Remembering J.R. Manning and Dr. James Cooper- Key Contributors in the World of Historic Bridge Preservation

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

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When we travel along the rural backroads of Indiana, one might see an old, iron through truss bridge along the way, with a four ton weight limit, being narrow and having a wooden deck, yet a fresh coat of paint, LED lighting for safe passage for night driving and a restored plaque with the names of Vicennes, New Castle or Central Plaines on it reveal that it looks brand new.  In another location, this time in Wisconsin, one sees another steel truss bridge, located inside a park, serving bikers and hikers. Each bridge having a history info-board describing its history and why it deserves a National Register listing. Each bridge is visited by dozens of people every day, is talked about by teachers who lead field trips with school children to the historic site and is read in history books, magazines and newspapers.

Preserving historic bridges takes a lot of efforts to carry out. It includes collecting documents on the bridge’s history, including the companies that built them. It includes informing the public about the bridge and its significance, to encourage them to take part in the preservation efforts. It also includes a good bridge marketing program where a historic bridge finds a new home if it is in the way of progress.

It especially includes some very key figures who lead the campaign to make preserving historic bridges happen, special people like the people we are honoring in this article. 

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J.R. Manning:

There were many nicknames for Jerrold Robert Manning (known by many as simply J.R.), including Loose Lug Nuts, the Kitchen Guy or simply Jerry. But if there is one word to describe J.R. when it came to historic bridges, it was “Shooter.” J.R. was a very popular figure in the upper Midwest. Born in Akron, Ohio, the family moved to Michigan and then to Brown Deer, Wisconsin. J.R. attended Algonquin Elementary School, Brown Deer High School, UW-Milwaukee-Mass Communications and Cardinal Stritch University-Business Administration. He mastered Dale Carnegie’s Sales Course and is a Certified Technical Trainer. J.R. was a member Brown Deer U.C.C and St. John U.C.C in Germantown serving as a liturgist and was on several committees. Many people viewed J.R. as a talented salesman and a musician. Yet his key signature was his famous quotes on the meaning of life, something that people like me took with.  J.R. however traveled a lot and saw and photographed hundreds of bridges along the way: in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. He was a key contributor of photos, histories and news stories of historic bridges in bridgehunter.com, having provided people with some interesting and useful information. Yet his dedication to historic bridges didn’t stop there. He was also a fan of architectural history and one can find dozens of pieces and photos in landmarkhunter.com, which is devoted to historic buildings in the US. I never met him in person but we corresponded frequently via e-mail and social media and as a person, he was a great philosopher- a person who could spend a whole day talking about life over a cup of coffee.

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Dr. James Cooper:

If there is one state that would be considered the hub for historic bridges, regardless of the materials used for building it, it would be Indiana. Indiana has one of the most comprehensive marketing programs for historic bridges, where each structure threatened with replacement is relocated to different sites for reuse, while others are rehabilitated with the purpose to prolong their functional lives. It has a comprehensive inventory on the history of bridges and their builders that existed in the Hoosier State. There are even books written on Indiana’s historic bridges, including covered bridges, concrete bridges and even metal truss bridges. Much of this was the work of one pontist, who was a professor of history and sociology but whose passion for bridges spans for half a century.

Born in Princeton, N.J., James L. Cooper moved to Greencastle in 1964 to join the faculty of DePauw University, where he served for more than three decades. At DePauw, Cooper was dedicated to faculty development, becoming the university’s academic dean in 1981 and then vice president of academic affairs in 1983. Yet his interest in historic bridges started in the 1970s.

“I started in the late 1970s with an introduction to material culture studies as a supplement to documentary research.  HAER contacts led me into bridge survey work in Indiana which I combined with more traditional research in my survey publications.  Then Indiana Landmarks Foundation contacted me to turn bridge surveying/historical research into preservation efforts,” Cooper stated during an interview with the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles in 2012.

For years, he tirelessly worked to document those bridges in a database that now serves as a resource for the historic preservation community. Furthermore, he helped fellow pontist Eric DeLony create an online network, where pontists and people interested in historic bridges would collaborate with each other. This network still exists and has been extended to include social media, especially in LinkedIn.  Cooper wrote several pieces devoted to historic bridges, including Artistry and Ingenuity in Artificial Stone: Indiana’s Concrete Bridges, 1900-1942 and Iron Monuments to Distant Posterity: Indiana’s Metal Bridges, 1870-1930.  Cooper’s work captured his appreciation for the culture, ingenuity and journey of the people who built, crossed, and settled around the bridges that he so admired.

“I credit him for helping me to understand the fragile plight of Indiana’s metal truss bridges and for shifting my focus towards preserving them. I will always considered him my mentor… something that he chuckled at when I told him one time,” mentioned  fellow pontist, Tony Dillon in a statement in bridgehunter.com.

From an author’s point of view, though I only conversed with him via e-mail, Mr. Cooper had extensive knowledge in his field of historic bridges. If you wanted to know about a bridge, engineer or bridge builder in Indiana, let alone the influence of the bridge builders in the Hoosier State on other states, especially after 1900, Mr. Cooper was that man to go to. His extensive research had a domino effect on historic bridge preservation throughout the US and even beyond. Some of the research and practice that has been done in Indiana is being carried out in other states, such as Texas, Oregon, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, etc. with mainly positive results for people wishing to see a piece of history that was a contributing factor in the development of America’s infrastructure.

Mr. Cooper’s work has garnered dozens of awards during his lifetime, including the the Indiana Historical Society’s Dorothy Riker Hoosier Historian Award, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)  Leadership in History Awards and lastly the 2012 Bridgehunter Awards for Lifetime Achievement (which was named the Othman H. Ammann Awards at that time), courtesy of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles (an interview can be found here.)

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Death on August 19, 2021:

On August 19, 2021, both of these fine pontists passed away peacefully, surrounded by family. J.R. was 69 years old and is survived by his wife of 21 years, Kathy and his step son, Steve. A funeral service took place on September 2nd at the Schmidt and Bartelt Funeral Home, in Menomonee Falls, which included a storytelling session at Bub’s Irish Pub in Germantown that followed the service. The service was also live on Zoom.

Dr. Cooper was 86 and is survived by his wife Sheila, his daughter Mairi and her husband, as well as his son, James Jr. and his family (wife and two children).  Due to Covid-19, a memorial service will be held at a later time, but burial will take place in Auburn, NY.  

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While the 19th of August is considered a tragic day in the historic bridge community, it is (and will also be) considered a day of reflection on the years of achievement these two fine people have made, having left marks not only within their respective areas but also beyond. What they have done for historic bridges is being practiced elsewhere, not just in the United States, but also beyond. 

While many of us sometimes take life too seriously, here’s a quote J.R. left me in my last correspondence with him back in February, which states otherwise:

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“Don’t take life so serious, son, it ain’t nohow permanent.” ~Porky Pine in Walt Kelly’s Pogo

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You can only do so much in life. It’s a matter of how you can project your achievements and passions to others. For these fine pontists with a lifetime passion for bridges, all I can say is this: “Thanks for everything.” ❤

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