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Philanthropist, businessman, mover-shaker Mel Cooper turning 80 - and loving it

If Mel Cooper is having a bad day, it's unlikely anyone would know it. And that's not because he's developed coping mechanisms or a masking persona over the years to gloss over disappointment and frustration.

If Mel Cooper is having a bad day, it's unlikely anyone would know it. And that's not because he's developed coping mechanisms or a masking persona over the years to gloss over disappointment and frustration. No, Cooper is simply a genuinely happy person.

And though he's creeping up on his 80th birthday, that hasn't diminished a bit.

His smile, easy laugh and a genuine warmth that draws people to him is as much a part of him now as it ever was while he established CFAX 1070 as a major radio player, helped bring the Commonwealth Games to Victoria in 1994 and ensured Expo 86 was a financial success.

"Mel Cooper is the kind of person that brings sunshine into your life every day you see him," said old friend Jim Pattison, CEO and founder of the Jim Pattison Group.

"He's always up. He's always enthusiastic. He's always fun to be around - that's how it was when I first met him and I've never seen him change."

Yet change has always been a big part of Cooper. Over a career that has seen very few missteps, he has known when to change tack, take a leap of faith or walk through a new door. The one constant in all of that has been a desire to maintain momentum. "I tend to look forward instead of looking back," said Cooper. "That's my focus."

It was forward thinking that brought Cooper to the West Coast when he was 13. His parents hoped to give their children a brighter future than the one they faced in St. John's, Nfld.

Cooper was just starting his teens when they moved to Vancouver. After completing high school at Vancouver College, he opted for UBC and found his destiny - radio.

As a child, Cooper lived and played in the shadow of Signal Hill, where in 1901 Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless signal to cross the Atlantic. Cooper said radio was always a possibility, but it became a reality after he checked out the clubs he could join at UBC.

"I had an interest in journalism, but the paper looked too radical for me, so I went into the radio society, they were welcoming and outgoing," he said.

While he's the first to admit he didn't really "have the pipes" to be an on-air personality he did land a summer job at a radio station in Port Alberni after his first year at school.

"It was a great baptism by fire, we did everything," Cooper recalled. "It told me I was on the right track."

That stint was followed by jobs at CKMO, CKWX and eventually CKNW, this time on the dollars-and-cents side. "I was [at CKNW] 19 years and ended up as vice-president," he said. "We became the most listened-to radio station in Western Canada ... those were exciting days."

But in 1974, Cooper changed course and bought into CFAX in Victoria - and his involvement changed everything in the capital, said long-time friend Keith Dagg.

"Radio wouldn't be radio in Victoria without Clare Copeland and Mel Cooper ... Victoria was very little league radio in the '60s and early '70s and they brought it into the big league," said Dagg, a partner with CFAX

when Cooper came on board. "Clare brought it to a certain standard and Mel took it to a whole new level."

Dagg said Cooper's enthusiasm and big-picture and big-city thinking was new for the Victoria marketplace. But it was a perfect fit for CFAX, which would convert from a mostly laid-back music station to a news outfit committed to its community.

"I wanted to set some high standards," said Cooper, who reflects on the period he spent at CKNW and the first 20 years with CFAX as the real golden age of radio. "I never really got excited about TV, because an individual can't have a big impact and I wanted to make a difference - with radio we could do that," Cooper said. "I like being in the centre of stuff and, with radio, we could be - both with news and community events."

But Cooper, who seems to have boundless energy, was never one to limit the avenues through which he could make a difference.

Throughout his radio career he started new businesses, helped with the Cooper family's chain of grocery stores, and worked on a countless number of boards that exposed him to a variety of enterprises, including the Royal Bank of Canada and B.C. Tel/Telus. He also helped Pattison turn Air B.C. into a viable entity that was eventually sold to Air Canada.

Cooper became known as a guy who could be trusted to get things done. "In 1986 we needed help and I called to see if he'd come over," said Pattison, then the CEO of Expo 86. "He was in charge of marketing and revenue and he did just an excellent job."

Pattison said Cooper's creativity, innovation and high energy helped them land major sponsors and make the event a financial and cultural success.

