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OBITUARIES : Phyllis Norton Cooper, 1915 - 2007

USC alumna defied gender bias, became an attorney

December 15, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Phyllis Norton Cooper, who attended law school in the 1930s when women still faced bias in the profession, then went on to a series of achievements, including becoming the first female president of the USC Alumni Assn., died Dec. 5 at a hospital in Burbank from complications of old age. She was 92.

In the 1950s, Cooper began assisting her husband, prominent attorney Grant B. Cooper, in defending several notorious clients. The couple defended Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted in the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. R. Bernard Finch, who, along with his medical assistant, was accused of killing his wife. After two hung juries, Finch and his assistant were convicted in a third trial.

In the 1970s, the couple lived in Hawaii for two years, during which time Cooper's husband served as special prosecutor in a corruption case against the mayor of Honolulu, said Cooper's daughter Natalie Wallace.

"She was co-counsel with Dad, researching and in the courtroom helping him on a daily basis," Wallace said.

Cooper was born May 26, 1915, in the San Joaquin Valley town of Coalinga, the daughter of Hugh Russell Norton and Albine Power Norton. When Cooper was an adult, her widowed mother married former L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron.

After graduating from Alhambra High School, Cooper entered USC at the age of 16 on a debating scholarship. In 1935, she earned a bachelor's degree and became the first woman to receive the Trojan Diamond Medal, which was awarded to the student whose scholarship and "notable service has added most to the honor and prestige of the university." That same year she enrolled in law school.

In those days the school had a reputation as a preeminent law school that also admitted and graduated women.

But the experience for women was not easy. Cooper told stories of sometimes eating her lunch alone on the fire escape of a law school building "because the men really didn't want to associate with her," Wallace said.

Though she felt the sting of rejection, Cooper also felt a sense of responsibility to achieve -- particularly for those who would come after her, Wallace said.

"We had a sense of ourselves as invincible," Cooper said of herself and her fellow female law students in a 2001 Los Angeles Daily Journal article. "Perhaps one of the reasons we felt so empowered was the support we received from female graduates who visited us on campus and encouraged us to achieve."

Cooper graduated with a law degree in 1938 and for many years focused on charitable work and building a family with her husband, whom she married in 1935. In addition to Wallace, Cooper is survived by two other daughters, Judy Tracy of Newport Beach and Meredith Worrell of Corona del Mar; two sons, Grant B. Cooper Jr. of Rancho Capistrano and John Norton Cooper of West Hills; 12 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Cooper remained active in campus endeavors and received numerous awards. Last year, she was honored as the last surviving charter member of the American College of Trial Lawyers and became the first woman to be inducted into the USC Half-Century Trojans Hall of Fame.

Memorial donations can be made to Global Opportunity Garden, c/o Alison McKellar, 10 Spruce St., Camden, ME 04843, or at www.globalopportunitygarden.org, or to the USC Alumni Assn. Scholarship Fund, attention Mark McBride, 3375 S. Hoover St., UVI-H208, Los Angeles, CA 90089-7799, or at https://giveto.usc.edu

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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