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Meanwhile, she reunited with the first man to have ever sent her a rose--Lance Cooper, the boy who had had an unrequited crush on her in high school. He heard she was back in town and called to ask her to lunch. She accepted and then called back to say she wasn't ready to date. He said he understood and asked her to call him if she changed her mind. But he called her again the next day and persuaded her to reconsider. They were married in 1993. Lance had spent 12 years as a computer consultant but never found as much satisfaction in that job as he does today as a stay-at-home dad taking care of their kids Stephanie, 13, and Anna Katherine, 1. That makes Cooper, like the FBI's Coleen Rowley, the sole wage earner.
But unlike Rowley, she is circumspect and uses few words to make big points. You can tell she is sizing you up as she chats in her friendly way. She has a disarming manner that could be described as politely tenacious. In her accounting classes at Mississippi State University in the mid-1980s, Cooper used to sit in the front row, dead center, says Phyllis Massey, her college roommate. And she would proceed to pepper the professor with questions, oblivious to her classmates' disdain. "It didn't matter if the bell was fixin' to ring. If she wanted to know something, she wanted to know," says Massey.
Cooper has always had a ferocious single-mindedness. In kindergarten, remembers her mother Patsy Ferrell, her teacher called home to complain that little Cynthia wanted to stay in and talk with the teachers during recess. At about the same age, Cooper became obsessed with getting a bike. But her parents felt she was too young and told her it was too expensive. Soon after, her mother found her hosing off her tricycle in the yard. She was planning to sell it so she could buy a two-wheeler. "You know, that was right pitiful, so we bought her the bike," says her mother.
Like Rowley and Watkins of Enron, Cooper grew up in a household where money was tight. She remembers the lights going out when she was little; her father Gene Ferrell remembers her worrying over him when she noticed a hole in the bottom of his shoe he hadn't told anyone about. As soon as she could get a job, she did. Beginning at age 14, she worked at a series of local eateries, including McDonald's and Morrow's Nut House.
But the biggest challenge was the Golden Corral, Cooper remembers. The veteran waitresses could carry an impressive total of five plates on their arms. Cooper could carry only a measly two. The manager was too nice to say anything but began gradually cutting her hours until she was almost de facto fired. So Cooper's dad bought her some weights, and she began training. Sure enough, she started to reclaim hours. "She'd rush home and put on that tacky uniform and go off to the little Golden Corral," says Cooper's mother in her most bemused Mississippi drawl. Today Cooper triumphantly recalls what the manager told her after several weeks: "I did everything I could to make you quit. You were the worst waitress I ever had," he told her. "And now you're the best."