ST. PETERSBURG — Long ago, on a country fishing trip to snag catfish and walleyed pike, a young boy named William Cooper got a metal hook lodged deep in his right index finger.
The doctor he visited for help didn't freeze the hook or do anything to make it less painful. He just pried and pulled torturously until it came out.
That was the moment.
Someday, William decided, he would be a doctor. And he would not hurt people.
If he had come from a family of means, doing something prestigious would have been simpler. But he lived in poverty in a crowded home. His father had trouble holding jobs during the Depression and even resorted to selling fish door to door. His mother wrapped William's shoeless feet in rags so he could walk to school.
He fished to eat. He picked peaches and figs from a tree and passed the time by catching doodlebugs, crawdads and minnows. He pedaled to the library and checked out six books at once, wrapping them for safety in an old oil cloth. He read fiendishly.
After high school, he gathered $100 and went to college at the University of Michigan. He worked at a cooperative house doing janitorial work in exchange for a room. He washed dishes at a fraternity house and worked as an orderly in a local hospital.
Every other night, he slept.
He went to class at 8 a.m., carrying a portable alarm in his pocket. After class, he'd find an empty room, set the alarm and sleep slumped over for an hour until his next class at 10 a.m.
During medical school at Wayne State University, he slept and studied between treating patients and drove a cab on the weekends. Wednesday nights, he made time for dancing.
Dr. William Cooper, M.D., eventually opened a private practice near a lake. He treated people for fishhook injuries with such gentility that they didn't feel a pinch.
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His career spanned 50 years of general surgery, cardiology and internal medicine. He spent the last half working at the Bay Pines VA hospital. When he retired, the folks there thanked him with his name on a big sign outside.
Dr. Cooper died Wednesday in St. Petersburg after a battle with a blood disorder. He was 89.
His family recalled how he liked to watch the sun rise and fall from his deck in St. Petersburg. He still liked to fish, too. He was known to bait his hook with a scrap of red flannel, just like he did when he was poor.
Somehow, he always made the biggest catch.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.