Lonnie Cooper of Jeffersonville, Indiana, has had several careers.
“My wife won’t let me retire,” quips Lonnie, 70, whose wife is Clark County Circuit Court Judge Vicki Carmichael. But kidding aside, Lonnie loves what he does. He has worked in law enforcement for 20 years, been an attorney for 25 years, and now teaches criminal justice and legal studies at Ivy Tech Community College.
“I get paid for doing things that bring me so much joy,” he said. “What I would not do is get me a rocking chair on the front porch or get up at noon every day. I don’t have to work. It’s nice to put that additional money toward when I’m not being paid.”
When he was 42, Lonnie retired from police work in drug enforcement — where he went after doctors, pharmacists, and pharmaceutical companies — and got a law degree from the University of Mississippi because he always enjoyed the legal side of his cases, he said. He moved back to Southern Indiana and began working as an attorney. He also holds a master’s in public administration from the University of Louisville.
“I was the only actively practicing civil rights attorney in Southern Indiana in the mid ’90s,” Lonnie says. “I took on a case for a young black man working for Clarksville. They would hire black people in only two jobs — cutting grass or working on the back of a garbage truck, and Dennis Johnson had done both of those. He was in the Navy and was a corpsman and applied to be a fireman. The fire chief asked him, ‘Dennis, wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable being the only black person in the fire department?’ ” Lonnie won the case, and Dennis Johnson is now the deputy fire chief in Clarksville.
When he was 60, he took 27 months off to do volunteer work. “I had this nagging sense of an unfilled obligation,” Lonnie says. “I joined the Peace Corps, working at an orphanage in the Philippines.
He and his wife might do a tour together with the Peace Corps when they retire. “We got a special gift out of my first Peace Corps service. We brought a young woman back [to the U.S.] to go to Ivy Tech, and six months after she got here, we adopted her. She’s 26 now, working on her third college degree.”
At Ivy Tech, Lonnie relies on his extensive criminal justice and legal work experience. “An academic education is half-baked if the person hasn’t practiced in the area,” Lonnie says. “I teach about what I know. I tell them about the wonderful people I have worked with and the ones who weren’t. I tell them the story about Dennis Johnson and other cases. Yesterday, in Criminal Justice 101 class, a student asked me to help him get his first job in law enforcement. He soon reports in uniform to the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. I mentor people a lot. I can’t count the number of people who have boosted me in my life.”
For about four years, Lonnie and his wife have taken students on international travel trips. “The students see things we never noticed. Going on those trips with those kids, we feel like we get more out of it than they do. It’s incredible.”
By Marie Bradby | Photos by Melissa Donald