By James P. Needham
“Render therefore to all their dues . . . honour to whom honour” (Rom. 13:7). “. . . he being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).
Our beloved and highly esteemed James Rogers Cope changed worlds on June 18, 1999. It is like the passing of an era. He was my beloved brother in Christ, and a true friend of many years. I first met Jim and Georgia Deane when I entered Freed-Hardeman College where he was teaching in the fall of 1948. Harold Trimble married a girl from my home congregation, and he and Frances had attended Freed-Hardeman under brother Cope. He was preaching for the Bemis church near Freed-Hardeman. Harold preached many times at my home congregation, and he took me under his wing and introduced me to James Cope. He ad- vised me to take as many classes as possible under brother Cope. However, my studying under him was limited to one year, for at the end of my first year, he became president of Florida Christian College (Fall 1948). But, I profited greatly from his teaching in the classes I had with him. Several Freed-Hardeman students transferred to Florida Christian College with brother Cope. He asked me to come with him, but I had commitments that prevented it.
Through the years, however, our paths crossed and we developed a friendship that endured and grew stronger with the passing of time. We worked together in gospel meetings, and he was greatly responsible for my moving to work with the 9th Avenue church in St. Petersburg. At that time he was preaching for the Diston Ave. church in St. Petersburg. This afforded many opportunities for us to work together and deepen our friendship. He, some of the members at Diston, and I became fishing partners. Jim loved to fish, and we had some very fruitful and fun trips out on the Gulf of Mexico. Often when the pressure of his work became intense and he needed to get away, he would knock on our door with a paper sack in his hand containing his pajamas. When I would open the door, he would say, “I have come to spend the night and go fishing.”
Jim was an outstanding teacher. Very informal, yet a deep thinker. He had a wonderful mind. His classes were open, and students were urged to participate. Students were impressed with his humble spirit; never reluctant to say “I don’t know,” and always ready to change his mind if found to be mistaken. He challenged his students to think for themselves, and not just accept without further investigation what they had always been taught. His textual study classes were unique. Sometimes we would spend days on a single verse. It would be explored from every angle. There were usually one or two in the class whose knowledge was much less than they thought it was. Brother Cope enjoyed toying with such, not to embarrass them, but to prod them to do more study and to think for themselves. It was really a tragedy when pressing administrative responsibilities took brother Cope out of the classroom. Many young minds were thus deprived of the influence of one of the ablest teachers I ever had.
Jim Cope was a handsome young man when I first met him, and a very popular teacher. He had recently married Georgia Deane Combs, a beautiful young Texan, and Connie, their first child, was born while he was teaching at Freed-Hardeman. Jim was not only a popular teacher, but he was the preacher for the College church which met in the college auditorium. He was an excellent preacher, and the auditorium was always filled to capacity. Brother L.L. Briggance, a long-time teacher at Freed-Hardeman and a grammarian of the highest order, once said, “Jim Cope has one of the best commands of the English language of anyone I have known.” Coming from L.L. Briggance, that was, indeed, a high complement especially in light of the fact that he had been associated for so many years with N.B. Hardeman who was known as “the prince of preachers.” Jim was well-known for his “long-winded” sermons. He dealt thoroughly with any subject he undertook.
While Jim was the president of Florida College and an outstanding classroom teacher, he never ceased being a gospel preacher. He was dedicated to the preaching of the Word. He preached for many of the churches in the Tampa area and held gospel meetings all over the country. He preached quite a bit even after his short-term memory began to fail. He said, “I can still preach but I have to use copious notes and stay close to them.” I heard him preach for the last time in 1994. I was working with the Palm River church in Tampa, and he was attending there. We asked him to preach. It was a good lesson.
Jim was a very effective speaker. He could move one to tears one minute and laughter the next. He was a tender- hearted man. He often wept while speaking of things that touched his emotion. While teaching at Florida College and being closely associated with him, I wrote him a lengthy letter telling of my high esteem for him and how he had influenced my life for good. I mentioned the tremendous contribution he had made to the cause of Christ, and that Florida College had “James R. Cope” written all over it. I never realized how this letter would touch his emotion. He mentioned it over and over, and said he frequently read it and wept. It was something he needed to hear at that stage in his life, and I am so thankful that I wrote it. It brought some joy to his life when he needed it most.
Brother Briggance’s evaluation of his command of the English language was manifested vividly in Jim’s writings. He was a prolific writer, a genuine word smith. He authored several tracts and booklets which received wide circulation. Brother Cope and others at Florida College began the Preceptor periodical in November of 1951. It carried many of Jim Cope’s well-written articles. It became a very popular periodical, and was instrumental in clarifying many of the issues of the day. Brother Cope did much of his best writing in that magazine.
While I lived in St. Petersburg, Jim and I had opportunities to engage in many Bible studies. Members of the Diston church would sometimes have the Copes and the Needhams for dinner for a social occasion, but mainly to hear our studies of Bible subjects. We would sometimes continue until midnight. These were both enjoyable and profitable.
Jim had many “loves” in his life. He had an intense love for the Lord, his family, Florida College, education, and young people. He labored hard and long for the college. He struggled through the years with its financial problems which are quite common to all private schools. Because the school refused to accept money from churches, he and the college became the lightning rod for a liberal effort to arrest the college from his control. There were many battles, and at times it looked like the school would be lost to the liberals, but through Jim’s hard work, wise ways, and the help of many brethren it was saved and became the only college operated by brethren that neither solicited nor accepted subsidies from churches. Whatever good the school has accomplished stands largely as a monument to the life and labors of James R. Cope. Harry Pickup, Sr. worked for the college in public relations for many years. He once said, “James Cope is the most able administrator I ever knew.”
Following Jim’s retirement in 1982, his short-term memory began to deteriorate. It seemed to escalate following the death of his beloved Georgia Deane. During that time I taught at the college and saw Jim almost every day at chapel. We spent a good deal of time reminiscing of “the old days.” His long-term memory remained well intact, and we talked of our days at Freed Hardeman, of L.L Briggance, and other members of the faculty. We talked of N.B. Hardeman and Foy E. Wallace, Jr. and the major battle they waged over church subsidies to schools and other human institutions, and how this initiated the lengthy debate over benevolent societies, congregational cooperation, and other issues that led to a major division in the brotherhood.
Jim Cope was a country boy who did exceptionally well. He was raised on a farm, and wore his heritage well. I once heard him tell a young man, “Don’t ever rise above your raising. “That is, don’t ever feel ashamed of where you came from. Keep the basic values you were taught by your parents.” While keeping his country roots, Jim could mix with the humble and with men of distinction. He often did. When Roy Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee, Jim was chosen to introduce him on the steps of the court house in Henderson, Tennessee.
Jim’s loss of short-term memory was thought to be the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and sure enough it was. His last days were spent in the Clare Bridge nursing home in Tampa with little or no knowledge of his past, or the people he had known. But Jim never forgot his interest in the souls of men, for even after he entered the nursing home, he held Bible classes with some of his fellow patients.
In the course of our earthly sojourn we meet many people who influence our lives — some for good and some not so good. Most of us can list five or ten persons who influenced us for good far above everyone else we chance to meet. Among those who have had a life-lasting positive effect on my life, I would have to put Jim Cope somewhere close to the top. Jim Cope left vivid and well defined footprints on the sands of time. The memory of his work and the imprint of his life will endure for generations to come. His influence will live on in the lives of the thousands he touched. May God bless his memory and his family in such a great loss. We hope to meet again.