Cooper Dawson's memorial service last week at Episcopal High School was spirited. Dawson, 96, died on Oct. 13 at the Salisbury Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Salisbury, Md.
The campus chapel was filled beyond capacity for the standing-room-only service; speakers shared personal recollections of Cooper. They remembered a funny and talented man who brought a rigid determination to a host of roles: husband, father, teacher, Navy captain, underwriter, restaurateur, businessman, coach and — perhaps most importantly — director of Camp Alleghany for Girls in Lewisburg, W.V.
"He ran Camp Alleghany with an iron fist," recalled Bonnie Dawson, his daughter-in-law. She shared a story about how he handled a situation at the camp when one girl was having problems — a typical example of Dawson's take-no-prisoners attitude.
"Why are you here?" she said he asked the girl. "If you don't know why you are here, then you shouldn't be here. Go home."
"That was the tough side of Cooper," she said.
She recalled how he resisted change, reluctantly departing from tradition — even if he became the last holdout still holding fast in the midst of a changing world. Sometimes, she said, his outsized determination would go to untenable extremes.
"It was Cooper who drove the truck in the river three times," she said.
She wondered what heaven would be like with Dawson driving around in his truck, using a megaphone to shout orders.
"We can be sure that heaven will never be the same with him there," she said.
KITTY FARRAR, a family friend, remembered Dawson as a man with an unusual sense of fashion. She recalled some well-worn favorites: orange pants, a brown work shirt and "the first sweater ever knitted."
"Did you ever know someone with Cooper's sense of style?" she asked.
Farrar remembered how compassionate he was at Camp Alleghany, consoling homesick girls and encouraging unsure campers. She said that behind closed doors, Dawson was a soft and sensitive man whose charm could brighten the spirit and warm the heart. Farrar added that she said that she had always felt that the camp was Dawson's true calling in life.
"Cooper, were we always as special as you made us feel?"
DAVID WILLIAMS, rector of Holy Comforter Church in Burlington, N.C., delivered a sermon calling on Dawson's friends and relatives to reflect on St. Paul's letter to the Romans. The epistle, which was read during the service, includes a description of paternal kindness that evoked Dawson's spirit.
"Ten years ago, he asked me to put this memorial service together," said Williams, who met Dawson at Immanuel on the Hill Church. "And he's reminded me of it time and time again."
Williams remembered Dawson would frequently try to persuade the rector to abandon his manuscripts and speak freely to congregants. But Williams said that he was uncomfortable leaving the standard methodology of constructing a sermon. This one, he promised, would be different.
"Today, I am away from my manuscript," he said. "I hope you're watching, Cooper."
He spoke of Dawson's leadership abilities, his legendary status in Alexandria and his calm demeanor even in the most hectic of situations. Invoking the gospel reading from the service, Williams said that many mansions have been prepared for Dawson in heaven.
"The voice is missing. The passion is missing," he said. "But he is with us."
SAMUEL COOPER DAWSON JR. was born on Sept. 21, 1909 in Alexandria. He was the son of the late Samuel Cooper Dawson Sr. and Edna Horner Dawson; great-grandson of Confederate Gen. Samuel Cooper and the great-great-great grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall.
Dawson graduated from Episcopal High School in 1928 and the University of Virginia in 1932. He taught science at St. Christopher's School in Richmond from 1932 to 1936. From 1936 to 1939, he was an underwriter for the Maryland Casualty Company in Baltimore. In 1939, he joined the family business, the Penn-Daw Motor Hotel & Restaurant in Alexandria, best known for its "Chicken in the Rough." He managed the restaurant until it was sold in 1973. He served with the United States Naval Reserves from 1942 to 1946.
In the late 1960s, he returned to Episcopal High School and coached the basketball team from 1969 to 1983. When he retired, the school named the field for him — and the "Dawson Baseball Diamond" will remain a lasting testament to a man who was an avid baseball player, coach and fan.
Cooper grew up spending his summers at Camp Greenbrier in Alderson, W.V. This is where he learned to love life as a camper, counselor and, eventually, owner. In 1963, he purchased Camp Alleghany for Girls in Lewisburg, where he remained president and director emeritus until his death. At the camp, Dawson was known to advocate the principles of sportsmanship, citizenship, the honor system, and the meaningful appreciation of cultural and spiritual traditions.
DAWSON HELD many titles over the years: director of the Washington & Lee Savings and Loan Association, president of the Virginia Travel Council, director of the Virginia Hotel Association, president of the Alexandria Junior Chamber of Commerce, director of the National Restaurant Association, president of the Sons of the American Revolution, member of the George Mason Memorial Society and past commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' General Samuel Cooper Camp.
In February 2005, Dawson was honored as the second oldest living member of the University of Virginia's basketball team during the "100 Years of Basketball Celebration." He was a member of Immanuel Church on the Hill at the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he was baptized, confirmed and married. Contributions may be made in honor of Cooper to the Episcopal High School or to the University of Virginia Athletic Foundation.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Frances Boatwright Dawson; his son Samuel Cooper Dawson III and daughter-in-law Bonnie Ellis Dawson of Fredericksburg; his daughter Marion Dawson Phillips of Salisbury, Md.; three grandchildren, Elizabeth Horner Dawson, Samuel Cooper Dawson IV, and Patrick Mason Dawson; and his beloved dog "Camper."