Prominent Fresno businessman loses battle with cancer

FRESNO, Calif.

Cooley was 79 years old and he spent almost his entire life helping families through the hardest times of their lives. Now, his own family says he's doing it again.

Cooley was born into the funeral business. His father was the first African-American to open a mortuary in Fresno. But Jesse, Jr., chased his dream of being a jazz musician before following in his father's footsteps.

"He had the opportunity to play with Cal Tjader, one of the jazz artists of the late 50s and 60s," said his son, Phil Cooley. "He had a stint with Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie."

But the younger Cooley made the best of the funeral business. In more than five decades, his homes hosted some 10,000 funerals, including the huge 1993 services for farmworkers rights leader Cesar Chavez.

Years later, Cooley donated his time and space to the Wesson family as they buried nine people after one of Fresno's worst mass murders.

Months after that, fire destroyed the original funeral home in southwest Fresno. Cooley insisted on rebuilding in the same community, sticking by the people who's been part of his life for so long.

"It's great to hear the stories of what your dad meant to me, what he did for my family and that's what really, really hits home, because that's the kind of man he was," Phil Cooley said.

And even in death, Cooley is giving his own family peace.

"There's nothing easy about losing someone, but my dad has always had the remarkable ability to provide a comfort to let everyone know everything will be okay," Phil said.

The Cooley family is holding viewings at the Jesse Cooley, Jr. Funeral Home on Fruit next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The funeral will be Saturday morning at Valdez Hall, next to the Saroyan Theatre.

Several prominent people will speak at the services, but the schedule isn't finalized yet.

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