SJ man named Mich. Senior Citizen of the Year

Bob Cooley stands outside his St. Joseph home with a sign his kids made him after he was recognized last week as Michigan’s 2019 Senior Citizen of the Year. He was nominated and chosen for the award for his years of volunteer work at the Marie Yeager Cancer Center.

ST. JOSEPH — Bob Cooley, 76, describes himself as not much of a talker.

But the St. Joseph resident has been posted inside the Marie Yeager Cancer Center as a volunteer three times a week or more since the center opened in 2011 greeting people and assisting where needed.

Cooley was recently named Michigan’s 2019 Senior Citizen of the Year for his volunteer efforts. He was nominated by Spectrum Health, Lakeland. The award, from the State of Michigan’s Aging and Adult Services Agency and the Michigan Commission on Services to the Aging, was given to him at a ceremony in Lansing on Older Michiganians Day.

Before retiring in 2000, Cooley worked for 35 years with Indiana Bell, AT&T and Lucent Technologies in northern Indiana. He moved to St. Joseph from Mishawaka in 1986 when he married his wife, Nancy.

Outside of the cancer center, Cooley has volunteered to serve meals at a soup kitchen, help the local Lions Club set up a yearly car show, support a women’s shelter and mow at public parks.

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman sat down with Cooley recently to talk about his years of volunteering.

How does it feel to be honored as the Senior Citizen of the Year?

Very good. Very good. I knew I had won because (the volunteer coordinator) told me. The big thing was my kids all showed up. That’s the only thing I did not know about. I’ve got two and my wife had four. So all six were there. One came all the way from Idaho. When we got home they had put a sign out in the yard.

How did you started volunteering at the cancer center?

When they opened up, about eight years ago, my wife was very active at that time, so she got me to come with her to the cancer center on Thursdays. I still had a lot of other things to do, but I did.

What keeps you going back?

I just like the work and the people there. I work the front desk there. We check people in, greet them and have them have a seat. If they have questions we answer them or send them off somewhere where they can get answered. Then I also work back in infusion. We wait on people, get them food or water or blankets or pillows. Whatever they need to get comfortable.

What do you like most about volunteering?

It gives me something to do now. I was pretty busy with the cemetery project for a while, but that wound down.

Yes, I heard you made guides for area cemeteries?

I inventoried all of the cemeteries in Berrien County except three. That’s about 90. I put together books on them and sold them. That’s how we make some money for the Genealogy Society.

Years ago I joined the society and they were looking for a group to go out and do this, but the group wound up being me. I kept it up for 15 years and got them all done.

I’d go out to the cemetery, read all of the tombstones, sometimes I’d get help from the township, the sexton or sometimes I’d get no help at all. So then a lot of them I’d just have the year they were born and died, so I’d then go to the records department and research all of that and fill those dates in. I spent a lot of time down at the library going through newspapers.

I also heard something about a Christmas display that you and your wife set up each year?

We’ve got a lot of Department 56 stuff. It used to take about two months to set it all up on our big sunroom. And she has about 150 Santa Clauses. We had a lot of parties and open houses, but those days are over. Now I put the displays up at the cancer center. I just put one up this week as a Fourth of July/Memorial Day thing. I do one for Christmas and Easter.

What do you do when you’re not volunteering?

Well there’s a lot of work to do around the house. I’ve got my own genealogy going. I’ve worked on that for 30 years. I’ve got my family on two sides and Nancy’s family. I do research on them. A lot of it is on the internet now so I spend a lot of time on the computer.

What would you say to someone who may be considering volunteering?

We need some help over there really. I’ll hear from people that they’ll help, but then I never hear from them again. So I don’t know what it’ll take to convince people. Over there isn’t for everybody, some people can’t be around that kind of thing where people are doing chemotherapy, but there are other ways to be involved.

Contact:, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman