The First of Her Kind, But Not the
An engineerâ€™s journey to be recognized for her work and not her color.
“I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being,” said late baseball great Jackie Robinson.
American history shows that the road for respect and recognition beyond color is a hard travelled road, but it can be done.
Louise Cooper is one of the many minds that have graced Caltrans with their intellects, creativity, logic, and talent. During almost 39 years with Caltrans, Cooper worked on major projects such as the I-405/I-605 Interchange, the Golden State Freeway (I-5), the Artesia Freeway (SR-91), a bicycle path for the Santa Ana River, and the Glenn Anderson Freeway (SR-105).
Cooper was originally drawn to the Division of Highways (as Caltrans was called back then) in 1953 while she was attending Los Angeles State College (known now as Cal State University, Los Angeles). As a math major, Cooper saw an engineering aide position at the Division of Highways (DH) as an opportunity for her to use her talents doing the kind of work that she loved.
“I had a rough time since I had not completed my math degree yet,” said Cooper. “But I came from the South, so I was very independent.” Cooper moved to Los Angeles after attending Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. “I started college trying to be a lawyer but I didn’t like all of the writing.”
Although Cooper did not have a background in engineering, that did not stop her. Cooper was able to use her math skills to solve many of the logarithms that were used to help design freeways in the 1950s.
To move up into the engineering ranks, Cooper sat for the Engineer-In-Training program (EIT) exam several times but,was unsuccessful because she had some difficulty with the construction section of the exam.
“I could complete most of the exam because the math sections were easy, but women were not allowed at construction sites, so I was not able to gain the necessary experience that I needed,” Cooper said.
But Cooper never let that exam stop her. She continued to take other exams. In 1971 Cooper enrolled in several engineering classes at CSULA and in 1976 she passed the Professional Engineer License Examination.
Many were amazed at what Cooper had accomplished – she passed the exam – on her first attempt. Not only was Cooper one of the few female engineers in Caltrans, like her counterpart and friend Marilyn Reece, she was the first female African-American to pass the exam.
After receiving her license, Cooper held many positions within Caltrans. She worked as a contracting project manager in the Civil Rights Unit. It was her responsibility to ensure that minorities were gaining equal access to jobs at Caltrans and subcontracting jobs at construction sites. Cooper and her colleagues recruited minority students from all over the U.S. and from around the world.
Cooper also held positions in Drainage, Advanced Planning (where her math skills really shined), Design A and B, Hydraulics, Public Information, and Project Management.
During Cooper’s time with Caltrans, she recalled that after some time people began to recognize her for who she was and not let prejudice get in their way.
“I enjoyed my time at Caltrans. I talked to everyone and tried to learn everything,” said Cooper. “When people came to work, lots of racial and neighborhood barriers were broken.”
Cooper was the first person in her family to join Caltrans but she was not the last. Her late husband, Wardell Cooper worked in Maintenance, and her son Wyatt Cooper is a Transportation Engineer in District 7.
“On Christmas Eve my mom would bring me into the office, I was amazed at how diverse the staff was and what a great bunch of people they were,” said Wyatt Cooper. “It really helped being Louise’s son because she was so loved,” he said.
“My grandmother is my inspiration and I hope that many will follow in her footsteps,” said Cooper’s granddaughter, Tiffanie Caldwell.
Cooper still keeps in contact with some of her old coworkers via the Quarter Century Club. “Louise was a very good engineer and one of a kind,” said Doris Nakamura, Cooper’s longtime friend and Quarter Century Club member.
Caltrans’ first African-American female engineer is just like many trailblazers: President Barack Obama, Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, Baseball great Jackie Robinson, former U.S. Senator Carol Mosely-Braun, and many more. They strived to be recognized for their abilities and not their color.