Fundraisers: Celebrity figures like Sugar Ray Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain helped raise money for James ‘Jimmy’ Cooley after his burn accident. Cooley died this year. Courtesy image

James ‘Jimmy’ Cooley did not have an easy life but despite years of physical pain and accompanying emotional trauma, he is being remembered by his family for the deep love he shared with them before his recent death. 

In 1972, Cooley was a fifth-grade student at McKinley Elementary School on a camping trip in Oxnard when a can of flammable liquid placed on a grill exploded and lit him on fire, resulting in burns to over 80% of his body. Doctors were initially unsure if he would survive. Cooley did survive and recovered better than had been expected, but his sister Debra Cooley said the incident affected him throughout the rest of his life.

She said she didn’t realize the full extent of it until later in his life when he was diagnosed with PTSD from the event as well as severe anxiety. He was also diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which eventually led to his death. Through it all, she said he remained kind and optimistic, always trying to cheer up those around him.

“Jim had a really funny personality, even when he felt horrible he would tell jokes,” she said. “Sometimes just to be funny and most of the time to just kind of ease the worry that someone else was feeling for him.” 

She said one of his favorite jokes was his response whenever someone asked how he was feeling during his many hospital stays.

“He would reach over and he would squeeze you on your side or on your arm and say ‘pretty good, I can feel pretty good,’” she said.

He moved away from Santa Monica as an adult but his sister said he was a “Santa Monica boy through and through” and she is still grateful for the support the community showed her family following the incident 50 years ago.

“People we didn’t know, businesses we didn’t know just started reaching out to my family,” she said.

Cooley spent months at the Sherman Oaks Burn center where he underwent skin grafts and extensive rehabilitation, the cost of which quickly added up to more than his family could afford.

“My mom and dad were very middle class, my dad had a small pest control business, he didn’t make a lot of money and there were four kids,” she said. “So my dad didn’t have thousands of dollars for skin grafting.”

She said members of the community stepped up and multiple fundraisers were organized to cover her brother’s medical expenses. Articles in the Evening Outlook from that year highlighted several of these events, which drew several celebrities including boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.

Local churches, scout troops and other groups fundraised as well through efforts including car washes and garage sales.

“It was just such a hometown feeling,” Debra Cooley said. “Jim was the little boy who got burnt on a school campout and people just embraced that.”

With the help of community support, he was successfully treated and released from the hospital, but his sister said it was not an easy road for him after that. He suffered through several more traumatic incidents including the suicide of their father. Debra Cooley said he never really talked to anyone about everything he had been through and eventually began pushing family and friends away and became homeless. However, in the last few years she said she and her siblings had reconnected with him.

“We really realized that Jim was just trying to survive and fighting the trauma and he just needed help, so my sister Donna and my brother Rich and I, we just rallied around him,” she said. “We decided it didn’t matter what was happening in our personal lives or our jobs – we were just going to help as much as we could.”

The siblings saw Jimmy through multiple stays in the hospital for COPD and spent quality time with him before he passed away this September. The family now lives in Las Vegas, but Debra Cooley said Santa Monica maintained a special place in her brother’s heart.

“He loved Santa Monica and the community loved Jimmy,” she said. “Even though he suffered being burned and the other things that happened to him in his life, he still loved life and appreciated the blessings of having his life and he still tried to be funny and kind to the people around him.”

She said it’s important to her to share his story with the people of Santa Monica to let them know what happened to that little boy who was burned years ago.

grace@smdp.com