From The Deseret News, by Aug 23, 2022
In the heart of flyover country, surrounded by dusty roads never driven by the power brokers of America, a small group of mourners sits on folding chairs in a town hall that has seen better days.
They are here to remember a 14-year-old boy.
The men wear jeans and white T-shirts — in solidarity with the boy whose own wardrobe included little more than that. Some of the women are in church dresses and others in jeans. There’s a smattering of cowboy hats and ball caps, boots and flip-flops. They recite The Lord’s Prayer in unison. They murmur soft assent when reminded of the boy their community has lost. They smile as a video shows highlights of his short life, accompanied by the strains of Bobby McFerrin — “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Outside, the sky over Escalante Valley, Utah, is blinding blue and cloudless, promising no rain as it has for nearly a year. There are two Escalantes in southern Utah — the spectacular color country of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and this one in Iron County, equidistant from St. George and Cedar City. Here, dust blows across fields lying fallow. Single-wide trailers dot the landscape looking as if the trucks that towed them there ran out of gas before they found a final resting place for someone’s home. Surrounded by low hills and mountains in the distance, this Escalante — the other Escalante — sits on an aquifer that is draining, and farms that are running out of water.
If anyone was going to save this world, it was Kevin Cooper.
But on a hot day last June, at nearby Newcastle Reservoir, Kevin drowned in a kayaking accident at a friend’s birthday party. At 14, he had just published his autobiography. He was making plans to expand his 350-acre farm to buy up surrounding farms to convert to regenerative agriculture. He was saving money to build a house for his parents and another for his autistic older brother. He was polishing a movie script and a series of children’s books teaching business literacy for kids. He was looking for a celebrity to endorse his line of luxury toiletries made from the milk of his goat herd. He was breeding heritage turkeys. He was writing guest essays for notable bloggers higher up the political food chain. And, in his spare time, he had the task of grading the road to his farm using the John Deere tractor he bought new for himself for his 11th birthday.
All of this is true.
Also true is that Kevin was the only member of his small family who was not disabled. His parents, Billy, a disabled veteran, and Tina, who is partially blind, are just beginning to fathom what their future will be like without the boy who had that future in his hands. They never wanted to rely on him, but there is no getting around the fact that Kevin had big dreams for the whole family and for rural America, and a list of accomplishments behind him that most adults don’t pull off in a lifetime.
Before his death, Kevin encountered social media followers who were skeptical about his story. And his parents understand. “Honestly, if I hadn’t lived through it, I’d probably feel the same way,” says his father Billy.
Kevin, who went by “Cole Summers” online, took on the doubters with a video on his Twitter account. He gazes into the camera with the desert landscape of his ranch behind him and speaks with the tone of someone who is inconvenienced by having to state the obvious: “I really am a 14-year-old home-schooler. I’ve been studying business since I was 6. … I am who I say I am.”
His Twitter account caught the attention of journalist and blogger Bari Weiss who had made headlines when she quit her job as opinion editor at The New York Times in 2020, saying the vaunted newspaper had drifted into a politically correct orthodoxy that ignored the real lives of real people. Weiss started a blog, “Common Sense,” that featured her own opinions and guest writers. In April, Weiss saw “Cole Summers’” Twitter video, “I am who I say I am,” and was “completely floored” by his online story. She asked him to write a column for “Common Sense.”
Kevin fired off the essay under the name Cole Summers, explaining his background, his passion for “unschooling,” his plans for regenerative agriculture and his faith in young people. “It isn’t that my generation isn’t capable,” he wrote. “We just need the freedom, encouragement and empowerment to show what we can do.”
The essay was in Weiss’ inbox when she got a private Twitter message from Billy. Cole Summers was really Kevin Cooper, and he had died. Weiss published “Cole’s” essay on June 21, 10 days after his death, and wrote of him, “In his short life, Cole managed to cultivate two qualities that are rare, even among most adults. He was at home in the real, physical world and he took great pleasure in it. And, he was completely unafraid to try.”
Another who discovered “Cole Summers” on Twitter was Hannah Frankman of the Foundation for Economic Education, a nonprofit foundation focusing on teaching young people principles of entrepreneurship and economics, and promoting home-schooling. Frankman, too, was working on a story about Kevin as an unschooling success story when he died. Frankman read Kevin’s memoir in one sitting and called it, “the most compelling story of home-schooling possibility I had ever read.”
I went to Iron County to document this remarkable American story — a story that burned bright like the sunsets in Beryl, Utah, until suddenly it dipped beneath the horizon and slipped into a memory.
In the little community of Beryl, at the heart of the Escalante Valley, most folks didn’t know about Kevin Cooper until he died. He didn’t want fame or excess riches, only the means to help those around him. And he didn’t want attention drawn to himself or his reclusive family. He insisted that his family give up their smartphones when he learned how easy it was to track their data.
