Kevin Cooper squats on dusty, fallow land near his home in Beryl, Utah.
In the heart of flyover country, surrounded by dusty roads never driven by the power brokers of America, a small group of mourners sits on folding chairs in a town hall that has seen better days.
They are here to remember a 14-year-old boy.
The men wear jeans and white T-shirts — in solidarity with the boy whose own wardrobe included little more than that. Some of the women are in church dresses and others in jeans. There’s a smattering of cowboy hats and ball caps, boots and flip-flops. They recite The Lord’s Prayer in unison. They murmur soft assent when reminded of the boy their community has lost. They smile as a video shows highlights of his short life, accompanied by the strains of Bobby McFerrin — “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Outside, the sky over Escalante Valley, Utah, is blinding blue and cloudless, promising no rain as it has for nearly a year. There are two Escalantes in southern Utah — the spectacular color country of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and this one in Iron County, equidistant from St. George and Cedar City. Here, dust blows across fields lying fallow. Single-wide trailers dot the landscape looking as if the trucks that towed them there ran out of gas before they found a final resting place for someone’s home. Surrounded by low hills and mountains in the distance, this Escalante — the other Escalante — sits on an aquifer that is draining, and farms that are running out of water.
If anyone was going to save this world, it was Kevin Cooper.
But on a hot day last June, at nearby Newcastle Reservoir, Kevin drowned in a kayaking accident at a friend’s birthday party. At 14, he had just published his autobiography. He was making plans to expand his 350-acre farm to buy up surrounding farms to convert to regenerative agriculture. He was saving money to build a house for his parents and another for his autistic older brother. He was polishing a movie script and a series of children’s books teaching business literacy for kids. He was looking for a celebrity to endorse his line of luxury toiletries made from the milk of his goat herd. He was breeding heritage turkeys. He was writing guest essays for notable bloggers higher up the political food chain. And, in his spare time, he had the task of grading the road to his farm using the John Deere tractor he bought new for himself for his 11th birthday.
All of this is true.
Also true is that Kevin was the only member of his small family who was not disabled. His parents, Billy, a disabled veteran, and Tina, who is partially blind, are just beginning to fathom what their future will be like without the boy who had that future in his hands. They never wanted to rely on him, but there is no getting around the fact that Kevin had big dreams for the whole family and for rural America, and a list of accomplishments behind him that most adults don’t pull off in a lifetime.
Billy and Tina Cooper, parents of Kevin Cooper, hold hands at their home in Beryl, Utah, on July 15, 2022.
Paul H. Smith
Before his death, Kevin encountered social media followers who were skeptical about his story. And his parents understand. “Honestly, if I hadn’t lived through it, I’d probably feel the same way,” says his father Billy.
Kevin, who went by “Cole Summers” online, took on the doubters with a video on his Twitter account. He gazes into the camera with the desert landscape of his ranch behind him and speaks with the tone of someone who is inconvenienced by having to state the obvious: “I really am a 14-year-old home-schooler. I’ve been studying business since I was 6. … I am who I say I am.”
Some people don't believe I'm me for some reason. Or don't believe I'm 14. ?♂️ I am. I wish I was older. I want my driver's license! pic.twitter.com/5c2D0kbtAc
His Twitter account caught the attention of journalist and blogger Bari Weiss who had made headlines when she quit her job as opinion editor at The New York Times in 2020, saying the vaunted newspaper had drifted into a politically correct orthodoxy that ignored the real lives of real people. Weiss started a blog, “Common Sense,” that featured her own opinions and guest writers. In April, Weiss saw “Cole Summers’” Twitter video, “I am who I say I am,” and was “completely floored” by his online story. She asked him to write a column for “Common Sense.”
Kevin fired off the essay under the name Cole Summers, explaining his background, his passion for “unschooling,” his plans for regenerative agriculture and his faith in young people. “It isn’t that my generation isn’t capable,” he wrote. “We just need the freedom, encouragement and empowerment to show what we can do.”
The essay was in Weiss’ inbox when she got a private Twitter message from Billy. Cole Summers was really Kevin Cooper, and he had died. Weiss published “Cole’s” essay on June 21, 10 days after his death, and wrote of him, “In his short life, Cole managed to cultivate two qualities that are rare, even among most adults. He was at home in the real, physical world and he took great pleasure in it. And, he was completely unafraid to try.”
Another who discovered “Cole Summers” on Twitter was Hannah Frankman of the Foundation for Economic Education, a nonprofit foundation focusing on teaching young people principles of entrepreneurship and economics, and promoting home-schooling. Frankman, too, was working on a story about Kevin as an unschooling success story when he died. Frankman read Kevin’s memoir in one sitting and called it, “the most compelling story of home-schooling possibility I had ever read.”
