By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
At 22, Leon Cooper began his professional life as a science teacher to seventh graders in Tucumcari. He taught there for seven years.
Now 83, Cooper returned to address the Golden Luncheon of the Rattler Reunion Saturday after a lifetime of science and engineering at the highest levels, writing books of history and yes, more teaching at high schools and at the New Mexico School of Mining and Technology.
Many of the Tucumcari High School grads at the Golden Luncheon, for alumni who graduated at least 50 years ago, remembered Cooper as a teacher who inspired them to learn and do new things.
He remembered wondering aloud to his class what was on top of Mount Tucumcari, and getting a report a few days later from students who made the climb: “A lot of rattlesnakes.”
There was a lot of military surplus material available in those post-World War II years, he said, and soon Tucumcari had “more crystal radios per capita than any other city in the country.”
Building a crystal radio was a matter of finding a toilet-paper roll, winding surplus copper wire from an old Army field generator around the cardboard spool, then setting a crystal in solder and tapping it with a metal pointer while scratching the copper wire with another metal piece, all wired together, of course. Soon one was listening to XLEO, a radio station in Delrio.
Tucumcari also filled with homemade telescopes during that time, he said, which were assembled with surplus lenses and mirrors.
Today, he said concepts like recycling and conservation are viewed as relatively new. Back then, he said, it was a way of life.
To make his point, Cooper returned a pencil, or what was left of it, to James Crocker, owner of Le Deane studios in Tucumcari. The pencil, which Cooper said Crocker used for three years, now consists of a nub of lead protruding from the metal sleeve that still has a little eraser attached.
Crocker said Cooper was one of the most inspiring teachers he’d ever had.
As has his life, Cooper’s talk covered a lot of ground, but it always came back to his early life in Quay County and the lessons of growing up in the sometimes hard life of the open range. It didn’t seem so hard then, he said. He grew up, he said, in a dugout cabin on top of the Caprock.
“Did you know anybody who was ‘poor’ back then?” he asked the graduates. “Did you ever get tired?”
“We all had chores that had to get done, and you worked until you were done,” he said. Another word you never heard in those days, he said, was “bored.”
He told the senior alumni about his bouts of scarlet fever as a child and about another disorder that left him temporarily blind as an adult. He used that time to learn to play the piano and organ.
“You really do hear better when you’re deprived of your sight,” he said.
He credited his students in Tucumcari with “propelling me beyond my wildest imagination.”
He left teaching and received master’s degrees in biology, chemistry and physics. He pursued doctoral work at the University of California, Berkley, but stopped short of a Ph.D, he said.
In the meantime, he worked with some of the world’s most highly regarded physicists on the cyclotron project at Los Alamos National Laboratories, as they created new elements, including plutonium and Californium, which were derived from uranium though particle collisions at near light-speed in the cyclotron, a particle accelerator.
He has also worked as an engineering consultant for projects in Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Asian Republic of Georgia. He also supervised a Los Alamos National Laboratory project to develop geothermal energy, which uses naturally heated water from deep inside the earth, in Guatemala.
Staying true to his calling as a teacher, he gave the assembly an assignment.
“Write your story,” he commanded as he closed his remarks, before “it passes into the mist.”
Former County Commissioner Bill Curry, now 81, presented an original pen-and-ink drawing to Cooper as a gift after the Cooper’s talk. He said Cooper was one of his inspirations as a young man.
Curry, a life-long artist, turned down a scholarship offer from the Art Institute of Chicago and opted instead for the Famous Artists School, where he received an associate’s degree in art after three years of correspondence classes. He has been an artist ever since, between his times in the military and working at banks.