Gentle with grit, grace with gumption

There was hardly a day in my first 15 years at the York News-Times that I didn’t hear the same calm voice come over the scanner, dispatching law enforcement, fire and medical responders.

Hers was a voice of unflustered reason, as she directed these departments to thousands of situations after carefully obtaining the pertinent information from concerned individuals.

She handled emergencies as a second nature – and in my personal experience, she also graciously dealt with my irritating curiosity as I tried to do my job.

When I first started here, I quickly realized that Joann Copeland was fiercely protective of her sheriff and deputies. Just because I was standing outside her 911 dispatch office didn’t mean she was going to immediately bother any of them, should I waste their time.

It took about six months for Joann and me to figure each other out. Maybe I wore her down, maybe she started to trust me, maybe she realized I wasn’t quite as crazy as I seemed. Regardless, she decided to give the new reporter a chance.

I saw she had gumption and grit – behind her gentle grace. I saw her sweetness in the middle of the seriousness of her job.

And somewhere in that first year, we became friends.

On so many occasions, she and Sheriff Dale would give me a good-natured hard time – and we’d all laugh while I tried to figure out if they were joshing me.

I’d ask them about an event the day prior and Dale would ask Joann to dish out the details. She would instruct, “Get your pen ready, I’ll try to remember this as detailed as possible. Dale, stop me if I forget anything.”

So in reporter mode, I’d hurriedly get a fresh page in my notebook and put the pen in place so as to not miss one word of Joann’s recollection of events.

Then, she would speak.

“Well, a mountain lion was running across the road, chasing a giraffe, when they were hit by an airplane that was being flown by Big Foot. Big Foot had to make an emergency landing because he was afraid of the alien spacecraft that had been following him.”

Of course, I stopped taking notes at about the word “giraffe,” and just stared at her while she grinned back.

“Yeah, it was a heck of a day,” the sheriff would chime in, laughing. “Good one, Joann.”

Oh yes, Joann knew that if all that craziness had been real, it would have been my dream come true.

“So all in all, it was a pretty crazy shift!” she’d exclaim.

I also sometimes saw the deeper side of her. She was quietly moved by sad things that would happen; she was genuinely concerned about the safety of the people she sent into harm’s way to save others.

Joann was a professional, an expert at her job – yet, she was also a human being who had compassion and concern.

She loved her husband, Don, who is a sergeant with the York County Sheriff’s Department.

Last year, we had a conversation about the lives of law enforcement officers and their families. I asked what it was like for her, with both of them having careers with the same department and in the same field.

“Sure, I sometimes worry about his safety,” Joann said. “But I also know this is what he and the rest of them are here to do, to help others and make the world safer. And really, what is worrying? Worrying is a waste of time.”

She had two sons – I remember she was incredibly proud when they graduated from high school, saying it was a day she relished but also one that crept up on her as children’s maturity often does.

Joann had the gumption to learn to drive a motorcycle – I’d never have the courage.

She was feisty and feminine, straight forward and genuine.

It was with heavy hearts recently that Sheriff Dale and some of the crew at the YSO quietly stood around the dispatch desk, where Joann sat so many hours over so many years . . . talking about her, missing her.

Earlier this week, many gathered to remember this woman who gracefully left this world despite the ravages of cancer that so quickly took her away.

I wasn’t able to attend her memorial service on Monday, as I was home with the flu. Instead, I laid buried in my covers, thinking about that familiar face I had spoken to nearly daily and that familiar voice I had heard a thousand times.

And I thought about the little snippets of her life I had witnessed, knowing there was so much more to Joann that I never knew. I was just the silly reporter who showed up to harass her and be happily harassed back – who was meanwhile fortunate to have known a really, really cool lady.

The consensus of many is that Joann lived her life the way she wanted – in normal times and at the end. She didn’t take any guff, she dished it out better than she got and she did it all with a smile.

Every once in awhile, we encounter a really special, strong and wonderful person who inspires you to be better. Joann Copeland was one of those people.

Gentle with grit, grace with gumption. That was Joann.


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