Kevin Cooper was only 8 years old in 1965, when his father, an officer of the William Levering School parents' organization, died of a heart attack.
Now 50, Cooper still has memories of taking the train into Center City with his mother to an art studio, where she picked out a sketch of a tall ship at sea and asked to have an oil painting made. His father had served in the Navy during World War II.
His mother, Anna Cooper, donated the "Sailboat" painting "In Loving Memory of William L. Cooper, 1917-1965" to the Levering School in Roxborough, at Ridge Avenue and Gerhard Street.
But Cooper found out a couple of weeks ago that the painting was no longer hanging over the office bench, a spot it had occupied for more than 40 years.
"My first reaction when I went into the school, was, I just blurted out, 'Oh, God!' " Cooper recalled the other day. "They had stripped the place to the bone."
He said that not only was the painting gone, but so were small artifacts of pewter and porcelain, as well as historical land deeds from the Levering family that had been stored in an old hutch.
The Leverings had established a school on the site in 1771, he said.
Cooper said the porcelain in the hutch had given the school a "homey" feeling, especially comforting for kindergartners away from home for the first time.
When he saw the school recently, he said, "Now it's stripped down to cold marble and concrete."
"It just really tore me up inside," Cooper said. "It was gut- wrenching. It was very upsetting.
(Someone from Levering school said officials believe the porcelain and pewter have been stored at the school. And the hutch is still there, one school worker said.)
Cooper learned during the 2003-04 school year that the school district was collecting art from the schools.
But he never imagined it would want to take a painting that his mother, a widow at 45, could afford to donate to Levering.
"I thought they were only interested in Renoirs or Raphaels," said Cooper, a service rep for an insurance company.
Kevin Cooper said he and his brother, who was 11 when their father died, went to Levering at a time when both mothers and fathers took active roles in school affairs.
"Schools were a community thing, and the parents kept them going," Cooper said.
Some fathers took days off from work to help out with school bazaars and set up tables and did the heavy grilling.
He said his father had been vice president of the Levering parent-teacher association for about two years.
Later, when Cooper was in eighth grade, his mother was president.
Cooper said he's not contending the painting was particularly valuable. (An arts curator said the artist, J. Winfaley, isn't really known.)
But Cooper said the painting means the world to him for its sentimental value.
He still lives in the house his parents bought 45 years ago, just blocks from the school.
He said the painting represents not only his family's connection to the school, but also, "it was the heritage of the school and the heritage of the community."
If his mother were still alive, he said, "this would kill her, this would kill her."
A school district spokeswoman said that the district has cataloged the painting as one found at Levering.
But no one could say for sure if it was among the artworks placed in storage.
An art museum source who was part of an advisory committee said the district had not put every piece of art into storage. Some pieces were left in the schools.
Cooper said he feels better knowing that at least the painting is listed in the district's catalog.
"I'll feel a lot better when I see it," he said.
He said he plans to go before the School Reform Commission tomorrow to ask what happened to the painting.
"I would like to see it hanging in the school," Cooper said.