Written by Peter Adler

My Five Years at Cooper

(First posted in May 2011)

Peter Adler

In the fall of 1948, while I was in my senior year at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, I took the entrance exam to The Cooper Union. It was the first step in a life changing chain of events that led to a career, a wife, a family and many good friends.

There were several reasons to apply to Cooper. First and most important, because going there was tuition free, and second, I was a refugee from Nazi Germany and one of two sons of a widowed mother who could not afford to pay for my college education. At that time we didn’t know about college loans, if there even was such a thing. Another reason for applying to Cooper was that it had an excellent reputation for art education, and I was told that I had “talent” and was encouraged and interested in a career in commercial art. Also, Cooper, which was conveniently located in New York City, had a four-year night school program, which meant that I could hold down a paying job during the day and pursue my art education in the evening.

The final reason for applying was that my brother Frank was interested in a career in architecture and had applied to Cooper after leaving the military service and a stint with the US Army of Occupation in Japan. Miraculously we were both accepted as two of three young men in the class of ‘53 named Adler, the other Adler was George. Frank and I started Cooper in the fall of 1949. Because I had attended the High School of Music and Art for four years, it was not a difficult transition for me.

I was determined to get a job in commercial art and carried my high school portfolio around the city trying to do so. Finally, I approached an employment agency for help and they found me a job in the Ludwig Baumann Department Store art department on West 35th Street, running ad proofs to the various store buyers for approvals. Three months later, the employment agency placed me at Lawrence Fertig Advertising, a liquor agency on the east side. There I was to work as a “paste-up artist.” I was thrilled, I’d finally broken into commercial art. It was at Fertig that I met another paste-up artist, the late Alfred Kantor, a Holocaust survivor who is well known for the book he wrote and illustrated: The Book of Alfred Kantor, about his Holocaust experiences in the concentration camps.

Our first year at Cooper was the “Foundation Year” and we took basic art courses before going on into a specialty program like Commercial Art, Architecture, Fine Art, Sculpture, etc. Cooper was a whole new experience for me, especially being around the many attractive young women. One memorable night I was literally bowled over by one of my female classmates because she tapped me on the head with a hammer during our sculpture class. I don’t recall what I had said to get that kind of reaction from her. In my brother Frank’s Foundation Year class he met Rudi Wolff and Sheldon Rose. These two were also interested in a career in Commercial Art, so Frank introduced them to me. Sheldon eventually introduced me to his sister Ruth who became my wife of now 55 years. In a way we were also a Cooper Couple. Rudi told me of an opening in the art studio of the pharmaceutical advertising agency where he worked, William Douglas McAdams. McAdams did graphic work that was smart, creative and much superior to what was being done at Fertig. Vic Trasoff, the Executive Art Director at McAdams hired me and I was delighted to resign from Fertig.

During my Cooper years I fondly remember our night school weekends at Green Camp. By then I had a used Plymouth car so that I could drive a group of classmates up to Ringwood, New Jersey after school on Friday night and have a great time until Sunday when it was time to clean up and go home. Green Camp was Cooper’s country property. We spent weekends as well as the Senior painting trip there. One art and engineering weekend we planted rows of saplings, my grove took me right through a row of poison ivy, and I still have the souvenir of a poison ivy rash on my fingers every spring.

Among the many wonderful courses I took at Cooper were two- and three-dimensional design, advertising design, sculpture, painting and typography. I fondly remember some of the many fine instructors–Miss Schutz, Paul Zucker, Mr. Kantor–who never liked the divisions in our work. This was still the period of the old Foundation Building, and up on the top floor in a tower was the type shop. The typography instructor’s name was DeLopateki who always had a cigarette in his mouth with a lengthy burnt ash that periodically dropped off. We picked type from antique California job cases and assembled them in hand-held type “sticks”. The type was then “locked up” and printed on a hand-fed foot-treadle operated press. Mr. DeLopateki gave me a box of “pied” unsorted type, selections from which I distributed to my future graphic design students in order to demonstrate “the way it used to be done.”

In the summer of 1952, the military draft for the Korean War finally caught up with me, and I went down to Whitehall Street early one morning for my army physical exam. To my surprise I failed and was rejected for service. As a result of this rejection I approached kindly art school Dean Ray Dowden, and requested a transfer to the day school, which he granted. That fall, after saying farewell to my job at McAdams, I went back to Cooper as a day art school student. 1952 to 1953, my third year at Cooper, was spent in the second year art day school program. I made new friends and took a lot of interesting courses only available to day students.

Having gotten used to the pace and pressures of night school, I was amazed at the laid back attitude of my day school classmates. But I soon settled down to the routine. During that year I joined Richard Bowman’s drama group in a presentation of “The Happy Time.” I played the part of the grandfather, and somewhere I have one of Herb Rosenthal’s prints of me in makeup on the Great Hall stage.

In the afternoons, after classes were over, I worked at the old Hearns department store on 14th Street. During the holiday season, they put me into the men’s accessories department and I reluctantly sold overpriced hats, scarves and wallets to innocent shoppers. Sometimes I’d send a buyer to Bloomingdale’s or Brooks Brothers where you could get a lot more quality for the same price.

At the end of the year I joined my classmates for the two week painting trip to Green Camp. Young Alex Katz and Al Blaustein were our chaperones, and Nicholas Marsicano represented the painting faculty. It was the high point of my day school year, a glorious two weeks spent painting, socializing and having a great time.

That spring after the end of classes I took a temporary job back at William Douglas McAdams. During the summer, Vic Trasoff offered me the opportunity to work as an assistant to one of the agency’s art directors, Harry Zelenko. It meant real creative design work away from the paste-up work. Harry was a star designer and I felt that it was a very good opportunity. So again I went back to Dean Ray Dowden and asked to be transferred back to night art school. Ray agreed and I took my third and fourth years at Cooper in the evening. That’s why it took me five years, rather than the normal four, to graduate.

The wonderful thing about being a Cooper alumnus is that you’ve made a connection for life. After finally graduating in 1954 (not that I was desperate to leave), I became active with Flora Ferguson and the Alumni Association. In the sixties I was asked to serve on the Alumni Board and also became very involved with volunteering for Steve Schoenholtz and the Public Relations Department. I spent countless hours at my drawing board in the basement of our first house, baby sitting for our children by intercom, while turning out At Cooper magazines, fundraising brochures and other PR material. And my wife Ruth and I still go down to Cooper to participate in the annual fund raising Phonathon.

The best post graduation gift from Cooper took place in 1975, when I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Cooper Union as part of the external degree program. My wife and two children were present. My, how those almost sixty years have flown by.

Peter Adler –  May 2011