I went to Iron County to document this remarkable American story — a story that burned bright like the sunsets in Beryl, Utah, until suddenly it dipped beneath the horizon and slipped into a memory.
A tire swing hangs from a tree in the yard of Kevin Cooper’s family in Beryl, Utah, on July 15, 2022.
Paul H. Smith
In the little community of Beryl, at the heart of the Escalante Valley, most folks didn’t know about Kevin Cooper until he died. He didn’t want fame or excess riches, only the means to help those around him. And he didn’t want attention drawn to himself or his reclusive family. He insisted that his family give up their smartphones when he learned how easy it was to track their data.
Living under the radar is one of the things that draws people to towns like Beryl. Folks are expected to mind their own business. Which is not to say neighbors don’t help one another, but many don’t ask. The Coopers don’t talk about extended family. By Billy’s account, he was injured in a training accident when he first joined the Navy at age 18. He has undergone numerous surgeries and battled the Veterans Administration bureaucracy in the 30 years since then, but he doesn’t want to talk about that either. On good days he can navigate around his home with a walker. On bad days he is in a wheelchair that doesn’t fit through the doors of his home.
Other than that, he figures the details of his life are nobody’s business.
Billy is proud of never taking any money from his more successful son. Just a hint of embarrassment creeps in when he describes how the family was often so poor that Kevin was the one who provided all the Christmas gifts. Kevin loved doing that, often starting in the fall working on homemade gifts for everyone.
Kevin was 4 and the family was living in the Salt Lake area when Billy and Tina launched a search for a new place to live. Their parameters were simple; it had to be the cheapest single-family home in Utah, preferably with some land. That led them to a bank foreclosure sale of a double-wide trailer off the beaten path in Beryl, with a rundown barn and five acres for a garden and animals. It was Kevin who would begin the transformation of that modest landing place into a model for the future of rural America.
When asked how they raised a boy like Kevin, Tina responds quickly, “We didn’t.” Both parents agree that at times Kevin raised them and his brother, and at times they were all growing up together. A friend once remarked, “You guys aren’t even raising him; you’re just kind of the audience watching him raise himself.”
A young Kevin Cooper is pictured in a family photo.
At 3 and still in diapers, Kevin was “helping” to change tires on the family truck. Billy had loosened the lug nuts and then handed the wrench to Kevin. As he pulled off each lug nut, he tossed it aside. Tina and Billy took a picture of the toddler at work and said nothing, letting the scattered lug nuts teach the lesson themselves. Kevin had to scramble to find them after they rolled in various directions. He never again changed a tire without meticulously stacking the lug nuts where they could easily be retrieved. In his autobiography entitled “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t,” (by “Cole Summers”) Kevin called this his first “me do it,” moment. He was 4 the first time he helped take apart a truck engine and rebuild it.
When Billy had setbacks from multiple surgeries, it was Kevin who helped wait on him, acquiring a lifelong habit of bringing drinks to anyone who looked thirsty. Tina does that now for visitors in the summer heat, as she is reminded of the countless little things about Kevin that are gone. Billy explains, “Most people can’t wrap their heads around how much of our lives revolved around him. I do not diminish anyone’s experience with losing a kid, but there is no time that we don’t expect to see him somewhere. … We started letting him kind of take over running the family when he was 10.”
As Kevin watched his parents struggle with their financial and physical challenges, he slipped easily into the role of caregiver. “He was completely and totally aware that he was the only one in the family who could live independently,” Billy said.
And as long as Kevin wasn’t doing things that endangered himself or risked the meager family finances, his parents figured they could follow his lead. “There was a limit to how far the consequences of poor choices could be, so we just started letting him make a lot of our day-to-day decisions,” Billy said. Eventually their standard became, “What do we do today to help support or assist you with what your goals are?” Billy was physically limited, but he became Kevin’s research assistant, often pre-reading a book for Kevin to determine if it was worth the boy’s valuable time.
There was one paramount family rule: If Kevin asked, “Why?” his parents would never say, “Because I told you so.” They always tried to help him figure out the “why” of things, even when his mind outpaced theirs. Although Kevin hated the word, “prodigy,” his parents realized they had someone special on their hands.
