STANTON — Don Cooper’s has been a career filled with ups and downs, both easy days and difficult, but, the retiring Montcalm County drain commissioner says there hasn’t been one day he hasn’t enjoyed.
Cooper’s last day on the job was Friday.
He assumed the drain commissioner’s job in April 1986 and has been serving the county’s drain needs ever since. In that time, Cooper has remained a staunch advocate of keeping the county’s drain code independent and not allowing it to be absorbed by larger, state codes that may not always have a smaller locality’s best interests at heart.
During his tenure, Cooper chaired the Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners, so his political acumen had a little weight behind it.
“One of the highlights of my career was serving under Gov. Engler’s committee and sharing the importance of agricultural drainage to a county like ours,” Cooper said. “I said the drain code should not be codified, that it should stand alone. I was opposed to it getting incorporated in the uniform code and was really proud of the part I played in the state letting the drain code stand alone.”
The job of drain commissioner is far more than dry, legislative luncheons and planning committees, however. Cooper remembers with some fondness the time workers from his office unearthed some prehistoric remains.
“We were doing a project in Crystal,” Cooper said. “We uncovered a mastodon right across from the Crystal sewage plant. Now it’s displayed at Montcalm Community College right in the library.”
One of the toughest challenges Cooper’s office faced during his time came eight years ago, when high winds damaged and clogged more than 300 miles of open drainage.
“That was probably the biggest disaster we faced,” Cooper said. “The cleanup from those straight-line winds was something. We had 300 miles of county drains filled with trees and brush. Cleanup cost about $400 million.”
The best part of his job as drain commissioner, Cooper said, was the time he spent dealing with area farmers.
“Drainage is a very important component for the farmers,” Cooper said. “It makes the land much more productive. I’ve always liked working with the farmers. In fact, I really have enjoyed every aspect of the job and activities. I don’t think I really had any major difficulties to speak of.”
A strong knowledge of the particulars of the job are critical to doing it successfully, he said. That’s one reason Cooper backed Deputy Drain Commissioner Sandy Raines as his replacement during the recent election.
“Sandy actually mentored me when I started in the drain office,” Cooper said. “Sandy was there when I took office and was my deputy for a number of years. She’s very qualified on all aspects of the job — financial requirements, legal requirements — she’s well versed in all of them. I’m not one bit concerned she can do an excellent job and keep on doing what she’s been doing for the past 30 years.”
It’s a job Raines said she intends to take seriously.
“(My job is) to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of Montcalm County citizens by providing storm water management, flood control and development review and to be a steward of our natural resources,” Raines said.
At the Michigan Drain Commissioners 113th annual winter conference last February in Acme, Cooper was awarded a life membership, the association’s highest honor. At that ceremony, Stacy Hissong, an attorney who has worked closely with Cooper on many county projects, commended his dedication to maintaining the county’s natural beauty.
“Don worked to incorporate conservation and wildlife habitat creation into his projects where possible,” Hissong said. “He restored or created literally hundreds of acres of wetlands in Montcalm County through partnerships.”
That natural world is something Cooper plans to spend his retirement enjoying to his fullest. Cooper lives with his wife of 30-plus years, Linda, on the family homestead in Bloomer Township. He has begun building a rustic log cabin there.
“It’s not for me to live in,” he said. “It’s for the kids and grandkids to come up and stay in. They like to come here and fish, and we have some beautiful duck, deer and turkey hunting.”
There have been some, Cooper admits, who have asked him to continue serving on various committees or commissions, even after his retirement becomes official at the end of the year.
“Nope,” Cooper said. “That’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let anything keep me from spending time with my kids and grandkids. I’ve got a lot to keep me busy.”