A Johnson County native chatted with the first lady about her inaugural ball gown and the leniency of her husband — the president — in letting their daughters skip school after inauguration events.
As project manager at the Washington National Cathedral, Marie Cooper typically works behind the scenes for big events like this week’s Inaugural Prayer Service. She makes seating charts, arranges bus schedules and coordinates with security.
But this year, she got to do a little more. She was chosen to escort the president, vice president and their families into the cathedral for Tuesday’s prayer service. Later, the president’s staff invited her to meet him and his wife, Michelle Obama, and take a picture with them.
Now, Cooper, who grew up in Clark Township, can add President Barack Obama to a list of nearly 100 famous people she has met in the 26 years of working at the National Cathedral in Washington.
THE COOPER FILE
Name: Marie Cooper
Hometown: Clark Township
Education: Graduated from Clark Township High School and received a surgical technology degree from Kaskaskia Community College in Illinois
Job: Project manager at the National Cathedral in Washington
Current residence: Manassas, Va.
“Most people don’t usually get to have a casual moment with the leader of the free world. It just doesn’t happen,” Cooper said.
Typically, Cooper stays in the background, planning the cathedral’s larger events and shaking famous leaders’ hands if she gets the chance.
She has helped plan at least four inaugural prayer services, which traditionally take place the day after the president is sworn in.
“It culminates the entire inaugural process,” she said. “It sends the president off to care for the country.”
But Cooper never had been asked to escort the president in and out of the building. An usher usually receives that responsibility, she said.
She believes the relationship she has built with the Secret Service and the presidential inaugural committee planning events made her a prime candidate for the job this year.
“Most of them know me. They probably know my background better than I do. I guess that put me in the right place at the right time,” she said. “Of course I said yes.”
Cooper grew up in Clark Township and was one of the last students to graduate from Clark Township High School.
She started working at the National Cathedral as a facilities maintenance employee but grew into the role of project manager as the cathedral started having larger events, such as the inaugural prayer services.
Previously, the National Cathedral did not have many large events and didn’t need staff members to plan them.
But in the past 20 years, the cathedral has been the site of two former presidents’ funerals, and new presidents have made it a tradition to have their inaugural prayer services there.
“At the time, the cathedral didn’t have the staff in place to handle big events. So anytime a big event happened, it would fall on me,” Cooper said.
Planning those events, with thousands of guests attending, can take months. She said the staff started planning Tuesday’s inaugural prayer service before Christmas.
Cooper was responsible for getting seating charts and information to the presidential inaugural committee, setting up bus routes and coordinating security with members of the Secret Service.
“The last two weeks were very intense, and last week has been totally devoted to pulling this together,” she said.
Cooper also helped plan funerals for President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford.
Reagan’s funeral in 2004 was the first presidential funeral the cathedral had planned since 1969, Cooper said.
The funerals are two or three times the size of the inaugural prayer service, with significantly less time to plan, she said.
Cooper also helped coordinate camera crews and actors when the National Cathedral was featured in an episode of “The West Wing” in 2001.
Filming for the episode took an entire day, and Cooper said the whole main cast was there.
The crew had given cathedral employees a copy of the episode’s script, which involved the characters going to the funeral of the president’s secretary, but didn’t include one scene, Cooper said.
In the scene, Martin Sheen, playing the president, angrily walks down the cathedral’s center aisle and lights a cigarette next to the altar. Sheen then threw the cigarette on the floor and stomped it out.
“We about had heart attacks. You don’t smoke in the cathedral anyway, and to throw it on the marble floor and stomp it out, we were horrified,” Cooper said.
The cigarette didn’t damage the floor, but the cathedral received hundreds of letters and phone calls after the episode aired from people who couldn’t believe they had let the television show do that, she said.
In her time in her job, Cooper has met dozens of famous people, something she never expected when she started working there.
She keeps a document on her computer with a list of the celebrities she’s seen or met, and the list is up to almost 100 and includes singer Aretha Franklin and actors Tom Hanks and Bill Cosby.
“I’m a kid from Clark Township. I didn’t aspire to this type of thing,” Cooper said. “I love seeing the movie stars and the famous people. Not everybody gets that chance. It was something that was thrown into my lap, and I enjoy it.”