Cooper Foundation – Through the Decades

Cooper Foundation 80th Anniversary


Joseph H. Cooper, Founder of Cooper Theatres, Inc. and the Cooper Foundation.

Joseph H. Cooper, Founder of Cooper Theatres, Inc. and the Cooper Foundation

1934—Cooper Foundation founded on December 14.

1935 – The Foundation gave its first grant, $500 to the Boy Scouts for camp improvements.

1938 – The first memorial scholarships at the University of Nebraska Foundation established in honor of deceased trustees J.E. Miller and Charles Stuart.

1942— First grant for the 'Arts' made to the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra.

1942 - The Cooper Board of Trustees extended the life of the corporation from 50 years to “perpetuity,” which would ultimately positively impact the foundation’s investment policy.



1946—Joe Cooper died on March 20 and the Foundation takes over the Cooper Theatres. Usherettes2

1946 – The Board of Trustees began what was to become a decades-long discussion with the IRS to retain the Foundation’s tax exempt status while owning a multi-state theatre business.

1947 – Major grants totaling $61,000 given to the University of Nebraska for campus beautification.

Cooper Park, Lincoln, NE0021951 – Approved $32,000 to the City of Lincoln to build Cooper Park.

1953 – Trustee J. Lee Rankin resigned to become Assistant United States Attorney General.




1956—Trustees consolidated leadership of the theatre business in Lincoln from Denver, Colorado and appointed Ken Anderson general manager.

Denver Cinerama Theatre, Denver, CO. Theatre front.

Denver Cinerama Theatre, Denver, Colorado

1957 – Cooper Theatres offers life and health insurance for employees.

1958 – The Board begins to budget for grants and to consider specific grantmaking objectives.

1961—Cooper’s first Cinerama theatre opened.

1963—Grantmaking was tabled due to lack of funds.

1963 - On New Year’s Eve, E.N. “Jack” Thompson was elected president.



1965 – Cooper Foundation joins the Council on Foundations.

Cooper Theatre

Cooper Theatre at 52nd and 'O' Streets

1967 – New Cooper Lincoln theatre opens in “suburban Lincoln.”

sheldon sculpture garden-sandy sculpture

Sheldon Museum Sculpture Garden

1969 – The Tax Reform Act formally defines private foundations and establishes rules on payout requirements, self-dealing, and business ownership.

1970 - $1,000 given to a student-led effort to purchase “Sandy in Defined Space” for the Sheldon Sculpture Garden.

First Cooper Board

Cooper Foundation Board of Trustees

1973 – Cooper Plaza building housing the new Plaza 4 Theatres at 12th & P Streets is completed, and the Foundation moves its headquarters from the Stuart Building.

1974 – The Foundation’s first formal grantmaking policies are adopted.






Cedar Point Biological Station at Lake McConaughy

1975—Cooper funded a grant to equip the new Cedar Point Biological Station at Lake McConaughy.

1977—The Foundation made an initial $100,000 pledge (later increased to $200,000) to increase Merit Scholarships at the University of Nebraska.

1978—At the June board meeting, the Trustees reviewed the largest ever pool of grant applications: 30.


1978 – Kathryn “Tish” Druliner is the first woman elected to the Board of Trustees.

malone center

Clyde Malone Community Center

1979 – The Foundation sells the Cooper Theatres business to Commonwealth Theatres of Kansas City.

1980—A $70,000 grant was made toward the planned Clyde Malone Community Center.




1986—Cooper granted $10,000 toward the first barrier-free playground, located in Antelope Park.

Bright Lights Bubbles

Bright Lights summer learning adventures for elementary and middle school students

1987—A $70,000 grant helped establish Voices for Children.

1988—A $5,000 grant to relocate KUCV from Union College to the NET Commission, paving the way for a statewide public radio and television network.

1988—A grant of $8,500 helped establish Bright Lights.



Jack and Gorby

E.N. "Jack" Thompson with Mikhail Gorbachev for 2002 Thompson Forum presentation.


1989 – The Cooper-UNL Forum on World issues lecture series is created, later renamed for E.N. Thompson.

1990 – Art Thompson was hired as President; E.N. Thompson was elected Chair of the board.




1997—A $25,000 grant was made toward the founding of the Child Advocacy Center.

1997 – The Foundation sold the Cooper Plaza building.

1998—A $25,000 grant to the YMCA helped create a “community wraparound center,” (later renamed Community Learning Center) at Elliot Elementary School.

1999—Jack and Katie Thompson increased the Thompson Family Fund at the Cooper Foundation from $100,000 to $250,000, thereby more than doubling funding for the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.

Meadowlark music festival

Meadowlark Music Festival

2000 – The Board of Trustees added the ‘Environment’ as a grantmaking priority.

A Salt Creek tiger beetle hunts along Little Salt Creek in Lincoln, NE. This is one of the rarest insects in the world, with fewer than 250 adults emerging in late June.

The fortunes of the rare and endangered Salt Creek Tiger Beetle caught the attention of the Cooper Foundation to award a challenge grant to Nature Conservancy to protect the tiger beetle habitat.

2000—The Board approved $10,000 toward the Meadowlark Music Festival’s inaugural season.

Cooper YMCA

Cooper YMCA



2000 – A grant of $250,000 completed the capital campaign for the Cooper YMCA in Southwest Lincoln.


University of Nebraska Lincoln, Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center


2001 – The Foundation received $192,387.22, the remainder of a trust set up by Joe Cooper in 1937 for his son – those funds were granted to UNL’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center for their new building.

2002—Jack Thompson died on December 7; Jack Campbell was elected chair of the board in early 2003.



2007—The Foundation made a major change in its investment policy, allocating 100 percent of its endowment to equities to maximize appreciation and grants.

2008—The stock market declined, as did the Cooper Foundation’s endowment, which plummeted from $24.9 million to $14.9 million. The board adopted temporary grant guidelines calling for smaller grants that focused on the highest priorities.Platte-Basin-Timelapse-featured-image

Pathfinder 1

Platte Basin Time-lapse Project

2010 – A grant to NET Foundation for Television of $20,000 for equipment helped launch the Platte Basin Time-lapse Project (total funding to date is $165,000).

2013—The Foundation began supporting the Hear Lincoln Summer Concert Series, a joint venture of the Lincoln Chamber Foundation and Hear Nebraska.

2014 – Longtime legal counsel Richard A. “Dick” Knudsen was named an Honorary Trustee.