If you met Rhode Island resident Mike Cooley, with his confident demeanor, expensive clothes and polite Southern accent, it is easy to assume he was brought up in an affluent neighborhood, attended an ivy league university and with his tall, athletic build, was the captain of his high school’s football team.
However, Cooley did not go to an ivy league school or play sports in high school.
If you look closely, you may notice the fight scars on his face and hands or the gang tattoo on his wrist, all permanent reminders of his life growing up on the streets of St. Louis.
In his book Rock Bottom, Cooley tells the story of how broken homes and abuse pushed him onto the streets and his struggle to find his way out. He eventually found success, family and the American dream. Cooley will be promoting his book at the in Middletown Friday evening.
Born in St. Louis, Cooley's father left his alcoholic mother and took Cooley’s brother and half-brother with him to Texas. Together with his mother and half-sister, they moved into a garage with a dirt floor.
A few years later, his mother realized she couldn't afford Cooley, and sent him to Texas to live with his father.
When he arrived, he met his father's new wife, Peggy, who he describes in his book:
Physically, she was a huge woman who weighed more than 260 pounds and stood just over five feet tall. Peggy had coarse, wiry, brownish red hair - like a brillo pad. Her daily attire was a dirty polyester house dress without sleeves. Peggy never wore pants or anything other than those dresses. The overpowering smell of her body odor and dirty clothes moved with her. She was always sweating and eating something - the remnants of both would remain on her clothes for days.
One afternoon while he was playing with his brother, Cooley quickly learned Peggy's true nature. She took a thick branch from a rose bush and hit the boys on the legs until they bled and screamed.
"That moment was the beginning of 15 years of physical, emotional and mental abuse," Cooley said.
Peggy would threaten the boys that if they told, the abuse would get worse. The abuse continued, until Cooley was 15 years old.
"I was bigger. I was like a caged animal. I just fought back," he said. One afternoon Peggy tried to hit Cooley, and he grabbed her wrist and threw her down.
"This ends here," Cooley said. He then walked out of the house and hitchhiked back up to St. Louis.
In St. Louis, he found a new family, a family of teenagers who all were in similar situations. In his book, he describes a life of stealing, borrowing, begging, dealing drugs, living on the streets, alleyways and rooftops.
"It was guys, girls," he explained. "We didn't realize it until later, but we were a street gang."
After a friend was shot and several friends were thrown in jail , Cooley decided he needed to get out.
Finding the way out was not easy.
"It had to get worse before it got better," he said. Cooley got involved in drugs and married the girl he partied with. When he was ready to settle down, and she would not give up the drugs, Cooley left.
By this time, Cooley was in his early twenties and lived out of this car until that, like everything else in his life, broke down.
"The first question people always ask me is when I hit rock bottom," Cooley explained. "The honest truth is that I hit rock bottom again and again."
Cooley took the only things he owned, two bags of clothes, and walked to his half-sister's house who reluctantly allowed him to stay.
He couldn't stay for long, however. His half-sister and her husband had a prostitution ring in the house.
"And it wasn't because she was an entrepreneur," he said with a hint of sarcasm. They were both crack addicts, and to supply their demanding need for drugs, they would let the prostitutes use the house.
Cooley had nowhere else to go, except to go back to Peggy and his father. Now as a grown man, there was no abuse, but nor was there discussions of the past.
After a few lost job opportunities, Cooley responded to an ad for a mailroom clerk.
"I took the job and ended up going from that mailroom clerk to the Senior Vice President of Operations," Cooley said proudly. "My salary went from $16,000 to over $100,000."
During that time, he met his wife Lisa, and they had two sons. In 2006, an opportunity came up to run a company in Providence, which brought him to Rhode Island. He is currently the CEO and has since then doubled the company's revenues.
Cooley said by writing the book, he risked millions of dollars as well as isolation from his community. Before it was released, only his wife knew of his past.
Today, a year later after the book was published, he speaks regularly to a diverse set of groups. "One night I'll speak to a group of prisoners and the next morning I might be in front of a room of executives," he said.
He said that while some community members have become more guarded or distant, he continues to tell his story for the people that his story touches.
After listening to Cooley speak in Exter, one woman took two buses to his book signing with her son, because she wanted her son to see a positive male role model, even for a moment.
"These are the reasons I need to be doing this," he said.
To meet Cooley and get a signed copy of his book, he will be at in Middletown from 6:00- 8:00 p.m this evening.
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