Don Smith, left, gives Pete Cooper a gift at at a retirement party for Cooper at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The longtime head of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, who for decades held the donations and respect of the city's most wealthy and influential boosters, left his post at the heavyweight nonprofit Thursday.

Pete Cooper came to the Community Foundation in 1990 and immediately began fighting to create a college scholarship program for the city's disadvantaged youth.

The fund was called "Together We Can," and Pete Serodino, a friend and supporter, told a group of city leaders gathered to thank Cooper on Thursday that Cooper was relentless in his efforts to gather support for students who were coming from poverty.

"He educated about the need," Serodino said. "Pete never gave up."

Now, more than 900 local students have been helped by the scholarship, he said. In 2014, 80 percent of scholarship recipients returned for a second year. The college graduation rate for recipients is 65 percent, far higher than the average graduation rate for similar students across the country.

To honor that work, Serodino announced a new scholarship in Cooper's name.

Grant Law, another friend, called Cooper a servant leader, a man of integrity who always lived the Golden Rule.

"Work well done," Law said to Cooper, from behind a microphone.

There was a moment of levity when Law mentioned that fact that Cooper was known across Chattanooga as the confidant of the rich and powerful.

"He had the total trust of donors," Law said. "He sure can keep a secret."

At the end of the retirement celebration, Cooper spoke to the group and thanked his wife for her longtime support and friendship and his children, who he said had put up with many late nights and early mornings of work for the good of the foundation.

"I love you and appreciate you," he said to his wife, holding back tears.

He thanked his staff, whom he called "the people who are dedicated to the community and can put up with me."

He thanked his board and all the donors who had given over the years.

"I don't think anyone understands how generous this community is," he added.

And offered a parting thought.

Months ago, in the middle of the night, he had a dream, he told the crowd.

He imagined that he had given a speech about an imaginary young woman who had been marred by poverty from birth and who had grown up to have her own child who would live through the same hardships.

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Maeghan Jones

It brought to mind something he had heard in church recently.

"That which you are willing to tolerate reveals your value system," he said.

While he is leaving a major role at the foundation, he will not be abandoning community work, he assured the crowd.

The city suffers from a broken education system, and countless children are aimless and hopeless because of it, still.

Something has to be done and he is going to help figure out what that is, he promised.

"This community shouldn't tolerate what we tolerate," he said in closing, before offering a goodbye amidst a roomful of cheers.

Maeghan Jones, former president of the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, has been named to replace Cooper.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at or 423-757-6601.