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Elmwood Village fixture lived a rich life masked by mental illness

To those who saw Jeanne Cooper on Elmwood Avenue, she could be acerbic, blunt, even frightening. Maybe they saw her in a fit of rage or cursing. Maybe she was rambling on about demons they’ll never know.

But behind the rough exterior, the time she spent living on the street, the mysterious years she rarely talked about, was a woman with a wide network of friends who sought to help her. And despite having next to nothing, it was Jeanne who left them feeling as though she had given them a gift.

“The thing that Jeanne taught me is that life is – I hate to use the word precious, because it’s so overused – but she clung to life,” said Anne Harrington, one of a few friends who helped Jeanne through the final days of cancer before she died last month just shy of 61.

Born Valerie J. Cooper in the Town of Tonawanda, Jeanne went by her middle name. In the years she spent homeless, she became a regular in the Elmwood Village, her round face and colorful metaphors a familiar presence.

“Sometimes she was hard to love, but she was also an amazing person with deep compassion and surprising intelligence that sometimes got masked by her illness,” said the Rev. Drew Ludwig, pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Jeanne attended Sunday services and studied the Bible. “But the story of Jeanne is also a story of the Elmwood Village and what a wonderful place it can be to live.”

Despite the mental illness that unraveled her life and pushed her, for a time, into homelessness, Jeanne had dozens of people who considered her a friend. When they pulled together a memorial service last month, the pews at Lafayette Presbyterian were filled.

Becky Lucas first met Jeanne when she was homeless and in one of her screaming fits. But she soon discovered Jeanne was someone who could listen.

“There was this other side,” Lucas said. “She was caring. She was nurturing. You could talk to her.”

It was Lucas and Jim Sawyer who helped Jeanne find an apartment. Sawyer had let Jeanne crash on the couch in his studio at Six Dimension Design on Elmwood Avenue when the weather got rough, and they eventually helped her move into an apartment.

Life wasn’t always this way for Jeanne. Transcripts friends found in her apartment show she graduated from the University at Buffalo with degrees in political science and economics. She told Sawyer she once had a job in New York City in social services and that she had lived for a time in California.

Newell Nussbaumer of Buffalo Rising tracked down an interview she had done in the documentary “Woodstock.” She’s lucid, smiling and chatty.

But life got hard for Jeanne. Harrington said Jeanne struggled with schizophrenia, which kept her tied to her version of the world. She wrote poems and letters. She loved dogs.

“I’m trying, trying, trying so hard,” Harrington remembered her repeating.

A lot of people would overlook a woman like Jeanne. It’s easier to simply ignore the mentally ill. But for Jeanne, many didn’t.

“There are a lot of people that would be tempted to write a person like her off or chase her away, and what I saw at her memorial service is that she had a lot of friends and a lot of people that took time for her and included her in their life,” Ludwig said. They turned out to be the ones richer for the friendship.