New York transplant builds a life in Tupelo

During a trip to a Civitan convention in New Orleans, George Copen got an idea for the service club to build wheelchair ramps. This is the club’s sixth ramp, which was built for Mildred Bell on North Spring Street. (Adam Robison)

During a trip to a Civitan convention in New Orleans, George Copen got an idea for the service club to build wheelchair
ramps. This is the club’s sixth ramp, which was built for Mildred Bell on North Spring Street. (Adam Robison)

By M. Scott Morris
Daily Journal

TUPELO – George Copen was born in New York City, and there was time after college when he thought that was the place to be.

“I tried it for nine months,” he said. “It chewed me up and spit me out, so I came back here.”

His parents moved from New York to Mississippi in 1954, when Copen was 11. Tupelo remains home for the 70-year-old.

“My dad was traveling this area, selling to garment manufacturers,” Copen said.

During the summers, he’d travel on calls with his father. Eventually, the pair visited clients in the elder Copen’s plane.

“He and I would take Sunday drives up to West Memphis, Ark., to take flying lessons because he didn’t want my mother to find out he bought a plane,” Copen said.

When the father retired, the son took over. He sold hooks, eyes and buttons, as well as material for waistbands and pockets.

He went from Texas to Georgia and up to Indiana and beyond. His Northeast Mississippi customers included Reed Manufacturing, Hunter-Sadler and Glenn Manufacturing.

“Just about every garment manufacturer in the area, I sold something to,” he said. “I might not have sold everything to them, but I sold something.”

It was a good business, then garment jobs started going south, literally.

“I was a commission salesman,” Copen said. “I told the bosses, I’m not going to learn Spanish.”

In retirement, Copen and his wife have traveled the country and made visits to Israel.

Copen also serves his hometown as a member of the Tupelo Luncheon Civitan Club. During a Civitan convention, he got an idea to build wheelchair ramps.

With financial support from Living Independence for Everyone, Civitan has built six ramps and has plans for more.

Copen has cerebral palsy, so he doesn’t cut wood or put the ramps together, but he arranges for supplies and helps with the planning, among other jobs.

“The thing I really like about Civitan is they gave me a chance to do what I can and what I’m comfortable with,” he said.

As the club’s official photographer, he’s also comfortable behind a camera.

He and others with Southern Light Photography club will showcase their work at GumTree Museum of Art beginning Aug. 15.

Artist Jason Tull will reimagine a Copen photograph in 3-D. Other artists will interpret club members’ work.

Copen likes the collaboration, but wants to tweak it.

“I think we’ve had it easy, the photographers. The artists use our pictures,” he said. “Let’s turn the tables on ourselves. Let’s ask a writer to give us a short story or poem, and then go out and make pictures to illustrate that. I always like a challenge, something different. That’s me, I’ve got to be different.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com

On Display

WORK BY GEORGE COPEN and other members of Southern Light Photography club will be on display at GumTree Museum of Art in Tupelo beginning Aug. 15. A reception will be 6 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22.