Growing up in Taft, she was simply known as Wilma Jeanne to her friends and family – a fun-loving kid who was more of a tomboy than anything else.
But to legions of soap opera fans she was Katherine Chancellor – the iconic grand dame of the popular daytime drama “The Young and the Restless,” on which she starred for 40 seasons.
Cooper died last Wednesday at the age of 84 following a short illness. Services are pending, but her longtime Taft chum Jerry Baxter said Saturday the family is planning a small service for family and close friends with a public memorial later.
And, her family, friends and costars reportedly will soon gather on the Y & R set to share their personal memories. That walk down memory lane will air on May 28 at 11 a.m.
Cooper regularly kept in touch with friends and family in Taft.
Her last trip was for the 2010 Oildorado Days parade riding in the blue and white Ford pickup her son, Corbin, drove around the streets of Taft earlier that year filming “25 Hill,” the feature film he wrote, directed and starred in.
“She barely got here in time for the parade,” Baxter said. “The truck broke down on the way to Taft but she made it just in time for the end of the parade.”
Cooper was in Taft six months earlier for the Taft Union High School Hall of Fame banquet. She was inducted the previous year.
Whenever she comes to Taft she stays with Baxter, usually accompanied by her sister, Evelyn Rader, who also was born and raised in Taft.
“They fought like cats and dogs,” Baxter said. “The last time they were here I told them, ‘I’m going to put you two in separate rooms,’ but they said, ‘oh no, you can’t do that; that’s just how we get along.’ And, you know, she was right.”
Baxter, who is 87 and still works full-time as a bookkeeper, has fond memories of her longtime friend.
“We quickly became more like sisters,” she said. “We grew up together. I’ve known her all my life. We had such good times together.”
Families in those days were so close “you felt like you were related to everyone.”
Baxter recalls showing Wilma Jeanne a painting Baxter’s mother, Polly Tweedy, had done.
“She said: ‘I didn’t know Aunt Polly painted pictures. She was surprised when I told her mom wasn’t her aunt and we weren’t really cousins.”
Page 2 of 2 - Baxter said Wilma Jeanne got along best with the boys.
“She was always playing boys games back then.”
She recalled a group kids going to a shuttered plant near McKittrick.
“There were these big cables and the boys would swing on them over the machinery. Jeanne was right along with them. She was really a tomboy. I was too chicken to try any of that stuff.”
Trips to Hobo Hot Springs on the Kern River and Morro Bay were popular.
Dorothy Gardner, a cousin of Cooper’s, also remembers her as a tomboy.
“She was always mixing it up with the boys,” she said. “She liked to shoot them with those rubber guns they made. She was such a tomboy. ”
Gardner, who had a closer relationship to Jeanne’s sister, Evelyn, was astonished the first time she saw Jeanne in a movie.
“I just couldn’t believe it was Wilma Jeanne. I said, ‘is that Wilma Jeanne?”
Stan Barrett, the founder of the TUHS Hall of Fame and instrumental in Cooper’s induction, agreed with Baxter and Gardner.
“She was really a character,” he said. “We had a lot of fun together. I remember one trip we took to Pismo Beach. I could tell you some funny stories but I probably shouldn’t. She really knew how to have fun.”
Barrett’s late brother, Everett, was married to Cooper’s sister, Evelyn.
“Stan was close to Corbin,” Baxter said. “Corbin stayed at Stan’s when he came to Taft. When Corbin was a boy Stan built him a go-kart.”
Barrett remembers Bernsen’s trips to Taft to go motorcycle riding.
“He’d come up here and ride all over the hills on his motorcycle,” he said.
Shortly after Cooper launched her acting career, Baxter said, she made an appearance in Taft.
“She came up for the opening of the drive-in theater,” she said.
That would have been the Sunset Drive-In Theater, the town’s first and only open-air movie venue. It was located on the east side of Fourth Street about where the Storage Bin is.