For Tina that happened early, “when I believed I was no longer smarter than him.” Billy adds, “When he was 10 years old and buying a house, you know you’re not raising the most average kid.” In a crowd of adults and children, Kevin would place himself where he could listen to older folks. “Kevin treasured trying to learn from men in their 90s,” says Billy. He thought learning from his own experience was nonsense. “It takes too long and you screw up too much,” Kevin would say. “I want to figure out what everybody else already learned and get a good head start.” After a Cub Scout trip to a senior care center, he came home and complained to Tina, “All we did is stand there and sing. I didn’t even get to interact with anybody.”
A young Kevin Cooper is pictured in a family photo.
Kevin was more than simply home-schooled. He was part of a movement called “unschooling,” in which the child is allowed to design the curriculum. In the beginning, the Coopers were happy to home-school using standard curriculum because Billy and Tina were both around to supervise. But the standard curriculum became irrelevant when 6-year-old Kevin discovered the instructional videos of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. As Kevin told the story in his memoir, he asked Billy, “Daddy, how do people get rich?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Billy replied. “Go watch some videos on YouTube about Warren Buffett or something.” And so Kevin did, diving deep into the online world of Buffett and his No. 2 at Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger. He watched their videos over and over again, trying to absorb their business philosophy. Munger was Kevin’s favorite, and Munger’s book, “Poor Charlie’s Almanack,” was his Bible. Billy and Tina broke the bank to buy it for their son as a birthday present. The doorstop of a book, at 548 pages, retails for $62. Many buyers made it a bestseller, but few took to it like Kevin, who re-read it every year. Later he followed the writings of Elon Musk and Bill Gates, but Munger and Buffett remained his heroes.
? 1/ Top books I think are most useful in homeschool that helped me build my farm business & plan to fix aquifer depletion & farmland loss.
1 Poor Charlie's Almanack by Charlie Munger
2 The Personal MBA by @joshkaufman
3 The First 20 Hours ^^ same guy
4 Quirky by @mschilli1
At the age of 8, after a few years of packaged home-school curriculum, Kevin asked his parents if he could design his own lessons. Seeing no harm in the experiment, they agreed. His focus was always on business. He called it “entrepreneurial unschooling.” When friends told him they were memorizing the state capitols or names of rocks, Kevin would try to interest them in corporate tax law and the principles of wealth building.
His curriculum of choice was by no means well-rounded. Even in business, he saw no need for math as long as he had the internet to calculate for him. And, as for state capitals, “If I ever become a truck driver or run for president, I’ll make sure I learn the whole map,” he told his parents. “I’ll know where I’m at.” His spelling and grammar lagged behind grade level. He consistently misspelled the word “business,” and stumbled over the pronunciation of simple words. But, as long as his parents knew what he was talking about, he didn’t care. Later, when opportunities came to publish his thoughts, the written word became more important to him and he found mentors to help him polish his communication skills.
With the lessons of Berkshire Hathaway ringing in his ears, Kevin launched his business empire at the age of 7 by selling rabbits for meat. His parents fronted him the first five rabbits and helped him remodel the old barn behind their house as a rabbitry. Soon, according to their account, Kevin was selling his rabbits to restaurants in California, using a traveling broker to deliver them. His parents still aren’t sure how he figured that out. By the time he turned 8, he had formed a limited liability company (LLC) that was bringing in about $1,000 a month.
With his parents’ OK, he used funds from a loan, and an insurance settlement related to the rabbits, to buy 350 acres of fallow land near his home for $130 an acre when he was 9 years old. And thus was born his passion for regenerative agriculture.
The Coopers’ neighbors in rural Beryl never knew it, but Kevin had been sizing up their farmland for years, assessing which families had children who would continue farming and which may be looking to sell. According to Billy, Kevin was particularly interested in land that had been lying fallow for years, not because of any government soil regeneration program but because the owners couldn’t make it work financially as the Escalante Valley aquifer was slowly depleted by persistent drought. Kevin had quickly figured out that without reliable rainfall, leaving land fallow was not a way to renew the soil. It was, however, the way to create a dust bowl, which was fast becoming the norm around Beryl.
Utah water law is complicated and controversial, but Kevin learned enough to know it was a deeply flawed system. Hay is a $490 million-a-year business in Utah, making it the state’s No. 1 cash crop. That amounts to only .2% of the state’s gross domestic product but it uses 68% of the state’s “diverted” water, according to a recent study by Gabriel Lozada, associate professor of economics at the University of Utah. Diverted water is that which is taken from natural sources such as rivers and aquifers, and not replenished in full after it is used.
