A renegade renaissance man

BY CHARLES GREGG-GEIST

Published January 11, 2008

In the 1920s and early 30s, Ann Arbor owed much of its local color to the frequent presence of the man known to students only as "Railroad Jack."

Over the years Railroad Jack gained a following that included the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and The New York Times - all of which wrote about Jack's visits to their respective cities. It was Ann Arbor, however, that earned the distinction of being called his "headquarters."

In "The Making of the University of Michigan: 1817-1992," former University Professor Howard Peckham writes that "Jack" was born in Wisconsin around 1854 as Harry Cooper, but took up his better-known moniker while working as a writer for a railroad periodical.

In his youth, Railroad Jack spent time as a journalist and publisher in Chicago. According to Peckham, he made his living for most of his life using his remarkable memory for historical facts. After he left his publishing business in Chicago, Jack never had a permanent home.

The self-described "World's Champion History Expert" assembled crowds on campus and invited onlookers to shout out dates in history he didn't know.

In addition to passing around a collection plate, he would often bet against the crowd, daring them to stump him. On some occasions he even accosted students and professors as they filed out of classes to take his challenge.

While the Post estimated Cooper knew biographical details for 500 historical figures, other articles of the time report him boasting of memorizing more than 5,000 persons and 10,000 important dates.

Cooper also flaunted his ability to identify the key of a popular hymn when he heard it played.

Peckham writes that Cooper began his travels - mostly by train - in 1895, but a 1908 article says that he had already been "spieling" for 26 years.

In 1933, Cooper was found dead of heart failure outside of Coldwater, Mich., at the age of 79, according to The Associated Press. The Times printed that he had left his body to the University Medical School for research, but Peckham writes that a University Pastor claimed the body and had Jack buried in a local Catholic cemetery.