July 28, 2017

James R. Cope

By Connie W. Adams

The death of James R. Cope leaves a huge empty place in the lives of many people besides his own family. Several tributes to him have already appeared and I am sure more will follow. Each writer has his own story to tell about brother Cope and that reflects the nature of the man who touched so many lives in a personal way. My remarks will show the same personal feelings from my own perspective.

I was a sophomore at Florida Christian College when brother Cope began his work as president of the school. At 32, he was the youngest college president in America.

But he was more than a college administrator. He was outstanding gospel preacher and a superb classroom teacher. It was a great loss for students when administrative duties forced him from the classroom. The challenges of putting a fledgling young school on solid educational and economic ground were enormous. He never lost sight of the purpose of the school and the line which had to be drawn between the school and the church.

When the crisis came in the mid-fifties over institutionalism and some board members and even faculty declared their opposition to the direction in which he was leading the college, he never wavered or blinked and made it clear that his soul was not for sale. The majority of the board stood by him. Such a decision took a heavy toll in financial support and in the pool from which students were drawn. There was a critical time when even the future existence of the school hung in the balance. But friends and even business people in the Tampa area who saw the value of the school and its goals rallied to its aid. The crisis passed and things gradually improved until the school reached its academic goals and was situated more firmly financially.

Those years demonstrated a willingness to face head on issues and controversies of the day. Annual lecture programs featured lively open forums in which such issues were vigorously discussed. James R. Cope was often found on the floor clarifying some point or contending for his conviction. Those of us who were a witness to these events will never forget them.

Brother Cope (I never called him “Jim” nor shall I ever refer to him that way) had a very warm personal side. My own father who had very little formal education felt perfectly at ease with this man who could “walk with kings, nor ever lose the common touch.” His east Tennessee rearing never left him. He was a delight to have as a guest in our home. He could kick off his shoes and unwind after a service. Someone said he was so relaxed he could “wear” a chair. He could go out in the yard and shoot baskets with the boys (I saw him do this when he was well past 50). He loved to hear and tell good jokes. He used to tell some to students in chapel before going back to classes. Once, when Weldon Warnock, my brother Wiley and I were doing a show one afternoon to raise money for tennis courts, we talked him into helping us with a stage joke. He was disguised until the very end when I asked for a hand for our assistant and the audience was greatly surprised to learn it was the school president.

He held a meeting in Akron, Ohio at Brown Street while we lived there. One night I sat down beside him on the front row just before time to begin. He was looking over a brief outline for his sermon that night. It was written by hand on a jagged piece of a paper sack. I kidded him that it did look like the president of a college could have a more prestigious looking outline. He grinned and said, “Aw, it works fine this way.”

Near the end of my sophomore year, he called me into his office one day to tell me he knew that Barbara Colley and I planned to marry that summer and that my folks were hard pressed to help me settle my school bill for that year. He said he knew a man who might be willing to help me on that but that he did not want to be identified. During the summer I was in a meeting in the panhandle of Florida when a letter came from brother Cope which said that this unnamed man had settled my account. To this day I do not know who the man was, but it was brother Cope who made this come together for me and I shall always be grateful.

One of my deep regrets is that the year he retired as president, I was not able to make a speech. He had personally requested that I do so. That year we had my aging parents with us and it was just not possible to go.

In an age when conviction and principle are in short supply, we could use a few men of the stature of James R. Cope. What did I learn from James R. Cope? “Buy the truth and sell it not” (Prov. 23:23). “Earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “That you should learn in us not to think of men above that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). From his years as editor of Preceptor I learned that men of principle can deal with controversy with restraint and dignity while pressing truth and exposing error. I also learned from brother Cope that the church for which Jesus died is far more important than all the institutions built by men, however noble the intentions of those who started them.

To Connie, Cathy, Butch and their families, our deepest sympathies are expressed along with heartfelt thanks for.

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