"I see myself as an extended parent to a lot of the kids."

Cooper at Wilson with a few of his PALs

Officer, University of Pennsylvania Police Department and Director, Tucker PAL Center at the Wilson School
Length of service:
10 years (the first six on foot and bike patrol)
Other stuff:
An entrepreneur who owns several properties in West Philadelphia; lives in the neighborhood with son Solomon (who will be 1 in April) and wife Lisa; owns real estate in the neighborhood; reads a lot of self-motivation and business books.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

When Willard Cooper Jr. heard the University was eager to contribute a Penn police officer to start and run a new Police Athletic League center at the nearby Wilson School, he jumped at the chance.
Under his leadership, the Tucker PAL has made it to the city finals of the PAL Challenge, a “Jeopardy!”-like game, the past two years. “We surprised everyone,” he said of a team that before then hadn’t shown much promise.

Cooper, a former Temple University football defensive back with a B.A. in Afro-American studies, said he always wanted to coach. Not only is he coach of the Tucker basketball teams, but is also head coach of the citywide PAL boys-12-and-under basketball team, which finished second this year against PAL teams from cities across the nation.

Tucker PAL has between 500 and 600 registered members, and at any given time, 50 to 150 of them are at the center. His participation in the program also gives him a chance to share the things he learned growing up in Chester, Pa., where he played basketball, then football and track, and watched as other kids got into trouble with drugs and drink.

Q. How does this compare with police work?
It’s the proactive part of policing. It gives us an opportunity to reach kids, establish relationships with kids, and therefore they become more comfortable with police officers and they also become more prone to try to do the right things. PAL gives them a place to go as opposed to being out on the streets.

Q. Tell me about some of the kids you’re proud of.
One kid we have, his name is Marques Slocum. At 13, right now he stands at about 6 foot 2 1/2 inches, 270 pounds. I took him out for football for the first time this year. Because of his size, he was never able to play in the weight leagues [where he exceeded the maximum weight for his age group], but he’s always wanted to play football. I finally got a chance to get him in the Catholic Youth Organization. So he played this year. He excelled at it. He was a defensive player this year, and his team won the championship. That was a great experience, to give a kid like that an opportunity to play a sport that he always wanted to play but never had the opportunity.

That’s one kid. Another one would be Marcel Quarterman. Marcel was on the 1999 Boy’s National Basketball Team. He currently attends Central High School. He was also the leader on our first PAL Challenge team that challenged for the championship two years ago. I guess the story with him, he’s a kid that has so much academic potential and at the same time has a lot of athletic ability. My hope for him is to get an academic scholarship, whether it’s the University of Pennsylvania or somewhere.

Q. What do you think enabled you to overcome the rough neighborhood where you grew up?
Reading at an early age was very important. My father always had books in the house. There was a book I remember picking up, I guess maybe I was in the fifth grade or so, it was the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book had a lot of different writings. Some were just short paragraphs, but they had so much power and being able to experience other people’s experience through reading gave me insight that there were other ways to go about doing things.

Q. Like what?
First of all, you don’t have to follow the crowd, that you can be your own person.

My involvement in athletics and constant growth of knowing who I was and what I could be gave me direction. I always knew I wanted to go to college. In the eighth grade I told my father I was going to win a football championship, was going to get a scholarship, and then I went out and did it.

And then of course my parents always being there for me — from high school to college my father never missed any game I played with the exception of the away games that he couldn’t attend. He was always there. My mother was always there. They’re still there.

When I first got here, you could see who were on the fence, had kind of rough edges, but in the last four years, through constant interaction with them, you can see them improving.

Kids I met when they were 10 or 11, now they’re 13, 14, 15, so they’re teenagers, and they come to see me when they need to talk about things. They’re getting to that stage when they’re getting jobs and they’re thinking about after high school. They have someone to come talk to other than their parents, because sometimes you can’t always go to your parents. I see myself as an extended parent to a lot of the kids. That’s what I call them. They’re my kids.

Another thing that was instrumental in my success was my coaches throughout the years. I remember in 10th grade, when there were scouts coming, scouting our seniors, [Penn State coach] Joe Paterno, and the coach of Notre Dame and other schools. My coach believed in me so much, when these guys came, he also had me come along and meet them. That’s what I try to do for many of the kids here — expose them to different things.

It’s giving back what I got from my parents and my coaches.


Originally published on February 15, 2001