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Innerviews: VISTA worker made mark in adopted state

Growing up, mostly in Oklahoma and Indiana, Leon Copeland lived all over the place. After law school, he signed up as a VISTA volunteer, hoping for a big city assignment.

But no, they convinced him to choose West Virginia. Today, he will tell you it’s the best decision he ever made. Fifty-one years later, he’s a devoted Mountaineer.

He made his mark here as a lawyer, a federal public defender and a two-term legislator. Early on, he worked as a reporter for the Beckley Post-Herald, an experience he treasures to this day. Oh, how he loved the newsroom!

Given time and space, he could drop the names of dozens of VIPs he encountered during his productive, no-regrets journey.

At 76, health issues have slowed him somewhat, but he still talks wistfully of traveling and maybe even running for office.

Looking back on all the titles that punctuate the chapters of his life, none holds more meaning than that of happily transplanted West Virginian.

“In 1914, my grandparents immigrated to America. They went to Oklahoma City to be sworn in as citizens, leaving my mother and father in Shawnee, Oklahoma. When they came back, they discovered I’d become a citizen too. I was born.

“I found my citizenship papers in a safety deposit box and found my grandfather’s christening papers from 1892.

“My childhood was kind of hard. We traveled a lot. I counted up the number of houses I lived in, and there were about 40 different houses.

“My father became a tile setter, but they were farmers. In South Bend, Indiana, he became a tile setter. I’ve done some tiling around this house.

“There are several chapters in my life — a couple in South Bend and one in Oklahoma, and I also lived in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a fireman or an airline pilot, but I became a lawyer. I went to the University of Michigan and then to Indiana for law school. I loved Michigan. It was like an intellectual cafeteria, a mind-expanding place to be.

“I came here after law school, in ’67, as a VISTA worker. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I met a man in Denver who said I should go on one of the poverty programs. I said it sounded too goody two-shoes for me. He said, ‘Well, it’s good enough for Jay Rockefeller, would it be good enough for you?’

“I sent in an application for VISTA. I went to Baltimore to be trained and met a guy there named Gibbs Kinderman who now runs the radio station in Pocahontas County, and a guy named Rod Harless. They were in Baltimore trying to recruit people to come to West Virginia. I wanted to go to a big city, but they talked me into West Virginia.

“I landed in Beckley. Richard Gibbs met me at the airport. His father-in-law was Arthur Schlesinger who wrote ‘The Making of the President.’

“Gibbs ran this community action program in Raleigh County. He was something else. A scheme a minute, a brilliant guy.

“I liked West Virginia a lot, and I liked Gibbs, and I liked that community action program. I met Jay at Don West’s place at Pipestem, a folklife center.

“One day, we were all stretched out along a drainage ditch digging, and Jay was right across from me, and he had those long legs, and you could see the bottom of his shoes. And he had holes in his soles.

“I was there couple of years. In Beckley, I met Leonard Guldin, an editor at the Beckley Post-Herald. He asked if I would work for the paper as a writer. They gave me the beat I wanted. I covered all of downtown and the political campaign of 1968. I loved working at the newspaper. They pretty much let me do what I wanted.

“While I worked at the paper, I met a lot of politicians. One of the guys elected to the Legislature was Ted Stacy, and he asked me to come with him to Charleston as his attache. I interviewed all the candidates running for office that year. I did that on my own. So I knew them all.

“But I wanted to use my law degree. I came to Charleston to take the bar exam, and I passed. I met a lot of politicians, including Arch Moore. He was so dynamic!

“The newspaper owner wanted me to go to Charleston and take a trip with the Republican chairman of the county. They were going to Whitesville. So I traveled there with Arch in the car from Beckley to Whitesville. On the way, we went around a curve and there was a car turned upside down, and Arch stuck his hand out and said, ‘That has got to be eliminated!’ That was when I first heard of the REAP program.

“I didn’t know anybody here. I talked to Tim Barber, a lawyer downtown. He was a laugh a minute.

“I got a call from a guy named Robert G. Perry. They called him Joe. He said he heard I was looking for work. He wanted me to come work for him in the Peoples Building. I had dinner with him and his wife, Marion, at the Army Navy Club that evening, and he offered me a job with money. I was in favor of that because I was just about out and getting pretty anxious about it.

“He was always pulling something. We were in an elevator on the 14th floor of the Charleston National Bank one time, and he just turned around in front of everyone and said, ‘You may be wondering why I called you all together here.’

“I worked for him a year. During that year I met a man named Carl Duttine who ended up running the Diversified Mountaineer Corporation bankruptcy. That’s a whole story in itself.

“Carl was appointed federal public defender and asked me to work for him as his assistant. So I did. I had my own office by then.

“I represented Sara Jane Moore, the woman who fired at Gerald Ford. She was nuts, a real trip. She later escaped from Alderson.

“I loved that work. When Carl resigned, I applied and became federal public defender. I represented some bank robbers, drug dealers, all kinds of stuff. I loved it because I didn’t have a boss.

“I represented this one bank robber, Earl Wright. Robbing banks is what he did for a living. I had him write his life story for me. He was orphaned at the age of 5. He could write pretty well. He had 50 years to serve from Ohio and 50 more down here.

“I told him to write some more. He sent me a story published in the Florida Banker trade magazine. The name of the story was ‘What a Bank Robber Looks for in a Bank.’ He had his byline and he did a great job on that.

“I ran for the Legislature when I was working for Carl Duttine. I ran twice and won, and Jay and all of them supported me. I enjoyed meeting all the people. It was fun and exciting, and I was making some kind of contribution. I met some of the labor leaders, including Miles Stanley, president of the AFL-CIO.

“The Legislature wasn’t cooperating with Arch Moore and he tried to arrest the whole Legislature. That’s when I figured out why we were immune from arrest during the session, so the executive couldn’t arrest the Legislature.

“I was legislative administrative law judge. Then, in December 2011, I retired and got a job with Bob Smith in the office of judges.

“I had a stroke a month after I retired. It didn’t affect me much, except for my speech a little. I got some speech therapy. The therapist even wondered why I was there. I’ve had a couple of mild strokes since then. And I think I might have Parkinson’s.

“But I’ve had a pretty good life. I met my wife, Sandy, in my law office. A friend had recommended me. We’ve been married 44 years. We have three children and six grandchildren.

“I have no regrets. I’m glad I came to West Virginia. I liked it, and I stayed.

“I might run for office again, but it won’t be right away. It’s an expensive proposition.

“We’ve traveled. After I retired, we went to Europe. We went to Europe twice. Sandy had never been out West. I told her if you haven’t been out West, you don’t know the country. I took her out West.

“We drove for 5,000 miles before she asked to drive. Know where we were? At the top of Pike’s Peak. I said, ‘Why drive now, on top of this mountain?’ And she said , ‘Just to be able to say I did it.’

“I’d like to travel some more, but no more 5,000-mile deals.”

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazettemail.com or 304-342-5027.

Funerals Today, Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Armstead, David - Noon, Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.

Crawford, Charles - 7:30 p.m., Andrews' residence, Belleaire at Devonshire, Scott Depot.

Duff, Catherine Ann - 11 a.m., Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Jarrett, Shirley - 1 p.m., Mt. Juliet United Methodist Church, Belle.

Lawrentz, Deo Mansfried - 11 a.m., Koontz Cemetery, Clendenin.

McGraw, Judy Fay - 2 p.m., Jodie Missionary Baptist Church, Jodie.

Mullins, Alice Ellen (Blessing) - Noon, Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Staats, Anthony Vernon “Tony” - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.