Blakeley Cooper remembers the day his house burned down. His mother - never one to shield her children from life's harsh realities or to miss the chance to teach a lesson - took him and his sister to see the ruins.
"The house was burned to a crisp," Cooper recalls. "All our belongings were in ashes. It was heartbreaking. I'll never forget my mother going through the rubble looking for souvenirs and keepsakes. It was all mixed in with the drug paraphernalia. There'd be a picture of me and my sister right next to a crack vial."
The fire that incinerated the North Philadelphia rowhouse had begun in the basement, probably ignited by someone cooking crack. The house was inhabited at the time by Blakeley's father, a man who had climbed high and fallen fast.
"My mother was very blunt," Cooper remembers. "She said, 'This is what drugs will do to you. You want to throw your life away? This is the end result.' "
Cooper, then 5, was so impressed he made a vow: "I will be better than my father."
In the years that followed, it became his mantra, especially in times of stress and discouragement. "It became the sole motivating force in all I did," Cooper says.
Today, Cooper, 30, is a senior information technology engineer at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Frazer, Chester County. His job is to devise code that enables computer systems to talk to each other. In night school at Wharton, he's taking business courses and he plans to pursue an MBA.
But it could all have turned out so differently.
"I grew up on the same streets where murders have occurred," he says. "But I was able to steer clear of that because I had people who had my best interests at heart and were willing to show me another way."
How Cooper traveled from where he came from to where he is now is a testament to his innate drive and motivation, to that amalgam of traits and values we call "character." But, as Cooper readily admits, he benefited also from family - in his case, a determined and dedicated single mother, and a civic-minded elderly couple who mentored and supported him.
His early years were filled with hardship.
His father, a systems analyst for SEPTA with a master's degree in accounting, succumbed to the lure of drugs and abandoned his wife and two children when Cooper was 5. Cooper hasn't seen him since he was a teenager. "He wouldn't even recognize me," he says.
During two years that Cooper describes as "very difficult," his mother, Claudia, kept a roof over her children's heads by moving in with neighbors and relatives in various parts of the city. "She kept everyone together and raised two beautiful children," says Cooper.
Her formula was simple: attention, discipline and education. Instead of sending her children to the neighborhood elementary school, she lobbied to get them into the Gen. George A. McCall School in Society Hill, where she believed they'd have a better chance to learn. She accompanied them, by bus, to and from school. She attended every play, every classroom event, every parent-teacher conference.
"There wasn't one thing I wasn't there for," says Claudia Cooper, 59, a janitor and "general cleaner" who works at night for the Philadelphia School District. "I think that motivated my kids, for them to look out and see my face."
At home, she was so strict that Blakeley and his sister, Clea, jokingly referred to her as "The Warden." During the week, they weren't allowed to use the telephone. Homework and study came first, and there was zero tolerance for poor grades. Their mother took them to art and dance lessons and enrolled them in summer enrichment programs.
"I wanted the best for them," says Claudia Cooper. "I knew how hard I struggled and didn't want them to go through that. I knew the key is education."
It paid off. By the time Blakeley began at William Penn High School, he was a conscientious student whose report card was rarely profaned by anything less than an A.
When he was a freshman, Blakeley Cooper learned about a new program sponsored by Philadelphia Futures called Sponsor-a-Scholar, which provides mentoring, academic and cultural enrichment, and financial support to promising students from non-elite high schools. Cooper applied and was accepted.
The mentors who "adopted" him were none other than Marciene and Herman Mattleman, whose civic contributions to the city have been legion. Herman Mattleman was president of the school board; Marciene founded Philadelphia Futures and was the first executive director of Sponsor-a-Scholar.
"They took care of making me well-rounded and preparing me for the real world," says Cooper. "They were adamant about giving me every opportunity to fulfill any dream I had."
The Mattlemans took Cooper to the orchestra and to baseball games. They sent him to basketball camp and helped him explore programs in meteorology, one of his interests. They taught him how to conduct himself in job interviews and how to prepare a resume. In 11th grade, he was selected to represent Philadelphia Futures in a national civic competition in San Francisco. He wore his first suit, took his first airplane flight, and addressed an audience of a thousand.
"They made sure I was developed as a person," says Cooper. They also encouraged him to imagine the seemingly unattainable: a college education.
Cooper continued to flourish, both in and out of the classroom. A talented distance runner, he was a standout on both the track and cross-country teams. Wherever he competed, he could always count on one loyal spectator. Traveling by bus because she didn't own a car, his mother showed up for every meet.
In his senior year, Cooper captained the cross-country squad. He was elected to the National Honor Society and was graduated fifth in his class - with a full scholarship to Pennsylvania State University.
It was a huge adjustment. He was far away from home in a college town where he felt conspicuously different.
Besides providing financial support - $1,500 a year for books, travel and miscellaneous expenses, as stipulated by the Sponsor-a-Scholar program - the Mattlemans offered counsel and encouragement. After a rough start as a meteorology major, he switched to management science and information systems. During summer breaks, he broadened his experience through internships, also arranged by the Mattlemans.
During trying times in college, one of the things that kept him on track, besides the specter of his father's tragic trajectory, was his respect for the Mattlemans. Says Cooper: "I didn't want to let them down." It is a key reason mentoring works.
After graduation, Cooper worked for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. He began traveling to warmer cities. In Washington, he met a woman with whom he had a child.
The child is now 5, and her name is Brooke. Cooper adores her and his affection is reciprocated. Every other Friday, he drives from his home in Norristown to Maryland to pick her up for the weekend. "I want to be the greatest father on Earth," Cooper says.
After more than two years of freezing in Rochester, Cooper applied for jobs elsewhere. "I wanted to come back to Philadelphia and my comfort zone," he says. When he was hired by Wyeth, he was ecstatic.
Over the past five years at Wyeth, he has been aggressive about learning new skills and assuming new responsibilities.
"He's a delight to be around," says Roger Leone, vice president, North America regional shared services, and a mentor to Cooper.
"We all know people who face struggles, but I look at what he's been through and his positive outlook and demeanor, and I've learned a lot personally. I admire his courage and strength of character."
The challenges keep coming. In 2001, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called paraganglioma.
Cooper is undaunted.
"You can never lose hope," he says. "I always remind myself, no matter how bad things get in my life there's always somebody doing a lot worse."