Nonagenarian continues to learn in retirement years

Arbor resident Robert Copp shows a photo of himself in uniform during World War II; he was one of several veterans honored on Veteran’s Day. 


by Debra Talcott
Legal News

One might wonder what could be on the bucket list of a man who has lived long enough to raise three children and be a grandfather of nine, great-grandfather of four; to have served in the military during World War II and again during the Cold War; and to have retired after a distinguished career with Ford Motor Co.  For Ann Arborite Robert Copp, the answer is simple—take a modern physics class.
His sense of humor fully intact, Copp explains why he spends one day a week learning about the postulates of relativity and quantum mechanics. “Maybe there’s a story about the push of us veterans of the Second World War to get back to finish school under the GI Bill,” says Copp, with a twinkle in his eye.
Born in Pennsylvania, Copp lived in Kansas and Ohio before his family moved to Michigan. He graduated from Dearborn High School in 1938 and began his studies at the University of Michigan. He now lives just a few short miles from his first dormitory at the West Quad.

“My academic work was never what you would call exceptional,” he observes. “But I was always a student employee somewhere in the law school during my years there.”

Copp’s work as a reference desk attendant in the law library reading room may have reinforced his decision to pursue his LLB from the U-M, a degree that he earned in 1950.

“I was never a practitioner, however,” says Copp.  “I spent my whole career in labor relations at Ford Motor Company, where my vice president, a Michigan Law grad himself, liked to hire law grads.”

Early in his career, Copp was involved in the establishment of the Ford manufacturing plant in Genk, Belgium, opening in 1962.

“The tough and controversial forthcoming closure of that plant was recently reported in The New York Times,” says Copp.

Later in his career, Copp served as the international labor affairs manager. Although he held an important position, he never forgot his humble beginnings with Ford that began when he was only 15. Copp worked first as a farm laborer and tractor driver, then as a guide and chapel leader at Greenfield Village, then as a shaper hand for Ford’s 1941 aircraft engine contract.

Copp may have witnessed major changes in the automotive industry during his years with Ford, but when he retired in 1986,he could not have predicted how technology would change the next years of his life.  Unlike many people half his age, however, he has embraced his desktop computer and keyboard, and he appreciates all the doors the internet has opened for him.

“My son Richard was the one who got me my first computer in 1992 and encouraged me to use it. I took a class at Washtenaw Community College, and now I couldn’t live without it.”
Copp wishes the Web would allow him to communicate with old friends from his years in the military. Sadly, few of the men he met after enlisting in the Air Force Combat Command during his senior year of college are still alive. Copp enlisted soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in the Signal Corps in Washington, D.C. and at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey during  World War II.

“I was a senior mentoring a freshman who happened to be the son of the dean of the School of Architecture. I was sitting at their table for Sunday dinner on Dec. 7, and the phone rang. That’s how we learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So I hitchhiked home to Dearborn to tell my parents that I wanted to enlist.  They weren’t home when I arrived, so I was sitting reading The Free Press, and when my mother walked in and saw me, the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I knew it.’  I guess she had figured that the news would make me want to enlist.”

After his return from service, Copp married Charlotte Ann Powers, the same young woman who had been his high school prom date years earlier. His late wife was an economics major and a graduate of the University of North Carolina.

Copp proudly tells how the two of them were first and second in their high school graduating class. “Charlotte¸ of course, was number one, and I was number two. We both had grown up in West Dearborn and had stayed in touch during the War,” Copp reflects.

After their marriage, Copp remained a reserve Army captain, and was recalled to active duty in the General Staff Corps with the 4th Infantry Division in Germany from 1950-52. While he was out of the country, Charlotte and their baby daughter, Margaret, lived in North Carolina, where Charlotte’s parents were residing at the time.

“I was active in planning and overseeing integration of the troops,” he says.

Copp was one of the veterans honored at the Veterans Day festivities held at Brookhaven Manor, the Ann Arbor retirement complex where he has lived for the past eleven years.

“I was lamenting on Veterans Day that my division had received its second Medal of Honor, and I’d like to be able to brag with my former colleagues, but there just aren’t any around.”

Copp says all the Brookhaven veterans shared photos of their younger selves in uniform; the resident manager gave them letters thanking them for their service.  The trademark songs from each of the four branches of the military were played, and everyone recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Copp is one of those people with a real gift for storytelling, sharing over the Internet. The Internet is, again, his favorite way to share what is happening in his life with his extended family. Interested in a variety of subjects, he reads the newspaper daily and lets family and friends know what he is thinking.

“I read The New York Times every day thanks to a subscription from my lawyer daughter (Catherine) in Washington.”

Copp could serve as a role model for anyone approaching retirement and wondering how to stay young at heart. He stays actively engaged in current events, and he is passionate about learning new ideas and challenging himself to try new ways of looking at the world. Even the way he made the decision to give up his car was methodical and reasonable. After owning his 19th Ford Taurus, Copp decided about a year ago that his driving days were over.

“It was not easy, but I did it voluntarily before my kids had to raise the subject. Even before I stopped driving, I had set some rules for myself, such as not driving at night or on football Saturdays.”
Copp considers himself blessed in three important ways.

“First, my daughter Margaret and her husband and children live in Ann Arbor, so I have visitors regularly.  Second, our retirement community has a good transportation system.  Third, Ann Arbor itself has free, outstanding bus service, and seniors can take the taxi for $2 and a tip.”
Copp’s current challenge—the physics course—has not ended yet, but he already has his sights set on his next project.

“I’d like to arrange to have an Episcopal rector from St. Andrew’s in Ann Arbor hold a monthly service here at Brookhaven.”

Thinking about how the service might appeal to residents of any faith makes him chuckle about his own family’s openness to a variety of faiths.

“We are a very ‘pantheistic’ family,” says Copp. “All of our children were baptized in the Episcopal Church, but our eldest daughter, the retired nurse, is active in the Unitarian Universalist Church, our lawyer daughter married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism, and our youngest son married a Catholic girl.”

At least one topic all of Copp’s children have been able to agree upon was where to attend college. All three followed in their father’s footsteps and graduated from the University of Michigan.

When asked if he has a particular memory of his own University days to share, Bob Copp is quick to answer.

“I don’t know if you would know of him, but I had American Literature class with a football player named Tom Harmon,” Copp said of the famed Heisman Trophy winner, whose son, Mark, stars in the CBS television hit NCIS. “He was a year ahead of me at Michigan.”

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