The death of Bill Cooper last week at 73 was a cause of sadness for all who truly appreciate originality, determination, brilliance and compassion. He splashed on the Twin Cities scene in the mid-1980s, when, with sheer force of personality, he strapped TCF Bank on his back and saved it from going under. This action alone was noteworthy, given that it saved more than 5,000 jobs and the government millions of dollars.
When I first met Bill, we were both involved in building a conservative movement in the state. His passion, energy and insights were off the charts. Every time we spoke, he had well-thought-out ideas that ranged from adoption to education reform to the intricacies of tax policy.
His beer-and-brats sensibilities, from being raised in Detroit, provided him the common-sense wisdom that he used throughout his business career and kept the bank from going off the rails in the 2008 banking crisis. He read broadly, which provided him with deep insights for both his civic engagements and running a Fortune 500 company. Perhaps most impressive was that he was equally skilled at both seeing the big picture and diving into details. His ability to reinvent the bank numerous times during his career is worthy of a business school case study.
When I worked for him, I would sit in meetings where he could spot a bad number that others would need a microscope to find. Those of us who knew him often would quote his sayings: “Build it a brick at a time.” “A big number times a small number is a big number.” “Everything that gets measured gets better.” “We need to understand that we can talk ourselves into anything.”
Bill was a true conservative. He believed in limited government and the power of a market economy to improve lives and build communities. His gruff and demanding persona was balanced with humility. He accepted the responsibility to share the fruits of his hard work and good fortune with others. He was not an ideologue. I remember after a luncheon at which Jeb Bush was speaking on immigration, he remarked that if he lived in Mexico, he would have crossed the border to work illegally in this country. I have never met anyone who fit the description of a compassionate conservative more than Bill.
As much as anything, Bill taught me the meaning of loyalty and friendship. The stories are endless of his responding to requests from friends needing help starting a business, or providing a job for a family member, and always supporting requests for contributions to every imaginable cause.
Bill will be remembered equally strongly for his serious devotion to education reform. This was a moral calling for him. He was not just content to write a check but mastered the details of how our public education system worked. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the costs and outcomes of public schools and was intent in showing that we could do better in providing a high-quality education to everyone that would allow them to reach their potential. That commitment led him to starting Friends of Education, the state’s premier sponsor of charter schools.
Our community will miss his sharp intellect and vision. He is a reminder of how a common man can have such a profound impact and leave a lasting legacy on everyone that he touches. His was truly a life well-lived.
Peter Bell is a board member of TCF Bank.