Lawler was thrilled with how his relationship with Dr. Buffalino had evolved and how it led to the formation of the school district’s medical advisory board. The success he experienced with Buffalino and other local physicians emboldened him. His next target was much bigger: Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the world-renowned “Father of Aerobics” and head of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas.
Cooper started the aerobics craze in 1968 with the publication of his book Aerobics. Soon after, he founded the Cooper Aerobics Center, a health and wellness facility with a cornerstone of preventive measures such as physical activity, nutrition, and stress management.
“Our focus in our transformed PE program was cardiovascular fitness,” said Lawler. “I figured there wasn’t anyone better than the ‘Father of Aerobics’ to learn from and maybe to get involved in our program in some way.”
After a couple calls to the Cooper Aerobics Center, Lawler was able to talk to Todd Whitthorne, a close colleague of Cooper’s (and today the president and CEO of Cooper Concepts, a subsidiary under the Cooper umbrella). Whitthorne was immediately impressed with Lawler’s enthusiasm and evangelism for his physical education program.
“When I first spoke with Phil, I was quickly struck by his energy and his will to make a difference,” said Whitthorne. “He is relentless in terms of spreading this message about what physical education can be.”
After speaking with Lawler a few more times, Whitthorne thought the passionate PE teacher from Naperville, Illinois, would make a great guest on Dr. Cooper’s nationally syndicated radio show, Healthy Living. He told Cooper about Lawler and set up a phone meeting for the two.
“He’s an impressive guy,” said Cooper about his first conversation with Lawler. “And his passion is quickly infectious.”
Cooper told Whitthorne to go ahead and book Lawler for an upcoming Healthy Living show.
Lawler was a popular guest on Healthy Living and was asked back several times by Cooper. The show’s audience was always inspired by Lawler’s passion and the description of his PE program—and how different that program was from the gym class they remembered from their youth.
“He’s amazing,” said Cooper. “I think he’s the ultimate PE instructor.”
As Lawler’s relationship with Cooper grew stronger, Lawler thought he’d take the next bold step and ask Cooper to speak at his DuPage County PE Institute in Naperville.
“I asked him to come to Illinois to speak at our conference, thinking the chances weren’t great that a famous and busy doctor—who speaks all over the world at major medical conferences—would agree to come to our conference of elementary, middle school, and high school PE teachers,” said Lawler. “It turned out that he agreed fairly easily. He was intrigued enough by our conversations to want to take a firsthand look at what we were doing in Naperville.”
Not surprisingly, Cooper was a big hit at Lawler’s PE conference that year. And like Buffalino before him, Cooper was impressed with Lawler and Zientarski and their programs at Madison Junior High and Naperville Central High, respectively.
“The first time I saw the Naperville operation, I thought it was clever and unique,” says Cooper. “It was a new concept, scientifically based, looking at outcomes. I saw the leadership of Phil Lawler and Paul Zientarski. I thought it was a program that probably set an example for PE programs in schools nationwide, if not worldwide.”
Cooper was also impressed by the fact that all Naperville 203 students, including athletes, take physical education daily—without exception.
“They require all their athletes, who are normally excused from PE in other schools because they participate in sports, to take PE,” says Cooper. “That’s because they incorporate a lot of health and wellness topics. It’s not just sports, like it is at so many schools. It’s interesting that since they incorporated mandatory PE for all athletes—about 15 years ago—they’ve won more championships than they won in the previous 50 years.”
Although Cooper had long been active in promoting children’s health, his long-term relationship with Lawler caused him to focus even more on the importance of children’s wellness, and it spurred him to undertake several major initiatives.
“I’ve used Phil’s work and great experience in the field to set up programs we have in Texas that are now getting international interest,” says Cooper.
After visiting Naperville, Cooper flew back home and grew increasingly frustrated with the poor levels of health and wellness of K-12 students in Texas.
“Phil helped get me on the warpath for physical education here in Texas,” says Cooper. “It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had tremendous rebellion here.”
Cooper initiated several wellness efforts in Texas targeting K-12 students, including a multiyear campaign to get physical education back in Texas’ schools on a regular basis. It was a long, hard battle, and there’s still a long way to go, but Cooper’s commitment and hard work—and Lawler’s ongoing support—finally resulted in the passage of Texas Senate Bill 530 in 2007.
“Senate Bill 530 brought PE back into the schools on a regular basis for the first time in 20 years in Texas, making it mandatory for grades K-5 and part of six semesters for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades,” says Cooper. “We also tested the fitness levels of 2.6 million kids in Texas, through the 12th grade—starting in January 2008—on the Fitnessgram test. I used, as a basis for this fitness research, the example of the programs in Naperville.
“At the Cooper Center, we’ve been doing things with kids for years, but my interest didn’t really peak in working with kids until about five years ago; and Phil Lawler’s a big reason for that. I speak very highly of Phil. His example is a big reason I worked so hard to raise $3.1 million in three months so we could equip all 9,000 schools in Texas with the equipment to do the Fitnessgram testing and to prepare 20,000 teachers to do the test.”