the state and national section of The Daily Tar Heel and
worked part time for The News & Observer in Raleigh. She
would have graduated in 1987 but left a few credits short
to plunge into her journalism career, first at The Providence
Journal in Rhode Island, then skyrocketing to The Wall
Street Journal, where she spent 12 years as a reporter and
foreign correspondent in the Atlanta, Washington and
London bureaus. She joined the Times in 2004 and has
reported from more than 60 countries in her career,
including perilous locales, once narrowly escaping death
during the war in Iraq.
She’s definitely come a long way since her days at The
But she’s come even further than that.
Escape and reunion
“Liberia, where’s that?” was a frequent question about
the West African nation when Cooper arrived in Chapel
Hill in 1983 as a journalism student. She was born in
Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, into a prominent family
descended from freed American slaves who colonized the
country in the 1820s. She lived in privilege with her parents and sister, Marlene, in a 22-room, oceanfront mansion.
Several members of her elite, ruling “Congo class” family
held high-ranking government positions, including her
father, who was postmaster general, and her cousin, who
was secretary of state. The family adopted a poor Bassa
tribe girl, Eunice, who quickly became Cooper’s second
sister and best friend, despite their disparate upbringings.
The high life came crashing down in 1980, when
Cooper was 14, with a bloody coup that executed Liberia’s
president and several members of Cooper’s family. Rebels
stormed the Cooper compound. Armed soldiers wanted to
have their way with the three girls, but Cooper’s mother
begged that they be spared, paying a huge price. She was
gang raped, while the girls huddled upstairs. The family
soon fled to the United States, where they had relatives,
but without Eunice, who after seven years returned to her
birth mother in a village with no running water.
The saga is detailed in Cooper’s memoir, The House at
Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, published
in 2008 to critical acclaim.
Today Cooper, 46, lives in Alexandria, Va., near her
UNC SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION
mother and sister (their parents divorced years ago; her
father is deceased). Cooper lost touch with Eunice for
many years, but they had an emotional reunion in 2003,
when Cooper first returned to Liberia, which was ravaged
by years of civil war. Cooper has since made four additional trips and talks weekly with Eunice, who regularly visits
the Cooper family in America.
Cooper was thrilled when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace
activist, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. “What a giant
honor for all African women, who literally carry that continent on their backs,” Cooper said.
‘The worst and best job’
Cooper shares the White House beat with two other
Times reporters, switching on and off for duty weeks run-
ning from midnight Sunday to midnight the next Sunday.
“When it’s your duty week, you have to cover every
burp of the president,” Cooper said. “It’s a lot of running
around, you’re always on call, and you follow him every-
where. During non-duty weeks, we work more on feature
stories, less on breaking news. Covering the White House
is just way, way more everything. More front-page stories,
more late-night calls, more fights with the administration,
more demands from editors, more high-profile. It’s every-
thing you’ve ever done, amped up. It can be draining and
fun, the worst and best job I will ever have.”
Covering the president means there are no typical days
or weeks. Cooper didn’t sleep for almost three days when
she broke the story that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
There are 4 a.m. check-ins at Andrews Air Force Base to
hop on the Boeing 747 that is designated Air Force One.
Cooper was so tickled with her first Air Force One ride
that she wrote a column about it for the Times, noting that
it sure beat the 757 she flew on with then-Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, from Beirut to Hanoi and other
People always want to know about the plane. But is she
on a first-name basis with the president?
“While he does call me ‘Helene,’ I do not call him
‘Barack,’ ” Cooper said. “It’s ‘Mr. President.’ Although once
I slipped and called him ‘Dude.’ ”
— Andy Trincia ’ 88
Return to Carolina
In 2010, Helene Cooper finished those final credits at UNC, earned her degree
and served as Commencement speaker at the School of Journalism and Mass
Communication’s graduation ceremony, which she said was humbling as well as fun.
“I hadn’t been back to Chapel Hill in 15 years,” Cooper recalled. “I walked
around and around with a smile on my face. I went to Howell Hall, the old J-
school, to my dorm at Avery, to the Undergrad and the Pit, and bought out the
Student Stores of Carolina basketball paraphernalia. Fantastic!”
In March, Cooper was back on campus to deliver the journalism school’s Nelson
Benton Lecture at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, following in the footsteps
of Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt ’ 55, Cokie Roberts and other famous journalists
who’ve given that featured speech named for the late network correspondent who
graduated from UNC in 1949.