Sometimes it is the experience of hardship that fuels a desire to make life less hard for others. Take, for example, Gary Cooper. I have long known Gary as a fine man and community activist, but when we had lunch one day, I learned a much deeper story.

Gary had a hardscrabble youth. He had multiple stepfathers, earned his own way from an early age, was forced to leave home while still in high school and endured a mistaken arrest and near imprisonment in his late teens. But other experiences shaped him as well: a generous Hispanic family made room for him to come live in their already crowded home, a businessman in his hometown saw something in him and guided him to a private foundation that covered his college tuition. He had a stint as a VISTA volunteer with farmworkers in California and gave his service and leadership during the early years of the AIDS crisis, after being diagnosed HIV positive. When Gary told me what he learned from these life challenges, he said, “It is in the act of giving that we find grace.” Grace—that deeply mysterious word that explains how we are able to endure in the face of the unendurable. 

Gary knew he should carry forward the generosity that had changed the trajectory of his life. When the time came, he chose David Reyna, a young man who had immigrated to the US when he was 5 years old, and whose mother worked for Gary and his husband, Richard Hartgrove. Gary began by funding David’s dental care when he was 14.  When he saw David beaming at the world with a bright, new smile, Gary kept on going. Now he pays college tuition, housing and transportation as David pursues his dream of graduating with a degree in psychology. Gary is also introducing this young man to Austin professionals and community cultural events to expand his vision and encourage his aspirations. 

Gary didn’t stop there. He went on to challenge his former classmates at North Dallas High with a matching grant to provide services to help current students have rich extracurricular experiences in spite of the burden of poverty and in some cases, homelessness. Now in its 3rdyear, the effort has exceeded its $5,000 annual goal by bringing in $14,000 last year. 

Gary gave me a perfect and personal example of grace when he said, “I believe we find our own courage in the act of encouraging and helping others. People tell this story like I am so good, so generous. That’s not it. The truth is that through this experience I am having the best time of my life.”