My close friend, Dan Cooney has passed away. For many years Dan and I had dinners or lunches at the Friday’s restaurant near where he lived on the Ben Franklyn Parkway in Philadelphia. On one of these occasions, I noticed my cousin, a corporate lawyer, was also dining there. My cousin was gracious and introduced me to his associate and I introduced him to Dan.
Later, I mentioned to Dan that I have only spoken to my cousin on rare occasions and that we don’t have much in common. Dan responded to this by saying something like, “He’s not the one who is different, we are the one’s who are different.”
So, when I speak of the life of Dan Cooney I would like to speak of one of the questions he was most interested in. This question is: Why? Why did Dan choose to live the life he lived? In summarizing Dan’s life, I think of two qualities he had that we might think about. Dan was sensitive as well as perceptive.
Dan’s father worked in the laundry of a hospital. His parents adored their children and did their very best to care for them. Dan understood this very well.
However, working in the laundry and living on the wages of a hospital worker gave Dan’s father a perspective on life. He lived through the McCarthy era where anyone who even associated with communists was blacklisted. However, his experiences in life taught Dan’s father not to go along with that way of thinking.
Dan told me that his father’s favorite book was Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. In this book, published in 1888, Bellamy imagined what a future socialist world would look like. There would be no poverty, women would be liberated, and everyone would have a sense of solidarity.
Dan’s parents felt that sending their children to Catholic schools was the best option they had. Dan attended these religious schools for twelve years.
However, Dan didn’t like the time he spent at these schools. Many of us don’t have fond memories of our times in school. What he didn’t like was the regimentation as well as the demand to strictly adhere to the rules. Clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong with having rules. Without certain rules we wouldn’t be able to survive. What Dan didn’t like is the fact that there were no good reasons for having many of these rules.
After high school, I believe Dan spent some time in the military. Dan had many funny stories, but some of his most hilarious were of his short time in the military.
This was in the time of the war against Vietnam. Drill sergeants demanded that eighteen and nineteen year olds strictly adhere to discipline. The consequences for not strictly following orders might be jail or death.
Dan was opposed to the war in Vietnam and he clearly did not appreciate this atmosphere. Dan questioned officers as to why he needed to follow their orders. This infuriated officers and they attempted to break Dan’s spirit.
Then, Dan was sent to the infirmary where a doctor discovered that Dan had a defect in his eye that wouldn’t allow him to shoot straight. One of the best things Dan heard in his life was when this doctor told Dan that he was given a medical discharge.
After the army Dan went to Temple University and studied history. This interest in history continued with Dan throughout his life. However, Dan grew to dislike his studies at Temple. I can summarize Dan’s feelings about his studies at Temple with the title of a book by James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me. Dan liked that book.
Gradually Dan gained a perspective towards his studies at Temple. Initially, Dan was attracted to the wrings of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. These writers exposed the mythology Dan was learning at Temple. In Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, Dan learned that there was a completely different history of this country.
In later years Dan learned that while Chomsky and Zinn wrote compelling histories, they weren’t advancing a political orientation that had any hope of promoting meaningful change. Today, Noam Chomsky chastises people who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Then, Dan listened to a leader of the Socialist Workers Party named Fred Halstead. Halstead was also a leader of the movement against the war in Vietnam. He even went to Vietnam to talk to soldiers about why they should be against the war.
Fred Halstead was a large man who made his living as a cutter in garment shops. These garment shops are also known as sweat shops.
Dan’s first impression of Halstead was that he liked what he said, but couldn’t get over the fact that he was a factory worker. Dan’s experience led him to believe that smart people were the one’s who were college professors. Dan would begin to learn that this idea was also a part of his miss-education. In his later life, one of Dan’s joys, that he always looked forward to, was selling The Militant newspaper that represented the politics of the Socialist Workers Party.
