Sunday, September 28, 2014

Charles Thomas Copeland, Sr. - The “Southern Gentleman from Carroll County, Georgia”

Family lineage: Charles Thomas Copeland, Sr., Charles Thomas Copeland, Jr.

1901 – 1978
Whitesburg house in early 1900s
He was born in a small Georgia town, the oldest of five children born to a bridge tender on the Flint Bridge crossing the ChatahoochieRiver and his "humorless" wife (according to stories told by her grandchildren who had lived in fear of her). He was the grandson of the “Snakeman” (Robert Hatten Copeland) and nephew of Civil War veterans, Asberry and Dickson Copeland, whose lives were featured in earlier posts. 

This slender man with dark hair and blue eyes was called “Charlie” before his marriage, and “Tom” in his later years.  He might have seemed fragile to those who didn't know better or had forgotten his story.  There were only a few in his inner circle who knew that he had:  

  • survived tuberculosis with only part of one lung;
  • been a union organizer for the printers union and served as vice president of his local union at one time;
  • attained several high offices in the Knights Templar Masonic order;
  • operated both domestic and foreign printing presses of every make and model, and had  plied his trade all over the country;
  • worked for 59 years in his trade, and was the only pressman who could run a one-of-a-kind press (after his retirement, the machine had to be shut down). 
It seems that children during the early 1900s, didn't always start school at age 5 or 6 – at least in Carrollton, Georgia. Tom was 9-1/2 years old when he started first grade and only completed 5 grades before he went out into the world. When he was only 11, he began working after school, first as an office boy and then an apprentice printer for the community newspaper. 

Four years later, at age 15, his formal education ended when he ran
away from home and got as far as La Grange, Georgia where he was able to  convince a local printer to take a chance on him.  However, with the help of a local sheriff, his worried father found him three days later. Of course his dad made it clear that he was expected to come home immediately. That was until Charlie convinced him that he was safe, well fed and strongly believed that this was the best way to learn his chosen trade. According to his autobiography which he wrote in 1978, his father eventually agreed to let him try to build his life in this way and shook hands with him, saying, "You are on your own. Be a good man and believe in God – the house is always open to you. Your mother is worried.” From that time on – until his mother died in 1950 - he returned home often, and wrote regularly. Although he never did finish his formal schooling, he was self-educated and an avid reader – especially of newspapers.

In January of 1920, 18 year old Charlie, by now an active member of the printers union, was working for the Red Cross when he contracted tuberculosis. Fortunately the printers union agreed to send him to a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee where one lung and part of another were removed.  In a last ditch attempt to save his life, his doctors recommended that he run up and down the mountain every day in order to try to build up his lung capacity and strength. He did just that and a miracle happened!  After a year in the sanitarium he got a clean bill of health.  However, the doctors were still concerned and warned that he probably wouldn't live much longer than a year.  That death sentence factored in greatly to how he lived the rest of his life. Since he expected to die soon anyway, he went back to his Raleigh cigarettes (which he smoked well into his 70's) and got himself into some very dangerous situations as he traveled around the country.

After leaving the sanitarium he became a union organizer and traveled coast to coast, working his trade while recruiting for his union wherever he went. Some knew him as the “Southern Gentleman from Carroll County, Georgia” and at one point he served as Vice President of his local union. He told his son that whi1e recruiting members for the union around the country, the managers and owners of the printing companies were beginning to worry because union participation was growing steadily. As a result, there were threats made against his life and his union provided guards to protect him. One day, while in a small Texas town, tempers flared and violence broke out, so his guards surrounded him but lost their own lives and fell on top of him, which saved his life. It was only after he survived several reckless adventures that he started worrying about his health and got scared of dying.

Sometime between 1920 and 1930 he moved to Chicago where he met, married and divorced a young woman named Grace. Also during that time, he attended what he called the “World's Largest Trade School” in an effort to improve his skills. 

Following the tradition of his family, he joined a Masonic lodge and - for fun -  started roller skating. It was while skating that he met a red-head named Mae Finn, who was also skating in the Chicago Roller Derby. Before long, they fell in love as they danced on roller skates and discovered that they both had been born on September 6 but 13 years apart. It was no surprise, then, that September 6, 1935 was chosen for their wedding. 

A son and daughter were born to the couple and they continued to live in Chicago for the rest of their lives. Tom was honored as the oldest active printing pressman in the United States and was very proud to let friends know that he had worked at his trade until age 73, when he had to finally retire because of heart problems.

After having  survived tuberculosis in a time when few lived to tell the tale, he   took dangerous chances because he thought he had nothing to lose.  But when he looked around and realized he had come through it all, he became scared of dying and worried that it would happen any day. That day didn't happen until he was 77 years old and had lived to see both his son and daughter grow into adulthood and one of his grandsons graduate from high school.