Before the accolades, before Airbus and Austal, Reggie Copeland was about to retire in 1985 from Alabama Power when he read an article discussing the new council-mayor system.
“The article said there was going to be a meeting about the new government at Murphy High School. I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to go listen to what they have to say,’” Copeland said.
That meeting turned into 28 years as a Mobile City Councilor.
Since the beginning of the Mobile City Council there has been a constant presence … Copeland. When October gives way to November that will no longer be the case.
After 28 years as a councilor and 12 years as the City Council president, Copeland is leaving the world of an elected official behind.
“I’m retiring, but I’m not just going to sit at home,” Copeland said. “I’ve already accepted a part-time position at Turner Supply. I turned down a few other jobs before Turner. I felt that the people here really understand I want to spend time with my grand and great-grand kids.”
Copeland has never had a reputation for not staying busy.
The list of Copeland’s accomplishments is as long as his career. Copeland was on the committee that founded Junior Miss, which became Distinguished Young Women. He helped usher in changes to the city’s skyline. He was there at the groundbreaking of the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center and also at the groundbreaking for the Airbus Final Assembly Line.
“I’m most proud of the convention center and the revitalization of downtown Mobile,” Copeland said. “The Downtown Mobile Alliance has done a great job. I think the first step in making downtown vibrant was the convention center. Before, you could walk down Dauphin and not pass 12 people.”
Before Copeland began his illustrious career, he had to face eight opponents in his very first election. He passed that test, but had a tough hurdle to clear during the run-off.
“I almost won, but didn’t. I had 42 percent. That’s when I had to go up against a multi-millionaire, Bert Meisler. I though, ‘Oh no!’ Thankfully I have been blessed with supportive family and friends,” he said.
Since he bested eight opponents in the first election, Copeland has only had one other election where he was challenged. In 1993 two people ran against him, but he won another term. That means Copeland was only challenged two of his seven elections.
For most of Mobile’s recent history, Copeland has been on the frontline and in the meetings that made news.
He also unfortunately helped then Mayor Arthur Outlaw make the news.
“I had just become a councilor when there was a tropical storm possibly heading our way. It was right around Halloween time so someone called me and asked what the city’s plans were for trick-or-treating. Well, I hadn’t thought of that. So, I called up (Outlaw) and said, ‘We need to think about this,’” Copeland said. “So, he ended up canceling trick-or-treating for that night. He took all the people calling in telling him he was crazy.
“I was so embarrassed. I apologized to him, but I was so embarrassed. Mayor Outlaw would never have thought of cancelling trick-or-treat if it were not for me.”
Copeland said he learned from the early experience and obviously that’s not the only thing he’s picked up in his seven terms.
The longtime councilor and president offered some advice to the new councilors — his successor Joel Daves and District 2’s Levon Manzie — as well as whoever is elected City Council President.
“The city of Mobile should come first and then the district you represent. A councilor should be looking after Mobile first. Also, I’ve tried to be objective since 1985. Whatever was good for the city or District 5, that’s what I voted for,” he said. “A councilor should be able to work with others. Teamwork is what gets things done. I’ve had very few problems with the administrations throughout the years.”
The two councilors — Gina Gregory and Fred Richardson — who have flanked Copeland at the City Council table during his last term agreed he worked for the city not himself and was a textbook example of a public servant.
“Reggie is a terrific friend. Our districts are next to each other so we work on a lot of things together,” Gregory said. “He is so dedicated to the city and really is the role model for what kind of person should be a councilor. He’s so funny and the jokes he tells, kill me. I’m really going to miss him. Whoever is elected president has big shoes to fill.”
Richardson has sat beside Copeland and served with him the longest of anyone on the current council. He also said Copeland puts the city first.
“Reggie is the councilor extraordinaire. He loves the city of Mobile and his work reflects that,” Richardson said. “I could always count on Reggie to be on the side of the city and vote for what is best for Mobile.
“There is no doubt that I will miss him. He’s outstanding and the entire Copeland family are outstanding people. I’ve been blessed to know and work with him.”
Copeland’s dedication and hard work is what made people fight for him to serve just one more term.
As Copeland was getting to retire in 2009, it was the administration that convinced him to stay.
“In 2009 I told my wife Betty I wanted to retire. Mayor (Sam) Jones called me and asked me not to. He said he needed my help,” Copeland said.
Little did the councilman know, but just a few months after changing his mind, Betty passed away. They had been married for 59 years. Copeland said it was the council that helped him fill his time after his wife’s death.
“I found myself going to the refrigerator six, seven times a day. I would think, ‘what am I doing here? Oh, right. I’m bored.’ Then I would snack, snack, snack,” he said. “I started eating and not staying busy, but the council got me out of the house.”
Copeland doesn’t have to worry about being bored and alone at his house after Nov. 5. He remarried on April 21, 2012, to wife, Jean.
The councilman said he wouldn’t be at the council meeting Nov. 5 where his successor will be installed. Instead he’ll be leaving to vacation in Ireland with Jean and another couple.
“I’m glad I’m going to be traveling that day. It will take my mind off of it,” he said. “I’ll be focusing on that instead of wondering what’s happening at the council meeting.”
Even though he won’t be serving in an official capacity with the city anymore, Copeland perhaps knows better than most where the city of Mobile is headed and where its hidden gems lie.
For example Copeland said one area is a perfect spot to be the next Dauphin Street.
“St. Louis Street has all the potential to be great. It’s wider than Dauphin and it’s goes two ways,” he said. “Now, I don’t own property on the street so it’s not like I’m trying to get anything from it, but that street could be the next big development for Mobile.”
Using his eye for development for Turner Supply and travel are what’s on Copeland’s to do list after Nov. 5. The retiring councilor said he wants to go to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore and the Hoover Dam. He wants to travel abroad to Costa Rica and he has plans to go to Maine next year.
“I can’t wait to travel, but I don’t want to let down the people at Turner Supply. They’ve been wonderful to me,” he said. “I might be retiring from the council, but I’m sure I’ll be around helping the city however I can.”