He was born in March of 1930 in rural Lowndes County, Georgia, to parents who were people of the land when that meant something.
Hahira, Georgia, would be made famous decades later by Ray Stevens in "Shriners' Convention". But not then.
His momma and daddy farmed some, had a general store, and personified self-sufficiency, living and dying by that year's crops...or lack thereof.
He was my father-in-law, Berry Raymond Coppage. At this writing, he's living day-to-day, waiting to go home.
He was the first--and only--child in his family to graduate from college.
He attended Norman Park Baptist College, Mercer University, and Union University. And a little Baptist school in Louisville, Kentucky, THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
I first met him when I took my future wife home from Mercer at the end of one school year. Raymond, Velma, Ray, and Ruth lived in a church-owned house on Atlantic Boulevard in Vero Beach, Florida. Debbie, the oldest, was married and lived just south of town. I met them all while I was there, and became Velma's hero when Jennie cut her hand while washing a glass and I doctored the wound, saving her life. Or you'da thought so.
Raymond was pastor of King's Baptist Church at the time I first met him. He pastored Southern Baptist churches for over fifty years in diverse locations all over Alabama, Georgia, and finally in Vero Beach.
A man is usually defined by what he does rather than who he is, and that's a mistake. While Raymond was a pastor by occupation, he was much more than that.
He loved his wife, Velma, so much so that he always made sure he remembered her with gifts on her birthday, anniversary, and other Hallmark holidays. The gift was always perfect...because one of his daughters usually did the shopping. You hear about spouses that complete the other. Velma overcompensated Raymond.
He loved his children. While it was late in life before he verbally confirmed this (that rural thing again) they had to know. He was a good provider and his family never did without, although they weren't rich by the world's standards.
His garden was a consistent source of pride. When he built his house on 39th Street his family might have wanted a pool, but what they got was a half-acre garden full of tomatoes, green beans, Vidalia onions, squash...you name it, he grew it. He knew you can't eat a swimming pool. His citrus was legendary; comparing his Ruby Reds or Valencias to something you'd find in a grocery store was like holding a watermelon up to a peanut.
He fished every chance he got, twice trying to kill me in the process. He liked to catch any kind of fish that bit and loved most a big bream on his line. Once on Blue Cypress Lake my sweetheart hooked a big bass and was fighting it to the boat. Raymond grabbed the new net we bought him for Christmas and stood ready to scoop said fish up when Jennie got it close enough. She reeled the fish up to the side of the boat, and, wanting to help the process, pulled it just far enough out of the water to make it easy for Raymond to net it. Whereupon the bass stood up, smiled, and spit the hook at all of us as we watched. We just leaned over the side of the boat, dumbfounded, looking at the dark water as if the bass would think twice, come back, and jump in the boat. He didn't.
Raymond's favorite food was all-you-can-eat. Jennie had her Senior Recital in the spring of 1978, and before the event our two families went to the Country Kitchen, a catfish place just outside of Barnesville. Jennie and I left early enough for her to prepare for the biggest event of her college life. Daddy and Mama and Raymond and Velma were finishing up when we left.
Or so we thought.
Did I mention it was "Shrimp Night" at the Country Kitchen?
Jennie had me checking again and again for our parents to arrive, since she wouldn't begin until they did. At the appointed time--exactly--I stepped outside the Recital Hall on the Mercer campus to see Daddy and Raymond running (as much as you can run with all the shrimp you can eat in your stomach) holding flowers for Jennie, and Mama and Velma trotting behind. The reason they were late? The women couldn't get the men to stop eating.
Once Raymond and I were at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. At some point they gave us twenty dollars and asked us to go somewhere else and eat.
Raymond loved God with simplicity and sincerity and consistency. He preached the Word. He loved gospel music and hymns alike. He was willing to do things differently if it meant reaching people with the love of God.
He had open-heart surgery in 1991 and I spent one night at the hospital with him. It was dark in the room and I thought he was asleep. He wasn't, and quietly asked me to read the Bible to him. I didn't really search out any specific verses. But God knew what Raymond needed, and when I "flipped" open my Bible here's what I found:
How blessed is he who considers the helpless;
The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.
The LORD will protect him and keep him alive,
And he shall be called blessed upon the earth;
And do not give him over to the desire of his enemies.
The LORD will sustain him upon his sickbed;
In his illness, You restore him to health.
That was 1991.
Raymond believed the Bible. He knew God loved him, delivered him, restored him to health.
I have a story account full of Raymond-isms, funny stories he's told, illustrations he's used. I'm drawing on that to write this, and after he's in heaven, I'll make more withdrawals. It's untapped wealth.
When I've spoken to him, he sounds weak--very weak. But he's alert and always asks how I am. I guess that's the pastor (or father) in him. Slowly winding down himself, he wants to know everyone else is okay.
I wish I could guarantee that everybody he cares about would always be okay. But that's out of my hands.
He's not afraid of death or dying. I've never known him to be afraid of anything, really. Men of faith are like that.
It's the rest of us who have a problem with it.