TRIBUTES have been paid to Penarth’s ‘adopted drunk’ Gary Cooper following his death over the weekend.
Vagrant Gareth William Cooper, who was well-known in the town for sleeping in ‘Tels’ doorway (now known as Eclipse) and redecorating the Cosmeston bus stop into a Santa’s Grotto, died at the age of 52 on Friday, June 6.
After a long battle with alcoholism and more than 500 court appearances, including being banned from Penarth with an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO), he had been sober for more than four months before his death.
His funeral is expected to be held in a few weeks, with a number of Penarth churches which had helped him over the years volunteering to assist in the service.
This included Cosmeston Church which arranged for him to go to Ireland for treatment several years ago in a bid to get him sober and nurse him back to health.
His solicitor Declan McSorley, who knew him for more than 20 years and represented him for over 12 years, is helping with the funeral arrangements.
He said before Mr Cooper became an alcoholic he was an apprentice jockey and served at table at The Dorchester Hotel in London as a silver service waiter.
He added that he also received letters from the notorious criminal Charles Bronson after they were in the same prison and struck up a friendship.
“He used to sing ‘There’s only one Gary Cooper’ and Charles Bronson was quite intrigued by it, so he went to talk to him,” he said.
“Gary was able to say that he had been in more prisons than Charles Bronson.”
He added that he could be “a nuisance, a drunk and a disruption to society”, but that there were other parts of his life when he wasn’t like that. Since Mr Cooper's death he had been inundated with messages from people passing on their condolences.
“He was the town’s adopted drunk and that’s how a lot of people have described him,” he said.
“He stirred up a combination of revulsion and sympathy in equal measure.
“He was a social nuisance, as well as a sad reflection of the effects of alcoholism.
“But when sober he revealed a character that was well hidden.”
Penarth residents had continued to show support to him by providing food, shelter and warmth.
“He evoked a strong sense of humanity in people,” he said.
“People gave him food, drink, and even a pair of glasses, and there was a constant stream of people looking after him.”
Rev Simon Jennings, who has been the pastor of Cosmeston Church for several years and now leads the newly formed Eden Church Penarth after it joined forces with Immanuel Church, dealt with Gary Cooper many times over the years.
“There was always a place at our table for him,” he said.
“We wanted to support him and that’s why we never turned him away.”
He added: “Part of me wishes he was still alive to carry on his battle, but the other part of me is glad that his struggle is over.
“There will be people that will be glad to see the back of him, and that was the nature of Gary Cooper.
“You either loved him or hated him, but you couldn’t ignore him.
“That was pretty much the way he lived his life.”
Roger Grafton, of Tabernacle Church, paid tribute to Gary in his Thought for the Week column in this week’s paper.
“I was saddened this week to hear about the death of well-known local man Gary Cooper,” he said.
“For those who don’t know Gary, he was often seen sat on the pavement in Penarth talking to passers-by and asking for any loose change. He lived all over the place, but most memorably in the bus shelter at Cosmeston.
“I met Gary over 10 years ago when he came into our church to talk with our homelessness charity. He had a chronic drink addiction, mental health problems, was always in trouble with the police, and actually was quite a likeable sort of rogue. His catchphrase was, ‘There’s only one Gary Cooper!’”
He added: “I will miss Gary, but I know he was a man who believed and trusted in God, so I know he is now safe with him. Rest in Peace, Gary Cooper.”