Cooper's talents and work ethic were also put to work in staging the 1994 Commonwealth Games to say nothing of the myriad philanthropic endeavours he has given his time, effort and heart to over 40 years in Victoria. "We are very lucky to have people like Mel here and he hasn't slowed down any," Dagg said. "Mel can get you in touch with just about anybody and we're lucky that he cares enough to still do it."

But while Cooper loves the spotlight and being at the epicentre of events and causes, he has always shrugged off praise and reward. However, he is fiercely proud of being a member of the Order of Canada and being awarded the Order of British Columbia and an honorary doctorate from UVic.

Cooper recalls feeling like an interloper, for example, during his first trip as a director to the Royal Bank boardroom in Toronto.

"I'm in this 3,000-squarefoot boardroom and I'm walking along the desk and I see place cards with all the [director's] names - my name was the only one I didn't recognize," he said with a laugh.

Brian Canfield, chairman of the Telus board of directors, however, suggested Cooper would fit well into any organization.

"He's an exceptional board member. He's well respected and always prepared and always energetic," he said, adding Cooper puts to shame the notion that innovation is a young man's game. "Mel is a very innovative person, he has a lot of interesting thoughts particularly as they relate to the community, sales and marketing."

That's why Telus, which had to bid Cooper farewell from its board of directors in 2002 when he turned 70 (a rule that has since changed), has kept him involved as chairman of the Telus Community Board.

"When we created the Telus Victoria Community Board in 2007, Mel was the only choice for the role of chair," said Telus CEO Darren Entwistle, who counts Cooper as a mentor. "It is nearly impossible to ascertain that he holds a volunteer position because Mel has made it his full-time job; he is in the Victoria office every single day, to the community's benefit.

Mel has an unparalleled generosity of heart, kindness of spirit and thoughtfulness of mind."

And while Cooper is renowned for his charity work and his tireless work ethic, there have been struggles along the way.

After selling CFAX for $7.5 million, a sale he agonized over, Cooper led a group into the tourism attraction business in 2006. It did not go well.

The B.C. Experience, a $16-million interactive attraction designed to take visitors on a virtual tour of the province, opened in June 2006. A few months later, it filed for creditor protection in the face of nearly $9 million in debt and was forced into bankruptcy.

Cooper admits that failure stung. "I think if you don't mind being part of a failure there's something wrong with you," he said, adding Pattison once told him to never fall in love with your businesses because you won't be able to make the tough decisions and if they fail it hurts emotionally and financially.

"Well unfortunately I always fall in love with them," Cooper said. "What I really felt badly about was that I let people down."

Still he hasn't done that often in 80 years.

He admits he has some regrets about being so driven early in his career that his family may have lost out on time with him.

"I've heard it said by so many business guys, but yes, I wish I had spent more time with the family. They never wanted for anything, but they didn't get enough of me, so when I see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren I spend a lot of time hugging them and being with them," he said.

He's even talking about taking more time away from board rooms and cell phones, as he and second wife Carmella are planning a few weeks away over Christmas. "I don't think I've ever booked three weeks off, ever," he said. "But one of the things I'm blessed with is I can turn off and relax as easily as I turn on."

That may be one of the secrets to his boundless energy and enthusiasm, and no doubt there are boards and charities who will reap the benefit of Cooper's recharging downtime in the years to come.


Born: Dec. 10, 1932, St. John's, Newfoundland

Real name: George Neldon Cooper. His boss changed it to Mel when he worked at CKMO in Vancouver

Big family: Married to second wife Carmella; Mel has five kids, 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren

Education: Vancouver College (high school), one year at UBC

Bought CFAX: 1974

Sold CFAX: 2005

How friends describe him: Innovator, motivator, master of energy and enthusiasm

Current business: President Melco Management; Special advisor Spectrum Marketing; Special advisor Give Canada

Current community work: Chair Telus Victoria Community Board; Honorary director David Foster Foundation; Governor Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce; Patron Boys and Girls Clubs; Patron Canadian College of Performing Arts; Chair Mel Cooper CFAX Citizen of the Year Award