U.S. Sen. Jim Webb has never forgotten Harley Cooper.
The Virginia Democrat flashes back about 50 years to an old boxing gym he frequented as a high school student in Nebraska. Webb was just learning the sweet science from the Air Force sergeant.
Cooper handed Webb his watch and went to work on the heavy bag. He told Webb to keep time.
Etched into the face of Cooper's watch were these words: U.S. Armed Forces Association fighter of the year.
Cooper had never mentioned the high honor, and that impressed young Webb.
"He kind of led by example, and you never forget those kind of people," said Webb, a Vietnam veteran who went on to be an attorney, author and Secretary of the Navy before running for the U.S. Senate. "I thought the world of him. I've never forgotten Harley Cooper."
And Cooper has never forgotten Webb.
Cooper's life has been devoted to fights, fighting and working with and promoting fighters.
It's no surprise, then, that he refuses to walk away from his latest fight.
It's no matter that he's 78 years old, tired and battling some standard health issues.
Not ready to throw in the towel, Cooper picked up the phone looking for some reinforcements.
"It's absolutely in character with everything I remember about him," said Webb.
Cooper called Webb for help in assisting the Midwest Regional Golden Gloves champions with travel to nationals in Mesquite, Nev. — an ongoing issue since attendance at local events started dipping 15 years ago.
"He called me and was worried about the funding for his fighters," Webb said. "I said I'd do what I can do to help."
Webb holds Cooper in high regard for time they spent together in the 1960s at the boxing gym. Webb's father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, and the future senator was attending Bellevue High School.
After high school, Webb was off to the Naval Academy and went on to an accomplished and decorated career, but he never forgot the lessons Cooper taught him inside the ring.
"I might have had a very small impact on his life," Webb said from Washington, D.C. "But he had a huge one on me."
Webb said he and Cooper probably hadn't talked since the 1980s when Cooper called last month. Since then, Webb said, his plan has been to reach out to both senators from Nebraska — Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns — and have some of his assistants bring Cooper's situation to the attention of the National Golden Gloves organization.
"I just asked him if there was anything he could do to help us," Cooper said. "I've always tried to do something, and whether I succeed or not, at least I tried. I reached a point here where I knew we needed some help.
"I never thought he would take my call. He responded. That made me feel good. God will provide a way."
Cooper said his Christian belief is that if you do something to help yourself, the rest will take care of itself. That was the kind of lesson Webb absorbed from Cooper as a teenager.
Webb said he respected Cooper not only for his talent but his work ethic. Webb can even recall some of the Cooper fights from the 1960s, when he won Golden Gloves national titles in both 1963 and '64.
"I'm not sure people in Omaha appreciate what an amazing athlete he was at the time," Webb said.
There was more that Webb appreciated about Cooper. Humility. Dedication. A devotion to helping kids.
Webb said Cooper had an incredible drive to succeed, and he tried to instill that trait in those around him.
"He said one thing to me that I've never forgotten my entire life," Webb said. "He said, 'Who ran the first four-minute mile?' I said, 'Roger Bannister.' Then he asked, 'Who came in second?' He said nobody ever remembers who came in second."
Cooper is still trying to heap those life lessons on some of the boxers going from the Omaha District Golden Gloves two weeks ago to the Midwest Regional Golden Gloves on Friday and Saturday night at the TipTop Ballroom downtown. The Midwest fighters advance to the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, starting April 28 in Mesquite.
It will cost $10,000 to $14,000 to get the Midwest champs to Mesquite, including uniforms, travel, food and lodging. Many of them, Cooper said, come from rough backgrounds and have little of their own.
But somehow, they've always managed to get there. "It's not with fabulous conditions, but we get there and we get back," said Cooper, currently serving as president of the Great Plains Amateur Boxing Association.
When times were good and each session of regional tournaments would bring in 2,000 people, costs took care of themselves. But attendance is hardly half what it once was, and the shortfall can be only partially addressed by one grant, contributions from local boxing people and some money from nationals.
If Cooper doesn't stand in there and keep punching for his boxers, his fear is that nobody will do so once he leaves their corner.
"I believe that everybody has a calling, and that was mine," Cooper said. "That's just the way I feel, man."
Dr. Jack Lewis, who also has been associated with the Golden Gloves for years, said Cooper did not plan on staying involved after last year. Yet now here he is, trying to make it work once again. Lewis, 77, finally stepped away from his longtime involvement because of the financial strain.
"He's a wonderful old guy who's trying to keep this sport going," Lewis said of Cooper. "Because he's a big part of this sport."
Contact the writer: