The Valdosta Daily Times
Growing up in Valdosta, Eddie Koonce was raised by his grandparents, the Rev. A.R. Cooper, an AME minister, and Bertha Mceady Cooper, but he was also raised by his community.
“Growing up, you had to have love to make anything work,” said Koonce. “I had that at the house, and I also had that at the church. That was instilled in me as a child.”
Koonce was the first grandchild of his grandparents to graduate from high school, and he can still remember the feeling of seeing his grandmother watch him graduate from Pinevale High School.
“She was so proud; it was my dream to make her proud. Then she passed on.”
Koonce joined the Air Force after high school, putting together parachute packs. He went to California, then Okinawa, Japan, and Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio before returning to Valdosta.
He came back to help his uncle, Ollie Cooper, a painter who had helped raise him, but he also returned to help his community.
“I didn’t want to come back home just to be back home. I wanted to make a difference.”
Koonce rejoined the St. Peter AME Church. He joined the local Masons in 1972, but split from the Masons to join the Sons of Solomon in 1982, looking for a way to help his community more.
“It never was complete until we found Kemet Universal. We became an African and Egyptian Masonic Order.”
As part of Kemet Universal Ancient African and Egyptian Masonic & O.E.S. Order, Koonce and others have looked for ways to help.
“When people hear Mason, they think about all that stuff they see on TV. They get the wrong impression of what we do. We’re here as a family to help other families to succeed in life, especially the children. The children are our future. If we leave them with nothing and no direction, what will it be?”
Project Hope for Life provides one means of help. The mentoring program for school children helps gather school supplies.
“We tell the parents, ‘we want to be part of this child’s life and help them progress, but you have to also involve yourself.’ We’re all responsible for these kids growing up and succeeding.”
Kemet does six major events throughout the year, including a Thanksgiving and Christmas lunch, giving away clothes and school supplies, and running Red Dirt Barbecue, a mobile barbecue used for fundraising.
Through the years, Koonce has become grandmaster of the organization. He did not initially seek the position but rather it came to him along with the work.
“This is rough work out here. You have to have your heart in it,” Koonce said. “There’s disappointing times and glorious times, and the glorious times are based around children, just to see their smiling faces.”
While Koonce has dedicated his life to helping his community, he also relies on it for help, turning to people like Obie Wilson Jr., Willie Frank Wade and James Farrington who have offered support and encouragement through the years.
When Koonce was diagnosed last January with cancer, he turned to prayer, both the private, one-on-God prayers and the prayers of friends, friends like the Rev. George Vereen.
Now cancer-free, a year and a half later, Koonce sees his healing as a call to redouble his efforts.
“I am blessed, so I have to keep on this journey. I have to. God has blessed me and given me more time to come out in this community and continue working. I’m going to continue working until the day I die.”
Kemet’s next event is a Project Hope for Life fundraiser scheduled for 6 p.m., May 10, at the West Street Community Center. All proceeds from the night of music and games will go to J.L. Lomax’s field day activities on May 16.
“My grandmother said, ‘If the first thing when you wake up in the morning, after thanking God for being able to wake up, if you think about nothing but yourself, you’re wrong.’ It has to be based on others, helping others,” Koonce said. “That’s instilled on my mind since we started this kind of work.”