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I'm Not Sure What This Has to Do with Richmond, But There is a Lesson in Here Somewhere

The following appeared in the April 8, Northwest Arkansas Times, the local paper in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the town in which I grew up:

Coppage gets 20 years for beating mother, 88

Posted on Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Fayetteville man agreed on Monday to serve a 20-year sentence in the Department of Correction for beating his 88-year-old mother, Willine Coppage, in April 2007.

George Ronald Coppage, 63, pleaded guilty to first-degree battery on Monday before 4 th Judicial District Circuit Judge William Storey. The case had been set for trial on Thursday.

The 240 month sentence to the battery charge runs concurrent to sentencing for a probation revocation, according to court records. After Coppage beat his mother, her face was "swollen with both eyes nearly shut." according to information filed in the case.

Coppage was initially charged with first-degree domestic battery on May 4. Charges were later amended to second-degree murder after his mother died on May 10.

Amended charges of first-degree battery were filed Thursday. He had also been charged as a habitual offender because he has six prior convictions for driving while intoxicated.

Today, I responded to the newspaper’s offer “FEEDBACK: Something to say about this topic?” and wrote the following:


As a close friend of George Coppage for some 50 years, this is a sad day for me. This is a story of a man of substantial achievements and promise who now resides in prison for at least the next four years largely as a result of an addiction to alcohol.


George arrived in Fayetteville with his family, from Oklahoma when we were in junior high school. He immediately established himself as a star athlete in football, basketball and track. He set state track records that endure to this day.


His father, Joe Coppage, and his mother, Willine, were very proud of him. His sisters, Jerri and Jan, were pretty and popular blondes. They were a happy and talented family.


George was a superior, if not outstanding, student, and he continued to excel in athletics as a starter on the 1962 Bulldog football team that tied for first place in two conferences and the basketball team that was the runner-up for the state basketball title.  He was also a talented musician and Fayetteville High School band member, taking many honors as a trombonist in state competitions. He starred in the Senior Play.


He spent summers working in the national forests and national parks of the Rocky Mountains. In the summer of 1962, we drove together to Grand Teton National Park where he was part of the fire suppression team, and I hitchhiked another 300 miles north to a job in the Kootenai National Forest on the Canadian boundary. George had college scholarship offers in both football and music, but he pursued neither. He took up the banjo and became a world class picker, and he took parts in University musicals.


After graduating from the University of Arkansas, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He took flight training at Lackland Air Force Base and went to Vietnam where he flew C-123s in a variety of combat support missions. I spent a day with him in 1969 spiraling in and out of jungle airstrips that scared the hell out of me.


George was awarded the air medal for his Vietnam service and went on to pilot the much larger C-141s out of Travis Air Force Base in California largely in Vietnam re-supply missions. He left the Air Force in 1971 as a captain.


When he got out of the Air Force, George went back to school for master’s degree in English and a teaching credential. He taught English in high schools in several cities, but got into heavy drinking while working in Wilkes-Barre, PA, after an airline stewardess he had been dating was killed in a plane crash.


George pursued his teaching career, and by all accounts, was an outstanding teacher. But alcohol and post traumatic stress syndrome from his Vietnam experiences started to drag him down. He pursued help from the Veteran’s Administration, but a string of DUI arrests put him behind bars more than once.


By 2007, he was living with his aging mother and working part-time in a half-way house in Springdale. With his driver’s license long gone, he was driven to work each day by a co-worker.


Who knows what occurred that day in April of 2007 when George’s 88-year-old mother whom he had been caring for several years after his father’s death, was apparently beaten by George. He told me it was unintentional. Despite his other problems with the law involving DUIs, George had no history, whatsoever, of violence. I understand that George’s younger sister, Jan, died of alcohol-related problems.


I have visited with George off and on for these fifty years in many places, including Vietnam, Texas, California and Arkansas, while watching his life close in around him. I last visited him in the Washington County Detention Center just after Christmas of 2007 where we were connected only by a fuzzy TV monitor.


None of this is to excuse the alcohol abuse, DUI’s and whatever he did to his mother, but I think it’s important to remember that underneath all of that is a person that once could excel at anything he wanted to but was brought down by the disease of alcoholism -- perhaps aggravated by his service to his country -- something that neither he nor the larger society was able to overcome.