Oscar Henry Cooper, university president and state education officer, the son of Dr. William Henry and Katherine Hunter (Rosser) Cooper, was born in Panola County, Texas, on November 22, 1852. He attended Marshall University (1865–66) and went on to Yale University, where he received the B.A. degree in 1872, graduating first in his class. His first teaching position was at Woods Post Office near Panola, Texas. He served as president of Henderson Male and Female College from 1873 to 1879 and for two years as an instructor at Sam Houston Normal Institute (now Sam Houston State University). He returned to Yale in 1881 to serve as a tutor and studied at the University of Berlin in 1884–85. Upon his return, he was principal of Houston High School (1885–86). He served as state superintendent of public instruction from 1886 to 1890. Among the reforms during his tenure were the foundations for county supervision, uniform textbooks, and standards for high schools. Cooper served as superintendent of Galveston schools from 1890 to 1896. At the time it was the highest-paying educational position in Texas. The Galveston school system received international acclaim under Cooper's leadership, when it received one of eight gold medals for the best schoolwork in America at the Paris Exposition-it was the only city in the South included on the list. In 1892 Cooper was placed at the helm of the state-established School of Methods, for preparing teachers. In 1896 he resigned his Galveston position and moved his family to Carthage, his boyhood home.
Cooper, a Texas Baptist layman, served as president of Baylor University from 1899 to 1902 and president of Simmons College (now Hardin-Simmons University) from 1902 to 1909. Both colleges saw a marked increase in scholarships, gifts, and enrollment under his direction. During his tenure as president at Baylor the school's degrees were recognized for the first time by eastern schools, the Department of Pedagogy was established, and the Department of Theology was expanded. The Waco school also received gifts of $75,000 each from F. L. Carroll of Waco and George W. Carroll of Beaumont for two new buildings. At the time these were the largest donations ever given in Texas to higher education. At Simmons College Cooper greatly increased curriculum standards, entered into an aggressive building program, secured the entire estate of James Simmons for the school, and named Jefferson D. Sandefer as his successor. Cooper's efforts resulted in a doubling of enrollment.
After resigning from Simmons in 1909, Cooper established Cooper's Boys School in Abilene, which he headed until February 1915. He left the school to return to Simmons as chairman of the faculty and to head the department of education and philosophy. From 1928 to 1930 he served as a part-time professor of history and the philosophy of education at the University of Texas. He wrote numerous articles calling for a state university and chaired a subcommittee of the Texas State Teachers Association that issued a proposal for the establishment of a state institution of higher learning, thus playing a leading role in the establishment of the University of Texas (1882). He was one of the founders of the Texas State Teachers Association, served on the executive board of the Conference for Education in Texas (1907), chaired the State Educational Survey (1921), and served one term as president of the Association of Texas Colleges (1923). He contributed a multitude of writings and official reports on education, lectured extensively on the public education system, wrote a prospectus, "The Conditions and Prospects of the Public School System of Texas," and authored an American history text entitled The History of Our Country (1898). Cooper was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded honorary doctorates by Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1891, by Baylor University in 1914, and by Simmons College in 1925. In 1902 he was made a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association. Cooper's contributions to education in Abilene led the city to name its second high school in his honor.
Cooper married the former Mary Bryan Stewart, granddaughter of James H. Starr, on November 24, 1886. The couple had four children. Cooper died in Abilene on August 22, 1932.