Nearly one-third of Utah’s hay crop is sold overseas, the majority of that going to China. Those overseas sales stuck in Kevin’s craw. He knew that farmers around Beryl were under a state-mandated program to reduce their draw on the aquifer, and it didn’t make sense to him to continue with a business model that was doomed. He didn’t blame the farmers who were just trying to make a living. “He knew you couldn’t fix the problems if the farming stayed at the very bottom of the value chain,” says Billy. “I learned what a value chain was from him.”
Kevin focused on 7,000 acres of neighbors’ land, some fallow and some under cultivation but using far too much water by his standards, not to mention fossil fuels to power farm machinery. He figured he would need $12 million to buy the land and a total of $50 million to implement his scheme to regenerate the soil by planting 13 varieties of low-water plants suitable for grazing by wildlife and small meat-producing livestock such as turkeys. By his calculations, his plan would reduce groundwater use on those 7,000 acres by almost a billion gallons a year. That’s only 10% of the annual overdraw from the Escalante Valley Aquifer — the amount not recharged. But Kevin believed in the power of his example.
Could a mere boy raise $50 million and spark a regenerative agriculture movement in his little corner of the American West?
“Don’t ever take ‘can’t’ as the answer unless you’ve verified that it is against the law or against the powers of physics,” Kevin wrote in his memoir. People told him he couldn’t own land, couldn’t have a vehicle titled in his name, couldn’t have his own checking account, couldn’t contract with lawyers and accountants and realtors, and couldn’t flip a house. He made it his business to prove them all wrong.
Kevin Cooper operates his John Deere tractor on his farm in Beryl, Utah.
At times Kevin’s life resembled the party game where someone starts with a paperclip and keeps trading up until they land a big-ticket item. The proceeds from a 7-year-old’s rabbit venture led to a 9-year-old’s purchase of a 350-acre ranch. Then Kevin discovered the wealth of information in county property and tax records, including the concept of “lawyers’ liens.” A lawyer who is owed money from a client can put a lien on the client’s property to get paid when the land is sold, just like a tax lien. And lawyers’ liens can be bought and sold. Kevin found one such lien languishing in the Iron County property records and bought it for half the value from the lawyer who had forgotten it was there. Kevin doubled his money when the property sold within a few weeks.
His next purchase was 20 acres of land for $100 an acre from a woman who had no interest in paying the taxes on her late husband’s weekend camping spot in the sagebrush. He turned that $2,000 investment into a $20,000 trade with a well-driller. The man, who Kevin described as “a skinny cowboy with a big handlebar mustache,” wanted the land and Kevin needed a well on his farm so they traded.
For his 10th birthday, Kevin gave himself a house. He found a piece of property about seven miles from home and contacted the owner — an elderly woman who had turned down all offers because no one would promise to preserve the unlivable, 700-square-foot, two-bedroom shack on the land. Her father had built the house and she couldn’t bear to see it torn down. But she also couldn’t fix it, and didn’t want to keep paying property taxes. Kevin struck a deal; in trade for the deed to the land, he would pay her back property taxes and her expenses to come to Utah and clear out her father’s possessions from the house. And he promised that he, a 10-year-old boy, would personally restore the home. It took two years, countless YouTube tutorials and some mentoring by kindly contractors, but he did it for $10,000. When Billy put down his foot and refused to let Kevin do the electrical work himself, Kevin found an electrician to walk him through it.
While working on the house, Kevin financed a brand new shiny green John Deere tractor for $50,000. His parents say that as proud as he was of that tractor, it wasn’t his favorite possession. That honor went to the red 1976 Chevy pickup truck he acquired when he was 8. A neighbor came to Billy asking for help with a valve job on another truck. Billy had recently fallen and injured his back, but Kevin jumped in. He offered to fix the truck in trade for the Chevy. It didn’t run, and even if it had, Kevin didn’t have a license to drive it. It sat on blocks in the Coopers’ yard as parts were cannibalized for other family vehicles. Tina said Kevin would lean on it and dream about all he would do with it someday.
With all of his investments, Kevin socked away the loan payments, tax money and operating funds in the bank and never took out any money for himself or his family until he knew his financial obligations for the year were covered. And like any teenager, if he needed pocket money, he would do chores for the neighbors. His parents said his idea of fun was to hire himself out after spending a long day of digging post holes for five miles of fencing on his ranch or laying a half-mile water line from a solar well to his goat paddock.
Work was Kevin’s idea of fun. He never saw a movie in a theater or a ball game in a park. In the middle of the night, Billy might hear the sound of a soda can being popped open, and a desk chair rolling across the floor. For most teens, that would signal a video game in process, but in the Cooper home it meant Kevin was pulling an all-nighter writing a book. His idea of TV bingeing was to record episodes of CNBC’s “The Profit” and play them back, hitting the pause button to analyze the failing businesses and try to come up with solutions before the host could suggest them.
