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Judge Leroy Cooper first native of county to hold major office

Clyde Wooldridge
Contributing writer
LEROY GORDON COOPER became the 10th Judicial District Judge in 1935. (photo taken from the Shawnee Morning News, January of 1935).

Soon after the Civil War, a young man who had just attained his majority left that part of the country on which the nation’s most bloody frontier wars had raged, Kentucky, and cast his fortunes with the last frontier in the southwest. Crossing Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Cherokee Nation, he drew up in the central section of Oklahoma for a short time. That man was P.H. Cooper.

With money to be made in the cattle business, Cooper first started driving cattle from Texas across the Indian Territory to the railroad’s outpost in Kansas. This started him in the ranching business.

Cooper began his ranch operations north of the old Chouteau Trading Post on the South Canadian River., which had been established by the Frenchmen for trade with the Indians almost 100 years before. The only other established community in that territory was Sacred Heart Mission, established by the Benedictine Catholics a few years earlier. The ranch was in the heart of the Indian country, with the Potawatomi on the west, Choctaws on the south, Seminole to the east, and Shawnee to the north.

Cooper challenged the inroads of civilization and instead of seeking other frontiers, took advantage of his knowledge of the country and conditions when the territory was opened for settlement. He owned the land on which the town of Maud was eventually located. He opened a general mercantile store with the coming of the white men. After the settlement of Pottawatomie County, he met a girl from Texas while she was visiting a sister in Pottawatomie County. They were married, and their first two children were girls.

On March 11, 1901, at the Cooper home in Maud, a third child was born. It was a boy and was named Leroy Gordon Cooper. It was this boy who would become judge of the 10th judicial district of Oklahoma on Monday, January 14, 1935. Pottawatomie County was under territorial jurisdiction of the federal government when Cooper was born, and Judge B.F. Burwell came to Tecumseh from Guthrie for two terms of the territorial district court twice each year.

When Leroy was seven years of age and was starting his second year in the public schools at Maud Oklahoma became a state. W.N. Maben of Shawnee took office as the first judge of the 10th judicial district, composed of Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties.

The elder Cooper had expanded his holdings in the community and organized the First State Bank of Maud in 1904. Two years later the bank was issued a federal charter and took its present name of First National Bank of Maud. Cooper was president until 1912, when he retired. He retired as an active merchant in 1914.

Leroy lived as a boy in Maud, attending the public schools. War was declared, and all boys contracted the fever for service. A month before he was to graduate from Maud High School, the spirit of adventure that sent his father into Oklahoma as a pioneer, moved Leroy, 17 years of age to join the navy. That was on May 1, 1918, and Charles Wilson was district court judge, soon to be replaced by Judge Hal Johnson.

Cooper served in the Navy until January 24, 1921, and for more than two years, was on the Mayflower Presidential Yacht. He saw President Woodrow Wilson many times during his trips on the boat.

Leaving the Navy, Cooper returned to his home in Maud for a short time before he entered the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, TN. He was graduated and admitted to the bar in Oklahoma on June 22, 1923. After a year and a half in the private practice of law, Cooper entered his political career by being named first assistant county attorney under Randall Pitman, taking office on January 5, 1925.

In his position as a prosecutor, Cooper assisted in prosecution of the only two cases in the history of the county in which death in the electric chair was assessed by the jury. He also assisted in handling much of the civil litigation of the county. Pottawatomie County was booming from oil developments and the new prosecutor had opportunity to handle every type of case. It was excellent training and Cooper worked hard.

In July of 1928, Cooper resigned from his appointive office to place his name before the voters in the county as a Democratic candidate for county judge. He upset the political forecast of the county by defeating three candidates who were considered stronger than he when the campaign opened. It was only an indication of his political success.

Two years later, instead of seeking a second term as county judge, Cooper entered the race for judge of the superior court in Shawnee. It was the first year of the runoff primary in Oklahoma and though Cooper had three opponents, he set a record in Pottawatomie County by obtaining more votes than the combined totals of his opponents and won without a runoff.

Cooper succeeded Judge Leander G. Pitman as judge of the superior court in 1931 and was the first native-born resident of the county to fill a major political office in the county. He was only 29 years of age. He favored abolishment of the superior court with the removing of the county seat to Shawnee and the bill passed the state legislature, abolishing the court on February 4, 1935.

The Oklahoma pioneer who reared his family in Pottawatomie County, lived to see his son acquire political honors in the county to which he assisted in bringing civilization, law, and order. P.H. Cooper, at the age of 84 years, died at his Maud home in March of 1934.

Disregarding other political positions, which he was considered sure to win, Judge Cooper entered the race for district judge. He had little trouble in obtaining the Democratic nomination, though pitted against a strong candidate. Even his most staunched supporters felt doubtful if the young political aspirant could defeat the veteran Republican office holder, Hal Johnson, who had been judge for 16 years.

But Cooper never faltered. He carried the fight to the opposition and campaigned hard in Lincoln County as well as his native Pottawatomie County. The general election results told the story. In Lincoln County, where Judge Johnson had long been the favorite Republican, Johnson ran far behind. In Potawatomie County, Cooper took a wide margin and had done the impossible in political circles.

Cooper became the sixth judge of the 10th judicial district. Maben was the first judge, who took office on November 16, 1907, resigned and Governor Charles Haskell appointed J.B.A. Robertson of Chandler, later governor of Oklahoma, to the position. The next judge was Roy Hoffman of Chandler, then Charles B. Wilson. Judge Hal Johnson was elected in 1918 and served for the next 16 years. Judge Cooper was also the father of the famous Shawnee native, Astronaut Gordon Cooper.

(This story was taken primarily from the Shawnee Morning News in January of 1935. It, along with many others appear in Volume Two of the six-volume series of the history of Shawnee, entitled “Redbud City.” The first three volumes are available and can be purchased by going onto the Pottawatomie County Historical website, or by calling (405-275-8412). Volume Four, (1970-1989) is now with the printer and should be available for purchase soon. Volume Five, (1990-2009) is scheduled for October of 2021. Volume Six, (2010-2022) is about 75 percent finished and should be ready in early 2022.)