Besse Brown Cooper is a 1916 graduate of East Tennessee State Normal School, where she earned a two-year teaching degree. At that time, tuition was free; her only expense was her books. After graduation, Cooper taught at Piney Flats and Deer Lick in Sullivan County and at Cogg Hill near Etowah before moving to Georgia, where teachers earned better pay. There, she met and married her husband, Luther, and had four children: Angie; L.H. Jr.; Sidney, named after ETSU's first president; and Nancy.
After the birth of her first child, Cooper left teaching and helped Luther in raising their family on the 50-acre farm she bought with her teaching salary. After her husband's death in 1963, Cooper continued to live independently on the farm until age 105.
On January 19, 2009, at 112 years of age, Cooper became the oldest person in the state of Georgia. Later that year, Mayor Greg Thompson of Monroe, Ga., declared August 26 Besse Cooper Day in her honor. On Feb. 1 of this year, Cooper was named the world's oldest living person by the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group.
In October 2009, 92 years after her graduation from ETNS, Cooper parted with an indelible symbol of devotion to her alma mater – her class ring. She had worn and twirled it for so long that all its markings had worn off. The ring has since been donated to ETSU, along with one of Cooper's ETNS textbooks and a matriculation card. Cooper is now the proud owner of a new class ring, presented to her as a gift from the university, which she can wear on a chain around her neck. It is a replica of her original ring, complete with an inscription of "East Tennessee State Normal School, Class of 1916."