Remembering Mike Copp, solid as a rock
Post Independent Editor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Friends and colleagues who worked closely with Michael Copp, the man who ran Glenwood Springs city government for 20 years, will be gathering Saturday to share their memories of him.
Copp, 60, died Oct. 13 from liver cancer, after fighting the disease for two years.
“Through his whole illness, he never complained. He didn’t always share everything, because he didn’t want us to see how bad it was,” said Copp’s sister, Debbie Bair of Glenwood Springs. “That last night he went in the hospital was the first time he ever said, ‘I don’t feel good.’ I knew that wasn’t good, because he always said, ‘I’m okay.'”
Not complaining and always being upbeat are just a few of the consistently positive traits that made Copp an effective manager, leader, friend and golfing partner. He served as the Glenwood Springs city manager from March 19, 1984, to Sept. 10, 2004.
“Mike was somebody who had personality but no ego,” recalled Martha Cochran, who served on City Council at the time Copp was hired. “He really wanted to do the right thing, and that came across.
“He was not arrogant, he had no grand visions, he was not critical of things of the past. He just wanted to do a good job, and have a staff that was good and was appreciated. And he just quietly did that for the 20 years he was here,” Cochran said.
“What I came to appreciate about Mike was what a really professional city manager he was. He had the ability to make things happen,” recalled former Glenwood Springs Police Chief Bob Halbert, now of Vernal, Utah.
Halbert was serving as acting city manager and was the other finalist for the position when the council hired Copp.
“In retrospect, it was way the smart thing to happen,” Halbert said. “I really liked working with Mike. Our relationship was always friendly, and he was a great boss.”
In the old City Hall at Eighth and Cooper, where the fire station is now, Copp occupied the office at the front of the building so he could see people walking by or entering the building. His door was always open, Cochran recalled, and he always had time to talk with anybody – even a group of 10-year-olds asking to block off a steep street for a week of sledding.
City staff talked to each other using an intercom system, Halbert recalled.
“When I would call, he would always pick up the phone and say ‘Chief!’ I could hear a smile in his voice. He was always glad to hear from me. I always felt like I worked with him rather than for him.”
Copp’s easy-going personality made him an unflappable leader.
Police Chief Terry Wilson, who was promoted to the position by Copp in 1995, remembers the first night of the Coal Seam Fire in June 2002. Wilson and Darryl McQueen from the fire department were at City Hall at midnight, discussing the worst case scenario for the fire the next day. They concluded that if the fire made another big run, they would have to evacuate the whole town, and called Copp in to confer.
“For just a second, his jaw dropped,” Wilson said. “And then, without hardly missing a beat, he said, ‘What do you need to get it done?’ There were no questions. Mike just stayed calm, cool and supportive. For us in a crisis, that was priceless. He was solid as a rock.”
Copp was just as calm and grounded in his personal life.
“He was confident in himself,” his sister recalled. “Not a whole lot ever rattled him. He was just really calm.”
Michael Copp was the middle child in his family, with a brother, Gary, five years older and Debbie five years younger.
“According to Mike, Gary was illegitimate and I was unwanted and he was the only one planned for,” Debbie Bair said.
They grew up in Pueblo. Copp earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from what was Southern Colorado State in Pueblo and a master’s in public administration at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Then he started looking for a job as a city manager.
After getting about 150 rejection letters due to his inexperience, the little town of Tracy, Minn., agreed to take him on.
In Tracy, Copp met Bob Murray, who had a struggling dental practice and loved golf. They became lifelong golfing buddies and close friends.
“We’d make one trip a year to someplace warmer, like Florida or Arizona,” Murray recalled.
Copp moved on to the manager’s post in Elkhorn, Wis., and in the meantime Debbie moved to Glenwood Springs. Copp visited her here in 1983, at the time the city manager position had opened up, and he was anxious to apply. But he made sure, questioning her several times, that it would be okay for him to come be the city manager in the town where she lived.
In his first few days on the job, Copp and Halbert cruised around town in a patrol car, getting familiar with the community. Copp told Halbert that two police officers from Elkhorn, including one he’d demoted from chief to sergeant, had helped him move his belongings to Glenwood Springs.
Not long after, Murray came out to visit Copp in his new town. “He introduced me to the dentist whose practice I bought,” Murray said. He now has a father-son dental practice here in Glenwood Springs, and he and Copp still played golf together several times a year.
“He followed the rules of golf – he was incredibly honest and incredibly competitive,” Murray said. “We’d play for a buck or two, but no matter who paid, the other guy bought the drinks.
“We had made plans to be playing together this weekend,” Murray said.
As city manager, Copp’s focus and priority was doing the right thing and making good things happen for Glenwood Springs.
During his 20-year term, the city government annexed much of West Glenwood, built the Grand Avenue pedestrian bridge, overhauled sidewalks and lighting and installed public restrooms downtown, designed and built the river trail system, planted hundreds of trees, extended Midland Avenue to the west, and built the Community Center, a new City Hall and the Municipal Operations Center.
The face of Glenwood Springs changed from being a gritty, car-oriented shopping and industrial hub for the region to its present identity as a pedestrian-friendly, vibrant town that is attractive to tourists and comfortable for residents.
The city isn’t perfect, and Copp can’t be credited for all the changes, but he brought an attitude of “yes” to the ideas that sprang up from the community.
“When citizens or council had a good idea, he really considered it his job to figure out how to make that work,” Cochran said. “When he had a chance to make things better, he just went ahead and did it.”
“He was very driven to do good at whatever he was doing, whether it was golf or his job,” Murray said. “He was a a true ambassador for Glenwood Springs.”
That drive to do good was founded in the deeper aspects of his character, his friends say.
“He was very honest, very ethical,” Murray said.
“Mike lived by the Golden Rule,” Wilson said. “He was one of the most moral, ethical and decent human beings I will ever meet in my lifetime. He cared passionately about everyone around him. He was an absolute mushball, with one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen.”
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