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Old photos reunite friends after 65 years

Byrum Cooper made aviation history in 1957 as a navigator in the first squadron of B-52 bombers to fly nonstop around the world.

The 24,325-mile journey at an average speed of 530 mph required several in-flight refuel­ings. Most important during the Cold War, it demonstrated the nation's ability to deliver a nuclear strike anywhere, any time.

Just 10 years earlier, Cooper didn't think much about war. He enjoyed a simple life in a town so small its high school counted only 17 seniors. He weighed 125 pounds, but every boy played football, and so he did, too.

"Good thing I was fast," he recalls with a fair amount of pride. "I could outrun everybody."

The wildlife near his home on the Pithlachascotee River in New Port Richey fascinated Cooper, especially reptiles. He occasionally let an admiring eighth-grader tag along. They found lots of snakes.

And then one late summer day in 1947, Cooper took his Gulf High School diploma to the University of Florida to study biology. That eighth-grade boy, Walter Casson, would stick around. He would go on to a long and successful career as an engineer. He would become a steward of his hometown's history, keeping up with the lives of many Gulf High grads from his generation.

But for 65 years, Casson never thought much about that older boy who had spent only four years here. Then in June, James Washington Clark III, grandson of Port Richey's first permanent settler, died at age 91. His cousin Frances Mallett, 92, made certain that his collection of old photographs went to Jeff Miller, a Gulf High math teacher who originated and maintains fivay.org, a valuable and growing online museum of Pasco's history. Some of those photos included Cooper.

Casson provided Miller with identifications. He hadn't thought about Cooper in years, so he set about searching the Internet for references to him. Casson found the B-52 story, chronicled in a book called Around the World Flights — a History.

He tracked Cooper to his home near Winter Haven and called him.

"I was rather surprised," said Cooper, 82. "Pleasantly, I must say. It made me think about those carefree days and what a great town New Port Richey was back before the highway (U.S. 19). Can you imagine? There were only 700 people in all of west Pasco. Everybody knew each other. But once I moved away, and especially once I started moving around every few years in the military, I just lost touch."

Cooper's time in New Port Richey could be attributed to tragedy and the citrus industry. His mother died the day after he was born. His father, a cabinet maker in Winter Haven, had 14 children from three wives. Byrum came last. Three years later, his father died and Byrum eventually moved in with a brother 16 years older who ran a citrus-packing house in Palm Harbor.

"We moved to New Port Richey just as I entered high school," Cooper said, "because it was a lot nicer than Palm Harbor. We lived on the river. I walked to school."

In his third year at the University of Florida, Cooper accepted Air Force recruiters' invitation to sign up for flight school. "I washed out after 30 hours," he said, "and went into navigation training." In nearly three decades as an Air Force officer, he worked on B-47s and B-52s with the Strategic Air Command. He flew aboard AC-130 gunships in Vietnam in 1969-70, strafing enemy targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Mekong River at night.

He jokes that he spent three years at the Pentagon "flying a desk." He retired a lieutenant colonel and returned to Winter Haven. He had three children with his first wife. They divorced after 35 years and he remarried 23 years ago to Linda, who joins him as a volunteer for the Lake Region Audubon. They were caretakers for the Audubon's nature center for 13 years and today help survey wildlife in state parks and water management districts.

Cooper, who goes by "Buck," had mixed emotions when Casson called. His first question: Is Harry Clark still alive? Harry, a descendent of that first settler, died in 2002.

Casson went down the list of Gulf High students from that era who are no longer with us. A thoughtful man, he offered this observation: "It is strange that we have these precious memories, but we're all guilty of not keeping in touch."

Old photos reunite friends after 65 years 07/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 28, 2012 1:45pm]

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