Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2008

De Soto loses ‘living history’

July 31, 2008

De Soto lost a link to its past with the death last week of longtime businessman and civic leader Leon Coker.

"We lost a piece of our history," Mayor Dave Anderson said. "That's something, when you can say that about someone - that they are history."

Coker died last Thursday at the age of 90. His obituary appears on Page 2A.

Anderson said Coker was a man with a great affection, passion and commitment for the community. Those were qualities he was willing to share with others and because of that much of what he remembered of De Soto during his 90 years was retained.

"He was willing to share it all with you, the good and bad," he said. "That part won't be lost."

One of this last projects, a photographic collection of past De Soto merchants, is on display at Abbott Hall.

Keenly interested in local affairs, Coker regularly attended De Soto City Council meetings and other community events until the last few months of his life.

Coker's contributions to the community include the city's library. He purchased the property on the south side of 83rd Street and built the first library building that was then donated to the Johnson County Library District. He was also on the committee that privately built the pool at Miller Park that was to become the first municipal swimming pool.

Coker and his brother Lloyd owned and operated Cokers' Store in downtown De Soto until 1981.

Coker's mercantile roots can be traced to this grandfather, Solomon Coker, who operated a store in Monticello and ran wagons down the Santa Fe Trail. The family became associated with De Soto when Coker's father Wes and uncle Ed opened a De Soto store on what was then Main Street, now 83rd Street, in 1905.

Leon and his brother Lloyd returned from World War II to take over the store. Lifelong De Soto resident Darrell Zimmerman said in its heyday, the store was the heartbeat of De Soto.

"Before they had street signs, residents would give directions by saying some place was so many blocks north, south, east or west of Coker's Store," he said. "It was the starting place for everything in De Soto."

Zimmerman said he remembered the store as a busy place, carrying everything from milk to bib overalls. The popularity stemmed from the Cokers' willingness to barter with local farmers for eggs and other produce and provide credit, and horse-drawn buggies could still be seen hitched up in front of the store during his childhood in the 1940s, he said.

"They were the big store, even when De Soto had four stores during the war" Zimmerman said. "It was a truly a general store. It was said if you couldn't find it at Cokers, you probably didn't need it."

Coker was known for his sense of humor and his support for the Democratic Party, for which he was a longtime precinct committeeman.

Pat Atchison, who described herself as a conservative Republican, said her near decade-long friendship with Coker involved those two aspects of his character. The political give and take that started when she and her husband, Bob, moved their Performance Glass business to downtown De Soto and continued after they moved to Lexington Avenue, she said.

"That was one of his fun things, to see if he could best me with political jesting," she said. "Once in a while we would come out on the same side, but not too often. But it was all good-natured.

"He would bring me things he hoped would get a rise out of me. And I would save things for him."


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