When Wilfred “Bill” Copham ’49 went off to World War II he didn’t know what the future would hold. He entered the Army as a private and returned home a sergeant, but according to his son, David Copham of Forest Lake, Minnesota, the war provided a dramatic opportunity for the elder Copham to clarify his long-term goals.
David’s sister, Nancy Barnes of Livermore, California, echoed that the war was a pivotal place for Bill. “When he saw dead and dying men, the burden was on his heart. These men were going into eternity and many did not know the Lord,” she recalled. “He was going to do what he could do to make sure as many people as he could influence would go into eternity to be with the Lord.”
Bill returned home and followed through on the commitment he had made to minister, entering Northwestern in fall 1946. He graduated from Northwestern in 1949 and became a pastor.
Classmate William Gowler ’50 remembers Bill as “a very diligent and committed student who was passionate about his preparation for ministry.” Bill served as a pastor in rural churches, but saw his role as a shepherd to more than just his congregation.
“No matter where he was—on the golf course, with a waitress, a cashier—he always was able to ask the question about where they were spiritually,” Nancy said. “What were they doing with Jesus? Were they accepting him or rejecting him? I don’t think he met many people where he didn’t turn the conversation to the Lord.” Nancy said throughout his life her dad remained passionate about his call to share Jesus.
Passion Fueled Purpose
It was Bill’s passion and commitment to lifelong ministry that sparked a desire in David, a successful businessman, to remember his father in a special way—two ways, actually. Last summer, David and his wife Cheryl established the Rev. Wilfred & Grace Copham Pastoral Ministry Scholarship for the purpose of supporting Northwestern students planning to enter full-time ministry in a rural setting.
In his career, David came to recognize that many of the skills he used to build his business were similar to those his dad used in his pastoral ministry. “Budgeting, team building, bridging the factions—I realized in retrospect how much I learned from my dad.”
“You’re dealing with people straightforward, one on one,” he said as he reflected on watching his dad at work as a pastor. “You have to deal with backsliding, jealousies, sometimes even theological differences. It’s a tough job. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to set up this scholarship, because I know how tough it is.”
The second way David and Cheryl have remembered Bill Copham is through the commissioning of a bronze sculpture by artist Terry Jones. They wanted something that would reflect Bill’s love for reaching out and ministering to children, and the result was “Jesus and the Little Children,” based on Matthew 19:13–14.The sculpture was given to University of Northwestern and dedicated on July 1. It is currently on display in Nazareth Hall.
Reconciliation and Recognition
Despite the appreciation David expresses for his father, he admits that growing up a "preacher’s kid" was not easy and that his relationship with his dad, who was both a pastor and a former army sergeant, was sometimes strained.
Reconciliation came shortly before Bill Copham’s death in 2001. David was grateful that it was not too late and offered wise words to others who have "baggage" in their relationships: "When you feel in your heart there’s a softening, don’t let the moment get away. Even if it’s later on, even if it’s not received...don’t let the moment pass. I try not to let things go now; the older I get I realize we may not pass this way again."
David noted the contrast between the business accolades he had earned and the minimal recognition his father received during his lifelong career as a pastor. "We don’t know the people he’s influenced in his life, but God knows them," he offered. "I wanted to see something tangible to recognize my dad."
Written by Nancy Zugschwert