Armed with his history degree from Temple, Dan became a hospital worker. Here, Dan was in the Hospital Workers Union 1199. As we might see from looking at Dan’s life, he instinctively gravitated to this union. Before this job, Dan needed to adapt himself to his environment. Now, there was a union that supported his interests and the interests of his co-workers.
The battles that 1199 had with the hospital corporations were intense to say the least. On the day of August 28, 1972, Norman Rayford was murdered while organizing a strike by hospital workers. After his untimely death, the union negotiated a paid holiday called Norman Rayford Day, and union hospital workers have had a day off every year since Rayford’s murder.
It was in this spirit that Dan marched on picket lines when 1199 went on strike. Dan also took advantage of one of the benefits the Union negotiated. Being a hospital worker made Dan eligible for a scholarship for his education to become a nurse.
Dan was also like many young people who relieve their alienation by drinking to excess. After many years, Dan managed to quit this habit with the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous. We should keep in mind that most people who attempt to quit this disease relapse. Dan, as best as I know, continued his sobriety for the rest of his life.
Many individuals who manage to quit addictions to drugs and or alcohol develop careers aiding those who have this disease. This is what Dan did, but he wasn’t like many of those who work in this field.
Dan wanted to understand the question: Why do people feel the need to resort to addictive drugs? A typical approach to this problem is to teach a patient about how addictions are harmful, and for people to develop a different way of conducting their lives.
Dan certainly understood this, but looked at a deeper question. Why do we have this alienation that we all feel at one time or another? Given Dan’s background with the communist movement, he began to understand that the cause of alienation has to do with the fact that working people only receive a small percentage of the wealth we produce. That wealth that working people don’t have access to is used to support the interests of the affluent.
One of Dan’s favorite socialists was Eugene Debs. Debs was a labor leader who ran for president as a socialist five times. He was so articulate that people actually paid to listen to him speak, and this was how his campaigns raised money.
Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio in 1918 against the United States participation in the First World War. This speech landed Debs in prison for three years. While in prison Debs ran for President again, and received over one million votes.
After his release from prison Debs wrote a book arguing that the prison system in this country needs to be abolished. In this book Debs wrote about why there would be little incentive for crime in a genuinely socialist world. These words also demonstrate why alienation exists in the world we live in today.
“What incentive would there be for a man to steal when he could acquire a happy living so much more easily and reputably by doing his share of the community work? He would have to be a perverted product of capitalism indeed who would rather steal than serve in such a community. Men do not shrink from work, but from slavery. The man who works primarily for the benefit of another does so only under compulsion, and work so done is the very essence of slavery.”
Given that we don’t live in a socialist world, Dan did his best to help his patients deal with their inner turmoil. He deliberately worked the graveyard shift so he would be able to talk extensively with patients. From what I understand, this is exactly the kind of aid patients need in order to help transform themselves into the people they want to be.
However, Jefferson University Hospital, the hospital Dan worked at for many years had different ideas. They decided to close their mental health section where Dan worked. The hospital administrators felt that another specialty would be more profitable. However, from what I understand there is more need for mental health treatment than for any other specialty.
Dan continued to work in mental health. However, due to cutbacks, he was only able to spend a few minutes with patients. Dan felt that this kind of treatment was totally inadequate.
Another aspect to Dan was how he travelled the world. While he was a voracious reader, he also wanted to learn by travelling to different countries. While Dan never visited Cuba he had a deep appreciation of the Cuban reality.
Being a hospital worker Dan was inspired by how Cuba, a relatively poor country, managed to have the most doctors per capita than any other nation in the world. Not only do Cuban doctors treat patients in their country, they go all over the world to treat patients in some of the poorest parts of the world.
One of the aspects of medicine that most impressed Dan was how Cuban doctors would eat their meals with the hospital staff. Dan said that this never happens in this country.
Dan wasn’t a writer or an orator. His skill was in his ability to talk with people. He was able to see the absurdities and nonsense that we’re exposed to in our every day lives. He had the confidence to talk to people about how there clearly is a better way. His contribution was unique and he clearly will be missed.