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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
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Otto: Jim Copeland has been music to the ears of Tampa

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Technically Jim Copeland is going to retire sometime in August. Maybe. A few weeks ago he was honored at his “final concert.” Maybe.

Somehow I suspect you haven’t heard the last of the 78-year-old Copeland. You certainly have not heard the last of the music he brought to all of us. There are too many voices out there whose connections to music are largely his responsibility.

Copeland is retiring as music director at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in August, but that’s not where many of you encountered him.

Copeland was born and raised in Tampa. He prefers saying he was born in Gary, which you might not know unless you’ve been to the Gary playground, but it was more or less bounded by 23rd Street to the west and 40th Street to the east, north of Adamo Drive. His father was former City Councilman and at one point interim Tampa Mayor Lloyd Copeland.

“I grew up in the Church of Christ,” Jim Copeland said. “When I was about 15 my dad asked me if I would go over to another church and help lead their choir. That meant taking a couple of streetcars, but they offered to pay me $20 a month.”

He went off to the church-oriented Lipscomb College in Nashville, figuring to come back and maybe teach. Instead, “when I got home in 1958 I got a call from the principal at the new Chamberlain High School saying they needed a music director. I had a bachelor’s degree in music education and fit the bill.”

All of this sounds mundane enough, but you have to consider the state of music education in Hillsborough at the time, which was … well, lacking would be a nice way to put it.

“When I arrived at Chamberlain we had one chorus and I spent a lot of time handling study halls. Three years later we had over 200 kids involved in five choruses,” he said.

Copeland’s influence would continue to grow outside of Chamberlain as well.

A highlight for his program came when one of his groups performed for candidate Jimmy Carter at the old Curtis Hixon Hall. “He was so genuinely taken with us, he said when he made it to the White House he would invite us up.”

True to his word, the president in 1977 invited Copeland and his students to perform in the East Room and also for a national PTA convention at the Kennedy Center.

In 1982 he was named the county’s director of secondary music education. “The first thing I tried to do was get a string program in every secondary school, and we were ultimately successful.” Today more than 4,500 students are in county string programs.

There are more statistics, including a stint at USF teaching music education, but the bounty of Copeland’s career has been introducing music into the lives of young people.

He says from now on he’ll sit in the back of the church where his wife Bonnie plays the organ and piano. If they ask him to sing in the choir, he’ll do his duty. His rule on singing in the choir was always if you had a pulse you were in, but I’m told his voice still goes well beyond that.

Copeland is one of those we owe a debt to for bringing more music into our lives and especially the lives of the young. He would end every concert with the piece, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” You can only wish the same for Jim Copeland.

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