Jack Cooper didn’t know the first thing about newspapering when he bought the Humboldt Standard more than 40 years ago in an abrupt, midlife career change.
But the Kansas State ag major learned an early lesson he would lean on for decades, even when he was living out his final days in the nursing home last year.
If he worked hard enough, if he filled the Standard with the right stories and pictures, its thin newsprint could support the weight of his small hometown.
“Jack did a super job in Humboldt, and for Humboldt,” said Bill Schock, a friend and former owner of the nearby Falls City Journal. “He tried to cover everything, and he did a lot of it himself.”
Maybe not everything, said his sister, Virginia Babcock. It was rare for anything overly negative about Humboldt to find its way into Cooper’s pages, even as the population dipped from nearly 1,200 to fewer than 900, and his circulation followed.
“He beat the drum for the hometown and when other people said, ‘Oh, gosh, we’re dying, the kids aren’t staying,’ Jack never put that in the paper. It was always positive news.”
The 85-year-old died Jan. 6 in the community he’d almost always called home, beneath a K-State-colored blanket and with the solace that his mission of mostly good news would continue.
He’d seen to that before he left.
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John "Jack" Cooper Jr. rarely strayed from Richardson County in the state’s southeast corner, where his family operated the O.A. Cooper Co., a successful mill. There’s still a pancake mix with their name, though Coopers haven’t been part of the business for years.
He left Humboldt when he was drafted, and again when he crossed the border for college.
He’d hoped to be a veterinarian, his sister said, but that didn’t work out. He returned with a degree in agriculture, expecting a lifetime in the family business.
That didn’t work out, either. “My uncle fired him after a while,” Babcock said. “So that wasn’t going to be his career after all.”
Their father bought a gas station down the road in Falls City, and Cooper ran it for years, until the pull of Humboldt brought him home again. In April 1975, he paid $50,000 for the Standard.
“He didn’t know a thing about it,” Babcock said. “The man who sold it to him stayed one day and said, ‘Here’s what you do, Jack.’ And then he was gone.”
Cooper would later tell others he’d been duped, that the seller told him owning the paper was the easiest job, that he only had to work Monday through Wednesday, and that he could unwind the rest of the week pheasant hunting.
But he was already having fun just a few months later, he told a Lincoln Journal reporter. And he was giving his newspaper a voice — he wrote articles that read like editorials, and editorials that read like articles, the Lincoln reporter wrote.
That first year, Cooper crusaded to save the home for the elderly and its $200,000 payroll. That was a lot of dough for a small town, he explained.
Not everybody in Humboldt was prepared to see the paper take strong stances.
“I’ve lost a few advertisers occasionally, but they come back,” he said at the time. “There are people out there who don’t like me, but that’s OK. I don’t like them, either.”
Those first few months, he was still trying to determine if he could make a living. His bank account was overdrawn $384, he said. “That’s less than it’s been overdrawn in previous months and that’s progress, isn’t it?”
He would make more than a living; he made it a life. He reported on everything good in his community — school events, sports, meetings and gatherings, 4-H and FFA.
For a reporter with no experience, Cooper learned to get around, said his friend, Schock.
“I didn’t see how he put out a paper every week. He wasn’t a professional writer, but he covered stuff. Everything was for Humboldt.”
A few years ago, Cooper won the Nebraska Press Association’s Harpst Award. Its highest honor isn’t a prize for journalism, but for a publisher’s leadership.
The nomination went on, page after page after page, said Allen Beermann, the association’s director. But here’s an excerpt:
“No other person has had the influence as Jack Cooper in coalescing a community to continue to keep our town alive and relevant. His leadership can be counted upon in practically any situation; his cooperation is guaranteed.”
His positions weren’t always popular or universal. If Cooper decided the town needed a new swimming pool, for instance, he’d put his newspaper behind the idea — even if some readers didn’t want to pay, Beermann said.
“He was first a community supporter and, second, a journalist. He really put community ahead of his paper many times, even sometimes to the detriment of his paper.”
But he also knew his duty to report the truth, despite the cost, his sister said. She remembers one of her in-laws canceling the paper after Cooper ran something about what his son had done.
“He would get in trouble sometimes,” she said, “when he put in things that people didn’t want people to know.”
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Cooper grew too weak over the summer to continue running the paper full time. He turned the operation over to his two employees, Roxanne Sailors and Jane Hogue.
But he still cared. Every Wednesday afternoon, the two women would carry a paper up to him at the nursing home. “And he’d go over it and give us his critique,” Sailors said. “He was really good, clear up until the end.”
If he thought they were running too many photos, he’d tell them: “Pictures are great if you’re doing a comic book.”
He was also planning the paper’s future.
“He knew he was terminally ill and he wanted to be the person to make the decision who should buy the paper,” his sister said. “It was very important to him that it continue.”
A group of business owners had approached him, suggesting they buy the Standard with their pooled money. But Cooper was wary, because he didn’t know who would run it when he was gone, his sister said. He fielded several other offers.
Then George Marburger showed up. He didn’t know the first thing about newspapering, either, but he knew the Standard’s role in his town.
“We had to keep the paper. In a small town, you close the paper up, you don’t have a town.”
Marburger runs the town’s shoe store — the state’s oldest, open since 1879, he said — and fixes lawnmowers. And as of the first of December, he also owns a newspaper.
Cooper knew it would be in good hands, his sister said. “Something clicked. They came to terms rather easily, I think.”
Marburger doesn’t spend any time at the newspaper. He has two good people putting out the Standard and he’s been told to stay out of their way. He’s happy to.
“I got nothing to do with the paper other than the money,” he said.
At the newspaper, Sailors and Hogue are making some changes. More photos, more features, more news from other communities. They’re asking people: What do you want to read? What do you want to see?
And they’re hearing: What can we do to help?
Cooper and his newspaper had done so much for Humboldt, and now Humboldt is returning the favor, volunteering to take photos and cover events and submit stories.
“I can tell you, and I’ve said this many times, in our paper, it’s not just Jane and I that put it all together,” Sailors said. “We’ve had so much support from the community.”