Carol Cope (born Ida Ernestine Schrepel) was born September 13, 1909, in Tate, Nebraska, to Frank Joseph and Marilena (Pettinger) Schrepel. She attended the Pawnee County District 43 rural school near Tate and St. Anthony High School in Steinauer, Nebraska, before graduating from Burchard High School in Burchard, Nebraska, in 1926.
Over the next 13 years, she taught music and other subjects in Nebraska public schools while pursuing her own college studies. She graduated with a two-year teaching diploma from Peru State College in 1929, with a one-year break during her studies to teach in the District 24 rural school in Pawnee County. She taught in the Burchard schools from 1929 to 1932 before entering the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studied piano and organ under Professor Wilbur Chenoweth and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1934.
Carol then taught in North Platte from 1934 to 1938, rising to principal of Roosevelt Elementary School, before taking a teaching job at Randolph Elementary School in Lincoln. In February 1939, she resigned and moved to Pasadena, Calif., where she briefly joined a former UNL classmate in operating a private piano studio. After three months, Carol returned home and married Ronald James Cope, who had courted her throughout the 1930s, on June 21, 1939, at St. Anthony Church in Steinauer, Nebraska.
Like Carol, Ron Cope grew up and attended and taught school in Pawnee County. He was born to Alonzo James and Maude Grace (Smith) Cope on February 23, 1911, attended the District 37 rural school and graduated from Burchard High School in 1928. Ron completed the two-year Peru State teaching program in 1930, then taught in Pawnee County rural schools for two years and in Burchard for three more.
In September 1935, Ron joined his future wife in North Platte. He went to work at O'Connor Department Store, where he rose to manage the shoe department under Reuben J. Claussen, an O'Connor's partner. When Claussen opened his own shoe store in Kearney in March 1938, Ron moved there and became the new store's manager.
After their wedding, Carol and Ron returned to Kearney and invested themselves deeply in their community. They became co-owners of Claussen's Shoe Store with Reuben Claussen, who passed away in 1955. By the time the Copes retired in 1970, they also had co-founded Claussen's stores in Lexington and Holdrege and bought Famous Shoe Store, a block away from Claussen's in downtown Kearney. In addition, they hosted a weekly radio program, “Calling at Claussen's,” for nineteen years. Listeners enjoyed hearing about trends in shoes.
During World War II, Carol served as a Red Cross "Gray Lady" at the Kearney Army Air Base and a captain of the Junior Hostess Corps at Kearney's USO clubs. She and Ron belonged to many clubs and civic organizations in Kearney and Nebraska during their married life. Ron was elected in 1974 to the Nebraska Legislature, where he served two terms as 36th District senator. In the Unicameral, Ron spent six years on the Appropriations Committee and sponsored the 1978 law that established the Nebraska Safety Center -- which now bears the Copes' names -- at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
After more than 52 years of marriage, Ron passed away in January 1992. Carol passed away on her 103rd birthday in September 2012, just an hour after the conclusion of a small birthday party in her honor.
Alan Oldfather, a retired Kearney banker who was Ron and Carol Cope's financial adviser for many years, said the Copes invested their shoe store profits in farmland, stocks and other investments. Prior to his death, Ron Cope established a living trust in Carol's name. Over the years, donations were made through the trust, the Ron and Carol Cope Foundation and the Ron and Carol Cope Charitable Trust.
Oldfather said most of the assets of the living trust ”” including farmland and some Berkshire Hathaway stock ”” have been designated to various charities. He said he admired Carol Cope for the care she took in giving. “It's been very interesting. It's difficult to give away large sums intelligently.”
“We all think of Carol as a philanthropist, but she was more like Kearney's matriarch. She and (her late husband) Ron loved the city, and she wanted the best for everyone who lived here,” said Sherry Morrow, a close friend and trustee of the Ron and Carol Cope Charitable Fund and one of those who attended her final birthday celebration.
“Carol was a very special person who cared a lot about her community and state, her church and her country,” Oldfather said. “She was in the mainstream of lots of things.” Oldfather and his son, Bill Oldfather, who now is executive director of the Ron and Carol Cope Charitable Foundation, estimate that the Copes donated between $15 million to $20 million to various causes and organizations -- a legacy that the Copes' friends and colleagues are continuing through their foundation.
The Copes were recognized numerous times for their charitable nature and their volunteerism. In January 2006, Carol had this to say when she received the Thomas C. Woods III Partner in Arts Award at the
Governor's Art Awards
“I wanted other people to enjoy what I enjoy. It's good for people who are interested in the arts to find other people with similar interests and share it with them. That's what the arts are all about: sharing. Going to things keeps me alive; I need to see people. There are a lot of interesting people in Kearney. You get as much from talking to people as you do from reading and watching television.
“Each person owes something for the spot they occupy in life," she continued. “People need to be inspired. We need the influence of the arts to make our lives better, and that is one of my motivating reasons for contributing.”
Carol was a longtime member/supporter of NET Television and Radio and enjoyed attending NET events. NET remembers Carol in this article. Kearney's Carol Cope Transformed Her Community.
In this video, Carol speaks about the motivation behind her foundation's $1 million gift to the Ron and Cope Heart Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney.
Additional links to articles about the Copses' generosity.
Kearney Hub Article: Carol and Ron Cope gave estimated $15M to $20M during their lives
10/11 Now Article: The Archway in Kearney Receives $50,000 Grant
Information provided for this article from various news sources and review by Bill Oldfather and Sherry Morrow in July 2014 and Todd von Kampen in September 2014.
Cover photo: UNK celebrates $11.6 million gift from Carol Cope. Full story.