Freshman year of high school was rough for Rich Cooper. It was 1980 and his family was living in Olympia, Wash.
"I had bad grades. I wasn’t interested in anything. But we moved to Haines and all of a sudden, my life did a 180. It just changed everything... Had I not had that support at that time, God knows where I would be."
Today Cooper heads a video production company he founded in 2009, FrostLine Productions of Anchorage.
Cooper’s family moved here when his stepfather, a truck driver, lost his job in the Lower 48. An aunt in the Yukon recommended the family come north.
"They came up here looking for work and at that time there was work to be had. There was logging, there was fishing... (My stepfather) ended up driving truck and then working for the city until he retired."
Cooper was playing trombone in music class sophomore year when teacher Woody Bausch urged him to try out for a spot on America’s Youth in Concert, a traveling group that performed at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall and toured Europe. He made first chair.
In Washington, participating in band was Cooper’s way of skipping other classes. In Haines, the encouragement of teachers and the enthusiasm of friend and fellow musician Guy McMahan turned a casual interest in music into a passion, Cooper said. "It just snowballed."
People in town supported him as well, he said.
"When I auditioned... people were just coming out of the woodwork, and when I actually got accepted to go, the whole community was involved. In fact, the community even sent my mom to New York so she could watch me play in Carnegie Hall. Those kinds of things...completely change the way you think. Suddenly anything you want to do is possible. You start to feel success and you start to realize that you can try things, that you can make things happen. That’s big."
Cooper graduated from Haines High School in 1984 and headed off to University of Alaska in Fairbanks as a music education major. The next year Guy McMahan joined him in Fairbanks and they "got serious" about their rock band.
It was a tough decision for Cooper to leave school, but he says that part way through his senior year at UAF he realized he didn’t have what it took to be a good music teacher. "It wasn’t going to work for me."
He broke the news to his parents over winter break that he wasn’t going to finish college and instead planned to go on the road with his band. Cooper is still amazed by their reaction. "How many parents would support a 20-year-old kid in leaving college to tour in a rock band? They said, ‘If that’s what you need to do, then you need to do it.’"
It wasn’t glamorous. "We eked out a living. It was a huge struggle. There was never any money." Once the band, named Rock Kandy, moved to Seattle, they found an agent, started touring and began to make a living, playing five nights a week.
"We spent a few years on the road, living the touring rock band life, which is fun when you are twenty-something. But as I saw 30 coming, it just hit me that I didn’t want to be doing this at 30. There were years when I was six months on the road and never slept in my own bed."
Ready to settle down, he quit touring, got a job at a music store, and met Stephanie, who is now his wife. Soon he realized the new job wasn’t working for him either: "I was never cut out to punch a clock and work for other people."
Cooper talked to his parents, who urged him to return to Haines, which, in the mid-1990s, was experiencing a tourism boom with regular dockings of large cruise ships. "Haines was hopping and there was lots of money flowing."
Cooper bought property here, built a house and found a steady job driving a truck for PetroMarine. "I thought that was going to be my life. (I had) a great job...and I was miserable."
A spark came in 1999, when he was fooling around with software that allowed him to put his own sounds to video. "It was like that same feeling as when I was 13 years old and picked up my first bass guitar, that feeling when you just know, ‘This is what I want to do.’
"It was that way for music and it was that way for video production. So I quit my job and started my own production company. I dove in head-first not knowing what I was doing, but, damn it, I was going to do it and I knew I could. Again, this came from self-confidence that I had been building since high school."
For Cooper the hardest part was not figuring out how to start and run his own company. Nor was it the technical challenges of building a computer, selecting and mastering software, or purchasing the right equipment. "The real challenge comes when you try to go do something and everybody says, ‘You’re crazy. What the hell are you doing? You can’t do that.’ And they did it because they cared for me."
His first production success came with a fishing show he filmed and produced for The Outdoor Channel. Although the network didn’t air his series, an Anchorage firm thought enough of his work to send him out to Fairbanks, on contract, in 2002.
Cooper packed his wife, his two-year-old son and his dog into a camper and headed north. When the contract finished he was offered a full-time position doing video production in Anchorage. "So we drove back to Haines, locked up the house, drained the water, and left. Just like that. It was one of those things where you have to see that opportunity when it knocks."
He worked for Alaska Channel for six years, filming throughout Alaska. In 2008, after being nominated for an Emmy, Cooper felt he had the confidence to strike out on his own again. "I won the Emmy, and it blew me away. When my name was called it changed everything again for me. It was a kickoff."
With his own studio, FrostLine Productions, Cooper struggled for the first year. He went deep in debt trying to keep his new company afloat. The second year, business began to pick up and Cooper was able to maintain his debt load without gaining ground. Finally, he reports, that in this third year, work is "exploding" and he expects to be debt free in a month or two, with "a good cash flow and really interesting projects."
Current projects for FrostLine Productions include an Iron Dog half-hour broadcast special, a documentary on a group of Anchorage youths from disadvantaged backgrounds who raised money to travel to Africa, as well as corporate work and commercials.
For all his success, Cooper regrets that he is not able to raise his two boys, now five and 10, in a community like Haines. "I can’t do what I do for a living in a small town... It is not economically feasible."
Instead Cooper tries to re-create, in Anchorage, some of what he experienced in Haines. "I try to support (my community), in little things and in bigger things."
Cooper was struck by his experience with a group of youths from Fairview, a low-income Anchorage neighborhood. "(They were) really underprivileged kids, some of whom have been homeless. They got involved in an after-school program that came to me.
"All of a sudden they got the idea that they wanted to go to Africa. People were helping them to raise money. The trip completely changed their lives. All of a sudden they are on fire and want to go out and change the world, instead of just surviving. Instead of just thinking they were going to go on welfare like their parents, (they realized) that there was a whole big world out there and that you could make anything you wanted happen."
"Sometimes you run across things and you have to jump in and do what you can, and I do that," Cooper said. "Not that the people who helped me out will ever know, but it is just kind of paying it back."
He cited his own mentors, including music teacher Bausch.
"When people believe in you… it makes you want to strive for more. That’s what Haines did for me. Not to say it has been easy, and not to say that I am anywhere close to where I want to be, but I am following the dream and I’ve got my plans laid out and I work at them every day."
"Over the Mountains" is a series of articles profiling Haines students who have achieved success.