News » Features

Coping With 60

BW's everlovin' Bill Cope turns a corner


The many calls and e-mails we get about BW columnist Bill Cope around here occasionally include requests. While the bulk of the callers, letter-writers and e-mailers are either engaged or enraged by Cope, they sometimes pass along ideas for a future Cope column.

To this, I reply just as I do to the rest of them.

"Cope," I say, trying to exude a world-weary tone, "is just not a horse that I keep in my stable."

Nor should he be. As Bill Cope turns 60 this week, it occurs to me that Cope, like any good columnist, has never been an attack dog deployed by the newspaper which publishes him. The paper should instead be a vessel for his words, when they arrive. So for more than 12 years, that's exactly what we've been doing.

Just a kid from Meridian. - COURTESY REBECA COPE

True, he does occasionally take suggestions from me. But my ideas rarely show up in his column as I suggested them. I was pleased to see him tackle the mayoral race in a column this summer, but other than include the names "Bieter" and "Tibbs," Cope's finished column didn't have much in common with my own ideas.

"My editor (damn his hide) has been hinting (strongly) he would like to see me do an opinion on the contract dispute Boise police are having with Mayor Bieter and the City Council," Cope wrote. "And that's not the worst of it. He's also suggested I should be the one to do any endorsing in the approaching mayoral election."

He proceeded to do neither.

So it goes. Cope has also, on occasion, referred to the BW staff as drunken sluts who barely manage to spell his name right, and who occasionally maliciously tinker with the punctuation in his column. He then apologized profusely, in two succeeding columns.

Cope began writing for BW in 1995. The reasons for his appearance vary widely. The first column, printed on January 19, gave him a tagline we've since abandoned: "Bill Cope is a trombone player. He lives in Meridian." The column in its entirety follows.

Cope still plays trombone and still lives in Meridian, a city he fusses over like a nervous parent.

Some of Cope's oldest friends, including occasional BW contributor Grove Koger, have taken partial credit for getting him started writing for BW. Nobody really goes very far with that.

Cope told me that when his first column generated an anonymous death threat, his wife Rebeca immediately became concerned with this new habit. Cope reasoned that a guy without the guts to sign his name to a letter wouldn't be likely to carry out anything as audacious as a public thrashing. So he stopped worrying about it. In fact, he says, over the years, it's been rare for him to hear of anything more violent than a contrary opinion. But one year, after the Idaho Legislature balked at removing the word "squaw" from various place names in the state, Cope took it upon himself to see what the shoe might be like on the other foot. In a column, he used lawmakers' names as substitutes for various unsavory things, and apparently someone noticed. A reporter in the Capitol told him that he'd better make himself scarce, because some of the targeted lawmakers had murder in their minds when they saw that column.

Recent history has its share of hornets nests poked in a Copish way. An August column about the overbearing noisiness of Harley-Davidson motorcycles generated a half-dozen angry letters, 19 comments on the Web site, drew thousands of page visits, and prompted one aggrieved Harley rider to demand that I give him a column opposite Cope in every issue of BW so he might rebut his various points. I turned him down.

"I decided that if I ever got my own opinion column, I would stick to insulting Republicans and racists and religious nuts, and that I would stay away from insulting big, leather-garbed guys on Harleys," Cope wrote. "Excuse me all to heck if you think that decision was cowardly, but everyone has to pick their fights in life, that's a given. And I chose to pick fights that didn't involve sprocket chains and leaded pool cues.

"But gradually, over the 40 years since the salad days of the motorcycle thugs, other things have come to frighten me more than big, leather-garbed guys on Harleys. Too much noise, for instance."

"I don't know much," Cope told me once. "But what I do know I like to spread around."

Or let's not forget the experience relayed by former BW editor David Madison in our 13th anniversary celebration issue:

"How about the time Bill insisted that if you leave enough Twinkies at the bottom of a bear's favorite tree, it will eat them, grow sleepy, and you can kill it with a Nerf bat? That one earned me a phone call from Bear Baiter Central, where an avid Baiter demanded I grant him equal time in the paper. This guy wanted to explain how it was physically impossible to kill black bears with Nerf bats."

Columnists aren't necessarily about equal time.

I'm told, by no less reliable a source than his wife, that Cope is a man of clockable habit. He writes in the mornings and the evenings. Plays his trombone. As we spoke, she looked at her watch. "Right now, for instance, he is most likely taking a nap." He is as reliable as a sundial.

"You can set your clock by that man," she said.

At this year's Best of Boise party held at the Idaho Botanical Garden, we took the risk of celebrating Cope's birthday with cake and a song. We even got Cope to say a few words, which primarily centered on how he got into writing in part because he doesn't like to speak publicly. We also offered our condolences to his lovely daughter, who occasionally endures a column devoted entirely to her upbringing, including the one printed last week that made many of us cry. Read it and see if you keep a dry eye.

Among the many things I feel lucky about in my association with Cope is that reliability of his. He appears most Fridays, shortly after our staff meetings, and brings along a floppy disk—we're just lucky he's using a computer—and we discuss the week's column and a few other things besides.

But more than that, I feel lucky to have a columnist who takes his job so seriously, who reliably delivers thoughtful and provocative material, whether readers love it or not. When the columnist wannabes line up at my door, I am ready to tell them what a "real" columnist does every week. Comparisons to Cope are usually the giant-killers that send people back to the writing table.

Happy birthday, Cope. You've been a curmudgeon for years, so I don't think 60 will change that. Thanks.

—Shea Andersen