Mark Cooper

Gamal Williams | March 22nd, 2021
Mark Cooper (Photos by Ronald Smithe)

Mark Cooper (Photos by Ronald Smithe)

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” – Lao Tzu

It’s a rainy day in the Pheobus section of Hampton, Virginia. A black SUV pulls into the empty parking lot of Mercury Entertainment Center, an old bingo hall converted into a community center and home to the award-winning Marching Elites. The silhouetted figure behind the steering wheel surveys the nothingness presence in the parking lot, then slowly exits his vehicle. The first thing one notices is his appearance; black hat, black jacket, black jeans, black Adidas…and a shiny law enforcement shield dangling from his neck. In many black neighborhoods, this means trouble. Not in Hampton. Here, he isn’t a threat. Here, he is a hero. Here, he is Colonel Cooper.

Colonel Cooper removes his keys to unlock the Entertainment Center’s double glass doors with sadness in his eyes. “If it wasn’t for this COVID, this place would be filled.” The foyer of the cement building is decorated with photos of Marching Elite teams from years past on the left, posters of concerts to the right. “We’ve had a lot of people come through here. The Persuaders, Blue Magic, The Temptations, Gerald Alston, Lenny Williams…they come and hold their concerts here. I’ll tell you; it would be old and young up in here. Everybody having a good time,” he says.

Where do the proceeds go? “You’re standing in it,” Colonel Cooper explains. “All of those concerts are to benefit the program and the community.” There is a longing in his voice. He stares out into the vast space of the Entertainment Center, but one can tell Mark doesn’t see empty chairs, unused parlor games, or a vacant stage; he sees memories.

Mark Cooper grew up in Hampton, having seen the best and worst it could offer. “I was headed towards the wrong path. My older brother was killed when I was 15, and he 17. Stabbed right in front of me. I had to step up. My mother was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome and had to be in a wheelchair. My younger sister was disabled. I promised God if He got me and my family through this, I would give back,” he shared.

A few years before his brother’s death, Mark saw a marching group called the Blue Diamonds led by a man named Sgt. Moon. “They were sharp. I was like ‘Wow,” Cooper says. “I want to do that!” The then 12-year-old-went into his backyard and started mimicking what he saw. Before long, he formed his first marching team, the Bay Avenue Steppers. Joy takes over his voice when he speaks of the Steppers. “We were good. I had been creating my own steps and marches. I called it military-style funky drill.” After his brother’s death, marching became an outlet, and soon, would become his focus.

Mark joined the Hampton High School Drill team, quickly becoming the team leader. The Hampton High School Crabbers became renowned for their precision and unique style, winning two national titles. After graduating, Mark enrolled in the Army Reserve Officer Training program at Hampton University. Even with a full course load, and a mother and sister that needed his support, Mark kept his promise to give back. He returned to Hampton High to coach the marching and drill teams. During his junior year at Hampton University, the time came where he had to make a choice; leave for the Army and become an Officer or let that dream go to stay home with his mother, sister, and the children of Hampton. The choice wasn’t really a choice at all for Mark. “I had to stay. My mother and sister needed me here. No one else could take care of them. Plus, I had made a promise.”

Upon graduation, Mark went to work at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind. It was there that Mark found his true calling. “One day I was out in the courtyard, practicing some drills. I was so into what I was doing that I didn’t notice some of the kids were watching me. Now, the students were legally blind and deaf, but did have some ability to see and hear. They came up to me and said ‘Mr. Cooper, can you teach us to do that?’ I said yeah, but I wondered how am I gonna teach these kids how to march? I talked to the teachers at the school and the administrators, and we came up with a plan. We developed our own sign language specific to the movements we made for the kids who couldn’t hear. For the kids who couldn’t see, we developed special cadence and movements to work with them,” he shares.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Founded in 1989, the students of The Golden Elites from Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind became one of the most formidable teams in the nation. Two years later in 1991, they competed in the National Drill and Dance Team Championships in Orlando, Florida. The only hearing-impaired/sight-impaired team in the competition went toe-to-toe with non-impaired teams.

Colonel Cooper begins turning the overhead lights on, pointing at the many activities that fill the 21,631 square foot facility. A large banner celebrating the 25-year anniversary of the Marching Elites hangs overhead. There are casino games along the left wall next to one of the two concession counters. A sea of tables, each with two chairs form an arena-style arch around a large stage to the right. “That’s the stage right there. This is concert level equipment; speakers, lighting, everything,” says Colonel Cooper. “In fact, we have an upcoming performance, and the kids are supposed to come in and rehearse. We have this program called Old School and the Youngsters. I’ll get up there and sing old school music, the good stuff, and the kids back me up.” It’s only when he speaks of meeting up with the children later that evening, that he smiles for the first time, but then his renowned focused glare comes back.

With all the success the Golden Elites of the Virginia School for the Deaf and The Blind achieved, as well as his track record of winning at Hampton High School, in 1991 the City of Hampton School Superintendent reached out to Mark and asked him to implement a similar program in a local elementary school. Mark formed the Marching Elites for 4th and 5th graders. The next year, the Superintendent wanted him to do it at another school. The year after that, the Superintendent asked Mark to implement his style of leadership, mentorship, accountability, and love in all 33 Hampton public schools. In 1993, Mark decided to form the Marching Elites. “I worked with the school district to get the word out for the open enrollment. I was expecting maybe 100 or 150 students to show up. Instead, 1,500 kids showed up. We could only take 300.” How did one man teach 300 kids how to march? He didn’t do it alone. He had help. His former students from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind showed up, to give back.

