The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

Off the Cuff: Nancy Cooper

The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association began when a small group of students founded Pyle Inn in 1950. Three of OSCA’s founding members still live in Oberlin at Kendal: Al McQueen, Ruth Searles and Nancy Cooper. In this week’s Off-the-Cuff, the Review speaks with Nancy Cooper about founding OSCA and about her life in Oberlin. Cooper, OC ’51, has worked with Oberlin College in numerous capacities, including as the associate dean of residential life, for over 45 years.

You were one of the founding members of Oberlin’s first co-op, Pyle Inn. Why did you and the other founders feel the need for a cooperative system at Oberlin? Did you get your inspiration from another co-op?
At the time that OSCA was founded, there was an in loco parentis rule that meant that students were more or less treated like teenagers. The women especially had severe restrictions. After World War II, older veterans returned to school and didn’t want to be treated like kids. So, in early 1950, a small group started thinking about how we might increase our autonomy. The University of Michigan had a strong co-op system then, and we took inspiration from them.

How was your experience in founding Pyle Inn? Did you encounter many obstacles?
We knew that we had to present a very comprehensive plan to the faculty, so we had many meetings and discussions. Finally, we presented our plan to the faculty, who voted on student life issues then. At that time, there was a dean of men and a dean of women. The dean of women was rather hesitant. After a time, though, the dean of arts and sciences, Blair Stewart, said, “Let’s give the students a chance.” We were given one year’s time as an experiment. We rented Pyle Inn, which was then on West College Street. We had one paid employee, Ella Thompson. We called her Mrs. T. She taught us how to cook. Other than that, all the work was done by students.

It was really all-consuming. We had endless meetings trying to make things work and save money, but I was exhilarated. We felt like pioneers. We were really creating a new type of student culture at Oberlin.

Co-ops now encompass a significant portion of Oberlin’s student body. How do you think co-ops have influenced the College?
One of the main long-range results was that it prepared many members for leadership positions, especially women. Ruth Searles and other very strong women had opportunities to really exercise their leadership. In our co-op, we had future doctors, academics and teachers.

It has also provided the opportunity for many students to have a residential and dining hall experience between the regular dorm experience and living off campus. It is very important that Oberlin College students have had that opportunity. OSCA has been a great asset.

We also saved a lot of money — about one half of our room and board bills. Walter [Cooper’s husband at the time] and I bought a stereo system in Cleveland with the money we saved.

Obviously, OSCA has grown a lot since Pyle Inn was first founded. Do you think it has stayed true to the founders’ original intent?
While I think OSCA still operates with the same spirit it always has, I’m not really familiar with how it works now. It has become such a big operation. When we began, there was something about being a part of a group that was starting something that was really wonderful. While there are wonderful aspects to OSCA now, it is a changed organization. It has grown, of course, and I think it is more business-oriented than it was in the beginning.

Did the first co-ops have the somewhat quirky reputation that OSCA has today?
I do think that the people who founded OSCA represented a quirkier portion of the student body — they were mostly very adventurous. The original co-op was made of very diverse people who eventually went into many fields, but for the most part they were people who wanted to live on the edge.

It was also a creative atmosphere: we had a lot of Conservatory and art majors. In a later year, when Pete Seeger was blacklisted, Oberlin invited him to give a concert. He came to Pyle Inn afterward and played into the night.


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