In 1916, Besse graduated from East Tennesee State Normal School, an insitution now known as East Tennesse State University. “Besse Cooper is one of those remarkable stories of East Tennessee State and East Tennessee as a region,” remarked Robert Plummer, Executive Director for the East Tennessee State Universtiy Allumni Association. “She finished in 1916 and was one of those early folks that were part of an educational revolution that was at work in Tennessee.” She wore her class ring 92 years, until it had to be removed for health reasons.
Nineteen-year-old Besse was first employed as a school teacher in Johnson City, Tennessee. When she was told she could earn a better salary, she moved to Between, Georgia, in 1917, where she taught until 1929.
Besse married Luther Cooper in 1924, and the couple established a farm. There Besse and Luther raised their four children. After her husband died, Besse lived on the farm until 2001, when, at the age of 105, she decided to move into a nursing home. She spent her final years in Monroe, Georgia, where she passed away on December 4, 2012. At the time of her death, it was verified by the Guiness Book of World Records that Besse was the oldest living person in the world, and one of only eight people to have lived to the age of 116. Her longevity, she once remarked, was the result of “minding her own business” and avoiding junk food.
After her death, a bridge on New Hope Church Road in the town of Between was named Besse Brown Cooper Bridge in her honor.