St Mary?s Colts Cricket Club, joint premiers CRCA 1948-49 season. Left, back row, Alan Fitzsimmons, Arthur Cooper, Ray Watts, J
St Mary?s Colts Cricket Club, joint premiers CRCA 1948-49 season. Left, back row, Alan Fitzsimmons, Arthur Cooper, Ray Watts, J

Eye-popping sporting effort

By MAX GODBEE

ARTHUR (Popeye) Cooper has always been a hard worker, a sound businessman, a lover of family and sport.

In sport he liked to become truly involved, not just as a competitor but as an official such as when he was four years president of the Grafton Services AIF Swimming Club and when president of the Grafton Basketball Association.

His involvement in sport was not only for the competition and doing well but also for the sheer enjoyment of being part of the action, particularly in team events.

Arthur could confidently say he played in a wide variety of sports but adds in modesty that he was not a champion in any of them, which is far from the case.

I well remember him as one of the best hockey forwards around in his heyday at that sport in the 1950s. Many would watch in envy at his clean hitting of the ball, his undoubted speed and ability to beat an opponent, at the number of goals he scored either playing at left inner or as striker when short corners were on offer.

Among other sports he played, some socially, most competitively, were cricket, rugby league as halfback, swimming, athletics, badminton, squash, tennis, fishing, car racing, water-skiing, golf, cycling and horseracing as an owner and as a punter.

Arthur Ashley Cooper has recently celebrated his 75th birthday, born in Pound Street, Grafton on April 17, 1931. He was the third born to Valentine Ashley and Mabel Jane (nee Bale) Cooper.

His father, a top-class machinist working at the Grafton Joinery, was tragically killed in a car accident in 1952 when Arthur was 20.

For his early education Arthur attended St Mary's Grafton infants and primary schools and then completed his three intermediate certificate years at St Mary's College.

At the primary school his chief sports were athletics, halfback in rugby league and as an all-rounder and wicketkeeper in cricket. He continued on with cricket and football at college.

Asked how he gained the nickname of Popeye he explained it was from going to a school fancy dress function as the cartoon character Popeye, the Sailorman. One of the nuns at St Mary's, thinking Arthur had carried off the role well, started calling him Popeye and the name stuck.

It was while at St Mary's College, during school holidays that he picked up his first job. That was in the mid-1940s at Gerards Department Store at the corner of Prince and Fitzroy Streets. After finishing school Arthur was employed full-time at Gerards. He worked for the landmark store through 1947, 1948 and early 1949, firstly in the large clothing section and later with the equally large grocery department.

In May 1949 he accepted a position with New England Airways working with Noel Muns and Roger Howley who held the Grafton franchise for the airline. The airline used nine-seater Avro Anson planes for the service, landing and taking off from the South Grafton airfield adjacent to Vere Street.

As part of his job Arthur travelled on the planes as an attendant and winding the landing wheels down when over Surfers Paradise in preparation for the Archerfield Aerodrome touchdown.

He recalls that the passenger seating was nine deck chairs bolted to the plane's flooring.

That employment finished in 1949 when after floods New England Airways closed down the service, with the muddied landing strip preventing passenger planes from taking off or landing with safety.

Arthur then worked in the spare parts department of Munns Brothers' (Len and Noel) Garage and Service Station in Skinner Street opposite the South Grafton Post Office and next door to May and Armstrong's Butchery, and the Catholic Church

Later that year Arthur accepted a position in spare parts at Graham's Garage in Grafton and then with Vic Small's Garage in Fitzroy street, at the same time as Vic Small became the town's first Holden dealer.

When Vic Small sold out to Auswild Motors in 1955 Arthur continued in spare parts for 24 more years and then started his own business, Coopers Car Paints, opposite the BP Service Station in Fitzroy Street. He eventually relocated to new premises in Chattaway Street, before selling the business in June, 1994.

It had been back in 1947 that Arthur, having left school, began playing rugby league with the Grafton Waratahs Club in the Upper Clarence Under-18 competition and cricket with St Mary's Colts Club.

Graduating to first-grade rugby league Popeye Cooper gained another nickname, 'Concussion Cooper' when he was laid out a few times in successive weeks ... it was found he had incurred a skull injury and on medical advice he decided to retire from the sport.

He continued in cricket with St Mary's Colts, a team mainly of rising stars captained by the great Russell Ellem and the club tied for the 1948/1949 Clarence River Cricket Association premiership.

