Oklahoma City cafe attendant keeps customers smiling
Cooper Parker is 74 years old, and his part-time job clearing tables in an Oklahoma City restaurant's dining room is a carry-over from another era.
Wiping away leftover crumbs in the restaurant where he's worked as dining room attendant for almost two years is a secondary job for Cooper Parker.
His primary focus is ensuring diners at Panera Bread on Western Avenue enjoy at least a smile while they are having lunch.
Parker, 74, is an accidental mascot for a company that normally leaves cleanup to its customers.
“I was just looking for a fun place to work,” he said, sipping on a cup of ice water after a busy Thursday lunch. “I wanted it to be a good product, I wanted a happy place, I wanted the staff to be friendly and conscientious, and I wanted to work the hours I wanted to work — very, very part time.”
The former Navy officer, who changed careers like the restaurant rotates its soup menu, applied online and was hired six months after he retired from his former career as a consultant to physicians groups in Iowa and Ohio. A 1961 Oklahoma City University graduate, he returned to his home state where two of his three children are settled with their families, and he set up in an assisted living center.
With wispy gray hair and large-rimmed glasses, his work ethic in the Panera dining room is a carry-over from another era.
“Everybody knows Cooper in here,” said Ginny Shields, a Nichols Hills resident who has lunch there nearly every day with her business partner, Nora Owens. “He greets people, he keeps the place clean — he knows all the little kids that come in.”
He sticks some of their drawings on his refrigerator at home.
Parker doesn't care to talk about his days working Navy special ops, during which he spent time in Vietnam. But he'll tell you about everything afterward, including his divorce and his alcoholism. He's been sober 23 years, and attends a recovery group two or three times a week.
“I don't think it's about drinking anymore, but it's a way of life, a way of living in the world,” he said. “For 23 years I've had to look at myself constantly as I live and remember what it takes not to be defeated.”
He set out after his service for a position as a priest, even graduating from Harvard Divinity School, but was never ordained. Inspired by a tentmaking ministry, he decided instead to share his affection for God by bringing people together in other ways. He organized a social workers union in Massachusetts, worked as an organizer for legislative committees in Iowa and later worked as deputy director of that state's health department.
All this before his consulting job and the health management organization he started and sold to Nationwide.
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