He couldn’t understand why his peers, and even adults, spent so much time scrolling their phones. Once when the Coopers were hosting company, Kevin and his parents noticed that the other family was scrolling instead of talking. Kevin leaned over to Billy and only half-jokingly whispered for him to unplug the Wi-Fi.
Kevin had finished his house flip and was in the process of saving money to drill a well for the house when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. He had learned from his billionaire business heroes to pivot quickly and not look back, so he sold the house without the well, reducing its value by half but still doubling the $10,000 he had put into the flip. From that sale, he began investing in turkeys to raise for meat and graze on his regenerating ranch land.
Kevin Cooper’s prized red truck, which has been cannibalized for parts to keep other family vehicles running, sits at his family home on July 15, 2022.
Paul H. Smith
The Coopers survived 2020, and then 2021 dealt them a series of setbacks. Billy needed more surgery. Their water heater and air conditioning died. The fuel pump on the family’s Suburban, their only working vehicle besides the John Deere, went out. Billy and Tina refused Kevin’s offers of help until he told them his company would buy the Suburban and fix it. It was enough money for them to do the house repairs. They only agreed when he pointed out that the SUV was primarily used for Kevin’s businesses anyway.
And then, after 14 months without rain, the well that supplied their house went dry. For nine months the Coopers hauled water by the barrel for their household needs. One day Kevin caught his brother using the washing machine for one shirt. He chided his brother and then ran around the house scooping up other laundry to add to the load. They finally saved up money to drill a new well and Tina remembered that day as one of Kevin’s happiest. He danced around slathering himself in the foam generated from flushing the new well. Tina took a picture, and the image from that day plays like a video in her head. Kevin wrote that the nine months of hauling water taught him to “keep getting back up no matter how many times life knocked me down.”
Kevin was irrepressibly happy, as in the family video of him smiling over his shoulder into the camera and dancing to a mental playlist in his head as he shoveled gravel from a truck bed on a blistering summer afternoon. He was the kind of happy that Billy said could grate on the family when they just wanted to take a day to wallow in their misfortune. “Circumstances change, let’s change with it,” Kevin would say when the family fortunes hit a bump.
Now, Billy says, “We’ve been telling ourselves that a lot.”
Kevin was growing savvy with social media. In 2021 he launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 to build an accessible home for his parents. He failed, raising only $920, but as with all of his setbacks, it was just another learning experience. “If I can’t earn it, I’m going to build it,” Kevin said, and began gathering scrap lumber and studying building codes for adobe construction. The video that Kevin made for that fundraising campaign is a poignant window into his mind.
In the video he carries on an imaginary conversation with Billy while trying to push Billy’s wheelchair through narrow doors in the double-wide trailer. “Want to go sit on the front porch, Dad?” (“Thunk” as Kevin bumps the chair against the door frame.) “Want to go get a drink of water, Dad?” (“Thunk.”)
In a second video, heavy with irony and analysis beyond his years, Kevin exposes the labyrinthine VA bureaucracy that makes Billy ineligible for an accessible house. In short, he would need to lose the use of another limb, not just the one broken in his basic training accident, later made useless by necrosis.
Billy and Tina can’t bring themselves to say much about Kevin’s faith or where their son might be now in the pantheon of after-life theories. They considered themselves Christians and kept a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a Quran in the house. They do know Kevin would want them to pick themselves up and move on with optimism.
That will be hard. They don’t have a running vehicle; Kevin had been working on that problem. A friend started a separate GoFundMe campaign to pay funeral expenses and help them get a fresh start.
Until his death, Kevin’s parents were unaware of the extent of his holdings or the business affairs they will have to settle and bills they will have to pay. They have avoided the heartache of turning on his computer and seeing him come alive again in his books in progress, his correspondence with experts, his meticulous bookkeeping and his outsized dreams. Their immediate need is to sell Kevin’s assets and then find another place to live where they can function without him, nearer to shopping and doctors and services for their 17-year-old autistic son, maybe someplace with a little land so they can keep a garden and some chickens, and a home Billy can navigate in his wheelchair. Billy and Tina hope to carry on Kevin’s work in some way.
But for now, it’s hard for them to even open the door to his room. And harder still is it for them, when asked, to reflect on the last sentence in his memoir: “As wild as it is to have done enough unique things by age 14 to be able to write an autobiography, the truth is, I’m still just getting started.”
Kevin Cooper “brain mapping,” as his parents called his writing process.
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