As we tour the facility, what’s surprising is, besides the banner and photos in the foyer, nothing points to this being a facility for a nationally acclaimed drill team. We then make our way to the back of the facility, and behind the stage, secluded from normal view, is the trophy room. Two large display cases hold what a massive table could not, all filled with trophies. “These kids are amazing. Three national championships, and we have been all over; appeared 106 & Park on BET, Showtime at the Apollo, performed at the (2016) Chic-Fil-A Bowl, you name it,” he shares. I ask why all of this isn’t out on the main floor. “The Marching Elites, the drilling and the marching, that’s just the hook. That gets the kids in the door, the parents too,” Mark replies.

The Marching Elites, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization runs more than just its award-winning drill team. Seven minutes away from the Mercury Entertainment Center, is another facility, the Elites Youth Motivational Center. The Youth Motivational Center boasts a newly renovated gaming area, a STEM and computer lab, juice bar, and plans to build a studio for children to explore their musical talents. Most importantly, the Youth Motivational Center serves as an after school and summer camp, the latter providing children three meals a day from its in-house commercial kitchen, at a price of $65 per week. “I keep the bingo hall open a few nights a week to help pay the bills and subsidize these programs,” Mark states, “but the concerts, the prize money, all of it goes to keep these programs going for the low-income families…even if the kids don’t march.” The third and newest facility, houses The Little Tin Soldiers, a childcare center and accredited school, serving ages six weeks to 12-years-old.

When asked how he can staff all of these different facilities, he responds with pride. “We are a 95% volunteer organization. Part of a child being enrolled in the Marching Elites drill team is that the parent or guardian must volunteer in some capacity. It takes a commitment from the parents to be accepted. From fundraising, to cooking staff, to mentorship programs. If their grades aren’t up to par, we have parents and former students that tutor. We even have a security team that travels with us on the road. I certify them.”

We travel to the Elites Youth Motivational Center, its parking lot empty as well, except for two large vans parked behind the building. As we enter, the sounds of men at work can be heard echoing throughout the empty space. “I got some people in here fixing some lights.” The building is divided into two parts separated by a 4-inch wall; one side is set up to host receptions, parties, or smaller concerts; the other is used for a kid’s paradise, full of games, computers, books, and televisions. Colonel Cooper isn’t wasting this time. He would much rather have his buildings filled with children marching or studying or talking with one and other, but he settles for having contractors in the building making improvements for when they return. “I think the best part of all of this is when the kids themselves give back.”

One such kid, is now a United States Navy Reserve Officer and dental surgeon, Lieutenant Commander Donovan Caves. Dr. Caves was one of the early Marching Elites members, joining in 1996 along with his younger sister. “At first it was just something to do, but it’s easy now to look back at it in a mature way. We have a large community and the kids in the program were from all different schools, kids that wouldn’t normally hang out. It was a way to come together other than sports,” Dr. Caves shares. When asked about Colonel Cooper, he pauses then lets out a loving chuckle as he begins to talk. “Coop, he is just…amazing! He’s so selfless and humble. I was fortunate in that I was able to hang out with him more than typical kids, and I’ll tell you, that man…as long as there’s a need, he will find a way to fill it. What really amazes me is that people are trying to find some sense of normalcy with COVID and everything, and somehow, he is fighting to help others. He has a way of making the extraordinary seem ordinary. It’s how he taught us, and what he taught us. Discipline and wanting to be disciplined to where you wanted to excel at being disciplined. Communication, precision, giving back. Skill sets that we would use throughout life. He would always tell us though ‘It’s not extraordinary; it’s what’s expected,’” Dr. Caves concludes.
As we finish our tour, Colonel Cooper finally decides to sit down, and at the pace he has been moving, this might be the first time he has rested all day. “Donovan Caves, he is a great man. He’s on my Board of Directors now. Another young lady, Harmonie Mason, she has her own law firm now, Harmonie Law. She’s on my Board of Directors as well. They all came up together.” He smiles, then dives into his phone, asking me to excuse him, as if he could offend. It’s his daughter, a senior in college, returning his call. He then mentions another one of his many, many success stories.
Sasha Anderson, a Howard University senior, could hardly hold her emotions in when talking about Colonel Cooper. “I joined the Marching Elites in 8th grade. I had seen some pamphlets at school and decided ‘Why not?’ As soon as you get around him, and the program, and the other kids, you see it’s a place of love. It helped to get kids off the streets and it became something to look forward to. The best part is when the Alumni came back and taught us and marched with us. But Marching Elites became a family, you know. Marching allowed a release. I would look forward to Saturdays where we would all get together and talk. We all were experiencing things, but when we marched, there was an intensity to it because we knew it was more than us, it was bigger than us. He built that in us,” Sasha says.

Sasha lets out a long sigh to collect her thoughts. “While we were practicing, he would talk to us. Telling us stories, giving advice, encouraging us. He is just so special. I love him.” She continues, “And all of us that marched together, we still go back, we help the kids in the program now with their marching and join them in parades. All because of Colonel Cooper.”

The noise coming from the contractors in the adjacent room lets him know he needs to address something. He turns back to our conversation, but his eyes say everything. Our time has come to an end. As we rise, he turns to me. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” Not wanting to tell him no, I simply thank him. He extends his hand; I open my arms and hug him. In our day together, I learned so much from Colonel Mark Cooper. Lessons of humility, selflessness, sacrifice, perseverance, and commitment. He smiles one last time, then he does something that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have. He invited me back.

“When we open back up, when all this is over, come on by. Bring your son.” Yes, Sir. I most certainly will!

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