Living under the radar is one of the things that draws people to towns like Beryl. Folks are expected to mind their own business. Which is not to say neighbors don’t help one another, but many don’t ask. The Coopers don’t talk about extended family. By Billy’s account, he was injured in a training accident when he first joined the Navy at age 18. He has undergone numerous surgeries and battled the Veterans Administration bureaucracy in the 30 years since then, but he doesn’t want to talk about that either. On good days he can navigate around his home with a walker. On bad days he is in a wheelchair that doesn’t fit through the doors of his home.
Other than that, he figures the details of his life are nobody’s business.
Billy is proud of never taking any money from his more successful son. Just a hint of embarrassment creeps in when he describes how the family was often so poor that Kevin was the one who provided all the Christmas gifts. Kevin loved doing that, often starting in the fall working on homemade gifts for everyone.
Kevin was 4 and the family was living in the Salt Lake area when Billy and Tina launched a search for a new place to live. Their parameters were simple; it had to be the cheapest single-family home in Utah, preferably with some land. That led them to a bank foreclosure sale of a double-wide trailer off the beaten path in Beryl, with a rundown barn and five acres for a garden and animals. It was Kevin who would begin the transformation of that modest landing place into a model for the future of rural America.
When asked how they raised a boy like Kevin, Tina responds quickly, “We didn’t.” Both parents agree that at times Kevin raised them and his brother, and at times they were all growing up together. A friend once remarked, “You guys aren’t even raising him; you’re just kind of the audience watching him raise himself.”
At 3 and still in diapers, Kevin was “helping” to change tires on the family truck. Billy had loosened the lug nuts and then handed the wrench to Kevin. As he pulled off each lug nut, he tossed it aside. Tina and Billy took a picture of the toddler at work and said nothing, letting the scattered lug nuts teach the lesson themselves. Kevin had to scramble to find them after they rolled in various directions. He never again changed a tire without meticulously stacking the lug nuts where they could easily be retrieved. In his autobiography entitled “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t,” (by “Cole Summers”) Kevin called this his first “me do it,” moment. He was 4 the first time he helped take apart a truck engine and rebuild it.
When Billy had setbacks from multiple surgeries, it was Kevin who helped wait on him, acquiring a lifelong habit of bringing drinks to anyone who looked thirsty. Tina does that now for visitors in the summer heat, as she is reminded of the countless little things about Kevin that are gone. Billy explains, “Most people can’t wrap their heads around how much of our lives revolved around him. I do not diminish anyone’s experience with losing a kid, but there is no time that we don’t expect to see him somewhere. … We started letting him kind of take over running the family when he was 10.”
As Kevin watched his parents struggle with their financial and physical challenges, he slipped easily into the role of caregiver. “He was completely and totally aware that he was the only one in the family who could live independently,” Billy said.
And as long as Kevin wasn’t doing things that endangered himself or risked the meager family finances, his parents figured they could follow his lead. “There was a limit to how far the consequences of poor choices could be, so we just started letting him make a lot of our day-to-day decisions,” Billy said. Eventually their standard became, “What do we do today to help support or assist you with what your goals are?” Billy was physically limited, but he became Kevin’s research assistant, often pre-reading a book for Kevin to determine if it was worth the boy’s valuable time.
There was one paramount family rule: If Kevin asked, “Why?” his parents would never say, “Because I told you so.” They always tried to help him figure out the “why” of things, even when his mind outpaced theirs. Although Kevin hated the word, “prodigy,” his parents realized they had someone special on their hands.
For Tina that happened early, “when I believed I was no longer smarter than him.” Billy adds, “When he was 10 years old and buying a house, you know you’re not raising the most average kid.” In a crowd of adults and children, Kevin would place himself where he could listen to older folks. “Kevin treasured trying to learn from men in their 90s,” says Billy. He thought learning from his own experience was nonsense. “It takes too long and you screw up too much,” Kevin would say. “I want to figure out what everybody else already learned and get a good head start.” After a Cub Scout trip to a senior care center, he came home and complained to Tina, “All we did is stand there and sing. I didn’t even get to interact with anybody.”
Kevin was more than simply home-schooled. He was part of a movement called “unschooling,” in which the child is allowed to design the curriculum. In the beginning, the Coopers were happy to home-school using standard curriculum because Billy and Tina were both around to supervise. But the standard curriculum became irrelevant when 6-year-old Kevin discovered the instructional videos of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. As Kevin told the story in his memoir, he asked Billy, “Daddy, how do people get rich?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Billy replied. “Go watch some videos on YouTube about Warren Buffett or something.” And so Kevin did, diving deep into the online world of Buffett and his No. 2 at Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger. He watched their videos over and over again, trying to absorb their business philosophy. Munger was Kevin’s favorite, and Munger’s book, “Poor Charlie’s Almanack,” was his Bible. Billy and Tina broke the bank to buy it for their son as a birthday present. The doorstop of a book, at 548 pages, retails for $62. Many buyers made it a bestseller, but few took to it like Kevin, who re-read it every year. Later he followed the writings of Elon Musk and Bill Gates, but Munger and Buffett remained his heroes.
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