Kelly Cooper’s first glimpse of the Great East Window of York Minster was otherworldly. The moment she approached the historic stained-glass window, sunlight broke through the clouds. The angelic voices of a nearby choir soared as she stood in the nave of the grand cathedral, watching the light pierce the glass and splash color across the stone pillars.
Yet, for Cooper, that moment of viewing the window — the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the United Kingdom — was not nearly as enchanting as seeing several of the stained-glass panels laid out on tables while glaziers tenderly repaired them.
York Minster is nearing the end of a years-long conservation project that uses a new, revolutionary protective glazing technique aimed at preserving the 600-year-old window for centuries to come. Cooper visited the cathedral as part of her research for her honor’s thesis on preservation techniques for historic buildings.
The history major from Midlothian, Virginia, has been named the 2017 Outstanding Senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
For Cooper, architecture offers tangible opportunities for capturing the past. “Material objects, archaeological sites, and historic buildings can tell us so much about the past,” she said. “We can learn about what events occurred, what society was like, and how people thought.”
Her thesis, which compares York Minster to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, highlights how interdisciplinary and international collaborations have affected preservation projects. In writing the thesis, Cooper drew not just from her history studies, but also the coursework she took while pursuing minors in medieval and early modern studies, art history, classical studies, and war and society.
Despite her penchant for the past, it’s Cooper’s presence in the present that has made her such a vibrant contributor to the Virginia Tech community.
The president of the university’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society, she has also served as editor of the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review for the past two years. She further founded Hokie Heroes, a program that enlists the help of Virginia Tech students to send gifts and thank-you cards to Corps of Cadets alumni serving overseas.
“As a history major, I’m often in classes with members of the corps,” she said. “That got me thinking: Thanking people is such a small thing. But it’s one of the best things you can do.”
Cooper’s hard work both in and out of the classroom has been recognized with an array of awards, such as the Department of History Banks Award and the Digital History Prize, and a range of scholarships, including the Patricia A. Gallagher Scholarship and the Leslie Sherman Memorial Scholarship.
After graduation, Cooper will pursue a master’s degree in Virginia Tech’s material culture and public humanities program, a collaboration of the Department of Religion and Culture and the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the School of Visual Arts in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
In graduate school, Cooper hopes to expand her thesis topic to understanding national and international preservation practices of coastal structures.
“I guess I just wasn’t ready to give up my research,” she said, laughing. “And this way I won’t have to leave my professors and their wonderful guidance yet.”
Her professors are in no rush to have her depart.
“Nominating Kelly as Outstanding Senior was a no-brainer for us,” said LaDale Winling, an assistant professor of history who served as Cooper’s thesis advisor. “We have so many talented students, but Kelly has been such a standout for the entirety of her undergraduate career. She’s consistently dazzled our department with her intelligence, determination, and passion for preserving the past.”