Sue Cooley, the Last of Reed’s Fantastic Four, Dies

By Randall S. Barton | March 27, 2017

Sue Cooley, a generous benefactor who greatly enriched Reed College both academically and artistically, died on February 18. She was one of the Fantastic Four, two dynamic couples—Ed and Sue Cooley, and John and Betty Gray—who stepped in to provide leadership and direction in the 1970s when Reed was struggling, and instead of just treading water, imagined something great.

Sue was born March 31, 1923, to Waldo and Marguerite Davison in Brazil, where her father worked for the YMCA. The family moved back to the U.S. when she was six, settling in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Sue attended Wilson College and graduated from Swarthmore College in 1944 with a degree in psychology. That same year, she married Edward Cooley, also from Swarthmore, whom she’d known since high school. At Harvard Business School Ed met John Gray, who suggested that he come to Portland and help with his chainsaw company, Omark Industries. The Cooleys moved to Portland in 1950 where they raised three children, Susan, Douglas, and Caroline. Ed started Precision Castparts, which originally provided cast parts for Omark. It grew into a giant casting company that provided parts for the aerospace industry.

Many of Sue’s ancestors were artisans who valued working with their hands, and she developed a lifelong passion for painting as a child. As a young woman, she worked for a ceramic artist, and later volunteered at the Ceramic Studio in Portland. That active interest in the arts and painting informed her service on the board of the Portland Art Museum, and on Bainbridge Island, where she helped fund the Bainbridge Artisans Resource Network (BARN). She also supported many artists in the Northwest and Maui.

In the 1960s, Reed College President Richard Sullivan [president 1956–67] began recruiting board members who could help secure the college’s future. One of those people was Ed Cooley, whose long association with Reed began in 1966, when he was named to the Reed nuclear reactor committee and donated funds for the facility. He joined the board of trustees in 1968 and was an active and generous trustee.

“When Ed came to Reed, so did Sue,” explained Hugh Porter, vice president of college relations.  “We were really fortunate to have Ed and Sue and John and his wife Betty so closely involved with Reed.  They made a dynamic foursome.”

In 1988, the Cooleys and the Grays gave a gift of $4.7 million to Reed, part of which established the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery in honor of the Cooleys’ son Douglas, who died in 1982. The mission of the gallery is to enhance the academic offerings of Reed with a diverse range of scholarly exhibitions, lectures, and colloquia in its role as a teaching gallery. The Cooley/Gray art fund also provided funding for the Joshua C. Taylor Chair in Art History and Humanities (currently held by Prof. Dana Katz [art 2005–]) and the Jane Neuberger Goodsell Professorship in Art History and Humanities (currently held by Prof. William Diebold [art history 1987–]). In addition, the gift created the Stephen E. Ostrow Distinguished Visitors Program in the Visual Arts, a lecture program that enables Reed College’s art department to bring distinguished individuals in the arts to the college for periods of up to a week to give public lectures and seminars with students, providing conceptual exploration, challenge and discovery. Through the Cooley Gallery, the fund also supports a free educational outreach initiative serving the K–12 community, which engages young students in sustained and rigorous dialogue about the works of art in the gallery, coordinated by Gregory McNaughton ’89.

Following her husband’s death, Sue established the Edward H. Cooley Scholarship Fund to provide financial aid to students with need. As one recipient wrote to her: “Whatever beauty will surround me will be because of you and this scholarship. I will not say thank you but instead I will make my life into a piece of art and dedicate it to you and all this generosity in the world.”

A year later Sue established the Elizabeth N. Gray Scholarship in memory of her friend, Betty Gray.

“Sue was a presence,” said Porter. “She wanted to understand the impact of her gift and to stay on top of the spending to understand how students were helped. She never lost interest.”

In later years, Sue and Ed established a second home on Maui. She grieved the untimely loss of two adult children with grace, and following the death of Ed in 2000, moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington, where her daughter Caroline lived, spending winters on Maui.

Interested in humanity as well as in art, Sue cared deeply and quietly impacted many people. She was a strong believer in the power of education, and championed Self Enhancement Inc., an organization that supports and encourages underprivileged children in Portland, and served on the board of the Boys and Girls Aid Society. She established the Marguerite Foundation to provide affordable housing for teachers on Bainbridge Island, and was instrumental in constructing a much-needed football stadium for Lahainaluna High School on Maui. Her final project was the development and donation of Red Pine Park to the Bainbridge Island community. Her curiosity about the world also found expression in art, education, the outdoors, and gardening.

Her daughter, Caroline Browne, survives Sue, as do three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 8, in Portland, at the Riverview Cemetery Chapel.

Tags: Obituaries, Reed History, Institutional, Giving Back to Reed