by Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine
For many, finding a path to follow is a lifelong challenge. But in the case of Richard Cooper, the path found him—and it wound backward in time.
“I definitely got my love of history from my dad,” says the 2014 graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Public History program. “He worked at U-Haul six or seven days a week and would come home and turn on the History Channel—which I absolutely hated. But I guess after a while it kind of stuck, because here I am, many years later, working in the history field and trying to talk about its relevancy and how we can really engage with one another.”
This inherited interest in history paved Cooper’s path to a career with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Rising through the ranks over the course of a decade, he most recently held the museum’s director of museum experiences position.
“It was incredible,” he says of the role. “Every day was a different experience where we may be working with U.S. ambassadors, senators or world leaders. But the great thing for me was getting to work with the 50,000-plus schoolchildren who came into the building…and showing how we can truly all work together and how we’re in this fight together.”
Raised in Cincinnati’s east side, Cooper attended North College Hill high school, then, under the influence of his father’s basic cable choices, enrolled in the University of Cincinnati’s undergraduate history program. In 2004, he was hired at the then-new Freedom Center as an interpretive services coordinator, overseeing day-to-day details of school group experiences. When it came time to advance his career through continued education, he knew where to turn for graduate studies.
“I started working with NKU’s graduate program right when it started in 2010, and actually was a co-instructor for a class on an exhibit we were doing at the Freedom Center, ‘Without Sanctuary,’” says Cooper. “I got to know a number of the professors and a little bit about the program, and saw that it was quickly becoming one of the top public history programs in the country.”
And the decision to pursue a graduate degree at NKU paid off for Cooper. “My degree at NKU played a significant role in helping me get my position as a director of museum experiences at the Freedom Center," he says. "And it definitely played a role in me getting my job here at Conner Prairie.”
Cooper’s new role takes him away from the banks of the Ohio River to Fischers, Indiana, a growing community outside of Indianapolis. While the opportunity is an exciting new chapter in his life and career, leaving his home town and longtime workplace wasn’t an easy choice.
“It’s always tough to leave family and friends behind, and I loved the opportunities that Cincinnati presented,” says Cooper. “Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are incredible neighborhoods, and it was hard to leave that behind. The opportunity to work for, really, one of the top museums in the country—it was hard to say no, but Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky really prepared me for this next journey.”
As bittersweet as the relocation was, Cooper is excited about the opportunity to work at Conner Prairie. “It is an incredible site,” he says. “We have seven outdoor destinations, five of which are history-themed, including a Civil War journey about John Hunt Morgan’s raid and an incredible ‘Follow the North Star’ experience that takes you through the Underground Railroad.
“Conner Prairie has kind of always been at the lead of museum professionals in interpretation,” he says. “We’re looking at how we can continue that innovation and lead the field.”
We all kind of fold into this world, and we can educate the public about why history is so important.”
In addition to teaching the public powerful lessons of yesterday’s events, Cooper hopes to pave the way for humanities students from his alma mater to work alongside him in future years.
“I look forward to figuring out how to get future graduates here,” he says. “I really want them to work with me here at Connor Prairie.”
Check out Richard Cooper's book, "Cincinnati's Underground Railroad (Images of America)," co-authored with NKU's Dr. Eric Jackson, and visit Conner Prairie online for more information about the outdoor museum.