What follows is a eulogy written for my college roommate, BJ Brantley Cooper, who left us far too soon, in late November, a victim of early-onset Alzheimers. We were acquaintances, first, at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and later roommates at Carolina. BJ met and married one of my best friends at Carolina, and 43 years later he asked me to write her eulogy. At first I thought I couldn’t put her into words, but the more I thought about it the more I had to say. She was always, as we had been at 18, dutiful, appropriate, and attendant to the manners we were brought up to practice. But underneath there was a woman with a hidden spark of wildness, cloaked in a good looking outfit. When I finished writing I realized I’d used some version of the word “love” ten times. This is about a person whose heart was truly full of love. I expect that as long as I inhabit this sphere I will always miss her.
BJ Brantley Cooper was born into distinguished old North Carolina and Virginia families. She was raised in the flat tobacco country east of Raleigh by two loving and charming parents. Her early life was full of the grace notes of peaceful and prosperous times. There was contrast in her life, as well. She always had beautiful clothes and her mama took her on the Queen Mary to tour all of Europe when she was very young, but she also experienced summer work in the tobacco fields. She knew how both halves lived, and she had tremendous compassion for people less fortunate, and not a whit of snobbery.
BJ always connected to the genuineness and goodness of people, so her friends were from every kind of background. The common thread was that genuineness. She kept a group of close friends all her life, who remained connected to her by the heartstrings, if not by geography.
One of BJ’s most endearing characteristics was her mischievousness. While at college, she and a couple of girlfriends were given use of a decommissioned sorority house to entertain their dates. BJ was involved in starting a fire in the fireplace which subsequently burned the sorority house to the ground. It was a scandal on the campus of Randolph Macon Woman’s College. I remember that clearly. If you wanted to see her giggle, all you had to do was bring that up. She liked thinking she was the kind of woman who could burn a house down. Rod used to say that if he died a fiery death we should all suspect foul play.
My favorite memories of BJ are in our tiny dorm room at Carolina. Our twin beds were set up so when we sat on them we faced one another. There was nowhere else to sit. We would sit on those beds and BJ would usually be busy writing someone a note. All her life, on monogrammed stationery, she wrote to everyone she loved… a proper lady’s note, spiced with news, a little gossip, perhaps a quip or two in her large rhythmic script. Sitting on our beds we would tell each other funny stories about our eccentric southern families, gossip about the boys we knew, and plan our futures.
A survivor of a heartbreaking miscarriage, ovarian cancer and breast cancer, BJ’s greatest joy was the arrival of her daughter, Brantley. Her desire to love and care for her daughter defined BJ’s adult life. She did every thing she could think of to create a loving and happy environment for Brantley, relishing those years as the happiest of times. She was overwhelmingly proud of Brantley’s beauty, her athleticism, and in the end, of her adult strength and accomplishments in the business world, and as mother to Peyton. And Peyton became the new light of BJ’s life. She invested her sweetness and loving concern in Peyton
BJ’s greatest passions were always directed outward— they were always about loving someone or something else, never about herself. Anyone who knew her well knew her deep love for her pets, which carried over to a love for all creatures. She would be enchanted if she saw a deer, and talk about it long afterward. She would be enraged if she thought anyone was mistreating a horse or dog. She fed the birds. She was completely tuned in to the world of mute living creatures.
Loving Rod, for BJ, was seldom serious. They met casually, introduced by me, and Rod immediately produced his white horse— a red MG convertible,and suggested we all go for barbecue. My memory of it is that he swept her off her feet by carving their initials into a picnic table. Although now, doubting my own memory, I’m trying to imagine Rod carrying a pocket knife.
I think I rode in the trunk that day. There wasn’t much room in that MG for a third wheel. They shared a thousand private jokes. There are few couples with such a strong and abiding friendship as BJ and Rod, or with as much built-in humor. They teased one another, and tolerated one another’s differences. They raised their daughter with the understanding that BJ took care of daily home life and Rod provided the means. Together they made a home of great warmth, beauty and generosity.
They loved to dance and watch movies or Carolina basketball together. Though quiet and even a bit shy, BJ could, if the music was right, become the Ginger Rogers of any evening. The crowd would part when she started dancing. She had a wonderful sense of style, and was always a stand-out at any gathering. She had kind of creativity that bloomed in the way she dressed, the things she curated to be her wardrobe. That was the way she made art.
Rod took care of her, always, with perfect faithfulness and thoughtfulness, especially during her final cruel affliction. He gave large amounts of time and effort to being sure she was comfortable, cared for, and understood by all the people in her sphere. He was her advocate. He fought her decline tooth and nail. And he managed to fill the last few years with as many happy occasions as possible, while also slowly adapting their lives to fit the circumstances.
BJ’s heart was so huge she had to sometimes hide it to keep everyone from knowing how deeply she felt. We will miss that big heart, those wicked quips she could deliver with lightning speed, and the warm glow of her friendship. But she leaves a trail of a million — no exaggeration—laughs, countless days enjoyed in her company, many times when we were in her thoughts and she reached out to us, usually through one of those beautifully written notes. She was the kind of woman who could burn a house down.
Be free now, our thousand-fold courageous, loving friend. Here’s hoping that where you are there are some dogs and cats in need of love. For all the fine things you have left with us, we thank you. Greensboro feels a little less enfolding to me now that you have moved on.