Arthur who had already proven himself a reasonably fast swimmer, able to break the 30 seconds mark for 50 metres freestyle every time he swam, joined the Grafton Services Diggers Swimming Club in the early 1970s and later served a number of terms as club president.

He frequently represented in zone, inter-zone and national competitions with his most significant victory winning an Australian AIF Swimming Association 50 metres handicap final from an original nomination of 500 swimmers.

A troublesome ear infection eventually forced his retirement from the sport.

Arthur Cooper married Valma Smith at St Mary's Catholic Church in Grafton in April 1972. Val, herself a competent sportswoman, was the daughter of Raymond and Thelma Smith.

They have two sons, Stephen Ashley and Terrence Ashley Cooper. The second name Ashley has been passed down for 200 years from the Earl of Shaftsbury, Earl Ashley Cooper, to family descendants.

Arthur's two sons have been first-grade basketballers in Grafton and with their father were unbeaten in father and son swimming competition at school swimming carnivals.

Terrence and wife Julie have given their parents three grandchildren, Joe, Abbie and Drew while Stephen and Diane have a daughter Tammy and son Jamie. Tammy and her husband Jason have added two great grandchildren with Hayden and Trinity.

Arthur also competed for a while in cycling and at times was offsider to Jack Burgess in the broadcasting box. Arthur remembers his one time of actually broadcasting when Jack was ill. Fortunately for Arthur and he reckons also for spectators, heavy rain began to fall and the only words he had to speak on the microphone were: "Tonight's cycling has been cancelled".

Val and Arthur were A-grade squash players and recall playing matches on the same program as Australia's world champions, Heather McKay and Geoff Hunt in Grafton.

At one time Val and Arthur, together with coach Bruce Leonard, managed three Grafton basketball teams on a New Zealand tour. The teams played 20 matches in 21 days and won all but one.

Arthur's hockey career began in 1949 playing left inner with the Fred Cromack-captained Westons and in 1951 winning the A-grade premiership. He later played for the Avros club as captain and was always one of the first picked for the Grafton Association for representative fixtures.

Arthur attended his first Grafton Cup race meeting in 1936, let out of school early by the nuns to see Osculum win the big race. He has been to most Grafton Cup meetings since.

Another connection with the Grafton racetrack was that at one time Arthur was contracted by the Clarence River Jockey Club to cater during race meetings.

"At one Grafton Cup day we had a staff of 52 all up. We bought one and a half tons of beef from the abattoir and cut that into 15,000 steaks, cooked them on barbecues we had made ourselves from 44 gallon drums and we sold all 15,000 steakburgers," Arthur said.

"I paid each of the workers $5 and hour, good money at that time, and when it was all over I found that as contractor, even though I had set it all up and worked more hours I finished with less pay than any of them."

Arthur has raced a number of gallopers in partnerships, with the first Cilla Mahal trained by Paul Bartlett. Later there was The New Zealander Tirau Flo which he raced in a syndicate with Brian Lollback, Barry Wormald, Billy Nelson, Ken Schumacher and Lyle James.

The syndicate mated Tirau Flo with Kirk Creasy's stallion Gay Biscay for two fair gallopers in Tirau Jack and Tirau Princess, both trained by Tommy Bourke and mostly ridden by John Hutchings.

"We had our biggest bet ever at Ballina one day with Tirau Princess ridden this time by Lorna Cook," Arthur said.

"Tirau Princess was backed in to 14/1 in a Class Two Handicap. She and Flash Moon dashed across the finish line on opposite sides of the track and to our shock Flash Moon was declared the winner.

"A quick re-check with the photo finish then showed our horse had won and we celebrated."

Arthur said one of his greatest thrills in sport was driving the Ross Cramparaot-owned Queensland powerboat Quityourbitchen at 105 miles per hour in an exhilarating test run on the Clarence River.

These days Arthur's sporting interests are mainly in golf, twice a week, now from a 17-stroke handicap and also in fishing, not long ago winning a Coffs Harbour Advocate Fish of the Year Certificate with a 9.7-kilogram snapper.

He is also involved as an assistant instructor in a University of The Third Age (U3A) workshop for retirees working under the supervision of Frank Heppell on hobbies, mainly woodwork, in a shed courtesy of Ron Skinner at the former Grafton Brewery.



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