Celebration of life to be held for Cooley

Lahainaluna donor died in February at age of 93

Sue Cooley, shown in 2010 before the first game at the stadium that would later bear her name, made seven donations totaling $7.5 million to the Lahainaluna High School Foundation. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It is a story that has grown into Lahainaluna High School legend.

Longtime West Maui resident Sue Cooley attends a Lunas football game in which they made a large comeback before coming up short.

After the game, standing outside the locker rooms at War Memorial Stadium, Cooley hears the football boys — “my boys,” as she would later call them endearingly — sing the school’s Hawaiian-language alma mater.

That was more than a decade ago, and while some of the details are lost in the minds of Luna Nation faithful, they will never forget the generosity of Cooley, who died in February at 93. There will be a celebration of life in the on-campus stadium that bears her name on Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m.

“By then, (Cooley) was already in her 80s, but she really knew football,” longtime friend Betty Sakamoto said Monday. “It was a game (the Lunas) were losing, they were at zero and the other team was in the 30s at halftime. Then all of a sudden, (the Lunas) really fight so hard to win that game, but they lost.

“So, we’re leaving when suddenly we hear Lahainaluna singing their alma mater, an unbelievable, warm, fabulous song. … It was after that night that we knew Sue was going to make a contribution. She heard that song so many more times from the team, her boys.”

Cooley made that first contribution of $1 million soon after. It was the first of seven donations to the Lahainaluna High School Foundation that totaled $7.5 million for the Sue D. Cooley Stadium facility, built for a total of $9 million, that now stands on the 186-year-old campus.

The project started with an artificial turf in 2009 and has grown into a spectacle overlooking the Auau Channel that MaxPreps.com has listed as one of its “high school football stadiums to see before you die.”

In a state press release announcing the facility would be named for her in 2014, Cooley said: “It is my hope that these gifts will inspire others to give and support public education in Hawaii.”

Sakamoto presented Cooley a state championship ring — from the 2016 Division II title that the Lunas won in November — just hours before she died on Feb. 18 in Seattle.

LHS Foundation president Mark Tillman recalled the tribute to Cooley that ESPN anchor Neil Everett put together on a “SportsCenter” broadcast following her death.

“Was that something else?” Tillman said. “I couldn’t believe that he did that. That was something that nobody asked him to do. He initiated that all on his own. When he was made aware of it he expressed his condolences and then fired back within the hour and started asking for material because he was going to do something. To see that on TV, it just obviously was a chicken-skin moment, but it was … just one more of those things that showed all of us how much she meant to us.”

During Cooley’s visits to Lunas practices, players would show their appreciation.

“She would always come and visit the players and, of course, we would stop practice,” co-head coach Garret Tihada said. “They would sing for her and each one would go up and personally thank her for everything she did for us.”

Tihada said the facility has cut down on player injuries — the team used to practice on a hard-scrabble dirt field that was pocked with holes.

“She knew how much this meant — I think that’s part of the reason she kept coming back, visiting,” he said. “I really do think she understood what it meant to the community and the school.”

Well-wishers are asked to wear red to Saturday’s ceremony, which will be casual dress. Flowers will be appreciated.

A silent auction of Cooley’s artwork will be held Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Village Galleries in Lahaina — the proceeds will go to Hale Makua and the LHS Foundation.

“We’re hoping that the community does turn out for obvious reasons,” LHS Foundation executive director Jeff Rogers said. “Some of Sue’s family will be there and it gives us an opportunity to show them what Sue meant to us.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.