Entertaining and compelling real-life stories with valuable
lessons on how to succeed in business and in life.
The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on November 23, 2010

Today: How Peter Cooper built one of America’s great fortunes despite attending only one year of grade school.

It is a remarkable story. Peter was born in New York in 1791, the 5th child in a family headed by his father, John Cooper, a deeply religious Methodist.

John was a hat maker who struggled to support his family. Although Peter was a devoted student, school was not free and John couldn’t afford the tuition. Peter was forced to drop-out and work for his father. But as John’s hat making business failed he tried other businesses, none with success

Peter would apprentice as a brewer, a horse and buggy coach maker and as a cabinet maker in a quest to give him a trade and an income. Meanwhile, he saved his money.

At 22, Peter had fallen in love with and married 20-year-old Sarah Bedell. And soon they were blessed with children and with all the joy little ones can bring.

But tragedy struck. Medical care then was limited and little 5-year old John died of croup, 31/2 year old Benjamin died after falling on his head. Sarah Amanda died at 4 of a throat infection and 2-year-old Peter died of acute bronchitis. The death of each child caused the couple extreme grief and would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

But then they were blessed with their 5th child Edward and later their 6th, Sarah Amelia and both survived and later played prominent and loving roles in the lives of their parents.

In his professional life Peter at first struggled mightily because he could barely read and write. He overcame this severe limitation through self-education, avidly reading what books he could get as libraries were largely the domain of the wealthy and by hiring a tutor to teach him math.

But despite this shortcoming, he made a fortune. Here is how he did it: In 1824, 33-year-old Peter used his savings to buy a run down glue factory. Now he had his own business and ideas as how to make it a success, which eventually included new ways to make glue and cement and other products. With time it became a big moneymaker.

Then he saw an even greater opportunity. Railroads were crucial in the industrial age and Peter anticipated the new Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad would be a huge success.

He invested some of his glue factory profits to buy 3,000 acres of land in the Baltimore area and founded what later became the giant Canton Iron Works producing iron rails for B&O and others.

As the profits came in, Peter started an iron rolling mill producing pig iron and steel and other vital materials. As the mill grew, he moved it from New York to Trenton, New Jersey and first under his leadership, then that of his son and son-in-law, it became an industrial giant employing thousands of people.

As ever more money poured in, Peter kept investing and had real estate holdings, an insurance business and ownership in the first transatlantic cable, which by telephone connected Europe and the U.S. He built a staggering fortune.

But despite all this money, in his personal life Peter lived modestly. No designer clothes, no fancy carriages and until 1850, when he was nearly 60-years-old, he and Sarah lived in their long time New York City home in what had become an industrial area, opposite a freight yard, with rail cars screeching in and out at all hours.

But if he was not going to spend all that money on himself and Sarah, what would he do with it? Peter had the answer. In 1853, at the age of 62, he began a new phase in his life. He would use the money to uplift mankind. It took him 30 years to make his fortune and now he would donate most of it to help others, in what became the final 30 years of his life.

Peter had long been actively involved in guiding New York City’s free public school system. That year he took the bold step of commissioning an entire new college to provide working class men and women with the highest caliber of education, the type reserved only for the wealthy.

Tuition would be free and all would be welcome, regardless of race, religion or gender, in the U.S. a remarkable act at a time when slavery flourished and women and minorities were discriminated against. At that time, women were essentially the property of their husbands, fathers or adult sons and could not own property, or vote, nor attend most colleges.

His Cooper Union college opened in 1859, just two years before the Civil War exploded in blood as the U.S. would for four years rip itself apart over slavery.

But as remarkable as a tuition free college open to all was, Peter had another bold vision, the Great Hall on the Cooper Union campus. It would be a place where even the most controversial ideas could be discussed. And shortly after it opened, it was put to the test.

In 1859, Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln spoke there and gave his “Right Makes Might” speech condemning slavery. It ultimately led to his Presidential nomination by the Republican Party and then to the Presidency.

The Great Hall also became a forum for charismatic speaker Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a leader of the abolition movement.

Controversial women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony, spoke there, as well as having her offices at the school. Victoria Woodhull, another leading women’s rights advocate also gave a speech in support of free love. But police ignored her free speech rights and arrested her after she spoke.

Cooper Union’s Great Hall became a place were many future, current and former U.S. Presidents have spoken, from Ulysses S. Grant to Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. And of course community and cultural events are held there as well.

In the college’s early years, Sarah Bedell Cooper joined Peter in being extensively involved. And as a couple they were romantically involved with each other and even in old age, they often sat together holding hands. But in 1869, at the age of 76, after 56-years of marriage, Sarah passed away. Peter had lost the great love of his life. He would never marry again.

But the school remained Peter’s passion, so that “boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I” could better themselves. And late in his life, he became one of the school’s most devoted students, regularly attending lectures, including some of those in the Great Hall. But in March of 1883, 92-year-old Peter caught a cold and a few weeks later, he passed away.

He left us with a remarkable legacy. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, its proper name, has educated tens of thousands of students over the last 151 years. Today, it has about 1,000 students, all selected on merit, and all attending tuition free, thanks to Peter.

Success Tip of the Week: Read, read, read and allow time to think, just as Peter did. It made him a fortune and made him a very wise man.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the school, please visit www.cooper.edu. Thank you to Jolene Travis and Carol Salomon of Cooper Union for their help in telling today’s story. If you would like to know more about Peter, there is also a wonderful PBS documentary “Mechanic to Millionaire: The Peter Cooper Story,” http://www.gardnerdocgroup.com/other/pcooper.html.

In the next KazanToday: A woman learns an invaluable lesson in the final stage of her life.

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Many of these short, inspirational success stories are about people from all walks of life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve remarkable results. These stories contain practical advice and a recipe for success for each of these renowned individuals. Some of their stories may help you to avoid some of the costly and time consuming mistakes that many of us make in life and at work. Learn from some of history's greatest winners on how to become a winner yourself, no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how daunting the task before you may seem. Good luck!
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