Sheila McIsaac Cooper

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Sheila McIsaac Cooper, a longtime British historian and a former associate dean at the Indiana University Graduate School, died June 22, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was 89 years old.

Though Cooper lived for nearly 60 years in Greencastle, she also strongly identified with her Scottish roots and her hometown of Auburn, N.Y.

Her parents Robert and Agnes McIsaac, both natives of Scotland, came to the United States in search of a new beginning after the tragic death of their young son. Robert was an electrical engineer at the American Locomotive Company in Auburn, and Agnes was a homemaker who instilled a deep love of her homeland in her surviving three children.

Cooper’s lifelong devotion to her Scottish heritage was reflected in her academic interests, her knack for landing fellowships that regularly brought her to the United Kingdom and her voluminous collection of Celtic music CDs.

“At least half my heart lies back in Scotland,” Cooper said in a 2018 interview with the Indiana University Bicentennial Oral History Project.

After graduating from Auburn’s East High School, Cooper attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, home of the Fighting Scots. At Wooster, she majored in English and met James Louis Cooper, a fellow editor at The Wooster Voice student newspaper who took to teasing her. The ribbing ended after Sheila dumped glue on his head during a newsroom squabble. A romance blossomed, and they wed the day she graduated in 1957.

The couple then attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a master’s degree in British history while he completed a doctorate program in American history. After he landed a teaching job at DePauw University in Greencastle, she eventually pursued a doctorate in British history at Indiana University, commuting between her Greencastle home and the Bloomington campus while juggling the demands of parenthood. Together, they co-edited a book in 1973, “The Roots of American Feminist Thought,” an anthology of works written by feminists over the past two centuries.

It was during her doctorate studies at IU that Cooper secured a one-year fellowship at The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. This formative experience broadened her quantitative research expertise. Her ongoing affiliation with the group and the lifelong friends she made there helped inform Cooper’s work after she secured her doctorate in 1985 and started her academic career at IU.

“When I first got to know Sheila in England, she would drive to archives with determination and speed rather more than watching others too closely,” said David Souden, a friend from the Cambridge days. “And when I was visiting Indiana, I was always amused that she would drive so carefully so as not to be named and shamed in the local newspaper.”

Cooper was a cat lover, an opera buff, a bookworm, a proud feminist and a fighter who would not let her persistent health issues interfere with her trans-Atlantic travels until late in life when she struggled with dementia.

“She could grab a nettle when she needed to,” Souden added.

Cooper passed along many of her passions to her granddaughters, Sarah and Claire, and regularly reminded through deeds and words that women are strong. Even during her toughest medical challenges, Cooper responded to all inquiries as to her health that she was in “fighting shape!”

Cooper was preceded in death by her husband of 64 years, James L. Cooper Sr.

She is survived by her daughter, Mairi Cooper (husband Matthew Pierce); son James L. Cooper Jr. (wife Dina ElBoghdady); and granddaughters Sarah and Claire Cooper.

Graveside services will be held at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, N.Y., at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 6. Following, all who are able are invited to attend a reception at the Springside Inn, where family will gather in her memory.