This man was so important to my family that I just wanted the entire “Class of 58” to know a little more about his life and its impact on all those around him.
……. a lengthy Eulogy read by one friend to a lot of others:
Nick Coppola just showed up. No one ever introduced us and only years later did I learn that we were in the 9th grade at Conniston Jr. High when I first came in contact with the new boy from Palm Beach and Magnolia, Massachusetts who had never played football and had a last name ending in a vowel.
After a year in military school and my first days at Palm Beach High in the late summer and fall of 1956, we got back together. It was 2-a-day football practice time and all I remember were piles of smelly sweat-soaked tee shirts, socks, jocks, shoulder pads, … and Nick Coppola. He was in the locker right next to me, had gotten a lot bigger, and had turned himself into an outstanding interior lineman. Our friendship didn’t, how do we put it?, blossom–it just slowly happened. Over the next two years, he and I hung out with Sammy Bigbie, Frank Madsen and some other guys and did the innocent fun things that 1950’s high school boys were expected to do.
The years right after high school graduation are a blur. I went off to school in Atlanta and Nick spent a year or so in New York City and back in New England. We stayed in touch during the summer months. He enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve and, after six months active duty on a buoy tender on Biscayne Bay, was back in town. He went to work with his father in the dress shop on County Rd. and picked up right where we had left off. Madsen, Billy Wilkinson and Nick formed the nucleus of a pretend to work during the day, party all night, kaki clad, penny loafered, no socks, blue blazered, “playboys of the Palm Beaches band of brothers”. I was socially occupied with a beautiful girl that was somewhat narrow minded and thus forced to enviously observe from afar as my buddies recklessly sacrificed themselves in various watering holes on a nightly basis.
On Saturday, August 25, 1962, Nick was my best man. I should say he was my “second best man”. The even better man was the Nick my ushers and I had spent my bachelor party with the night before! I woke up the last morning of my life as a single man hung-over with my arms around Johnny Riggs on the Coppola’s living room floor on Lund’s Lane.
After our wedding and the reception that followed, Nick disappeared! Dee and I had taken a three day honeymoon and by the time we got back in town – the question on everyone’s lips was; “where is Nick Coppola?” His father had come over to my in-laws home on Ave. Hermosa and told them that no one had seen or heard from Nick since the wedding and he hadn’t been back home or at work!
My new bride and I left for Georgia a day or two later and still had no idea what had happened to my friend. We didn’t have to wait long for the mystery to be solved. I had already rented a cottage in northeast Atlanta and one evening during our first week in town we had a knock on the door. Yeah … N.W. Coppola.
Whether it was visions of marital bliss, loneliness, or some other primal need, he never, over all these years, told me … Nick had left the wedding reception and driven non-stop from West Palm Beach to Buffalo, NY without telling anyone. It was the first time we had ever heard of her but there was no doubt that there would soon be a Mrs. Coppola and her name was Marcy. Nick was in love and time would prove that his disappearance and the long drive were inspired by God and meant to be.
After Nick and Marcy married the four of us became inseparable and the good times seemed to never end:
The fall of 1965: a week or so spent living in the basement apartment at Nick’s family’s second dress shop in Blowing Rock, NC. Dee and I had a 1-year old baby girl and Nick and I decided to pickle eggplant and quit smoking.
Our spur of the moment Saturday afternoon decision to pack sandwiches and drive down to the Keys! We didn’t leave West Palm until after dark and somewhere on the turnpike near Miami, after our on-the-road picnic, Marcy fell asleep. Being a New Yorker, she had no idea how long the drive would be. She, also, had no concept of how long she had slept nor what time it was when we pulled into an IHOP in Homestead. We woke her up, told her she had slept all night long and that we were at the end of the road in Key West. Telling her that “the sun would soon be up and it was breakfast time”. We ordered only coffee but she ordered the blueberry pancake super combo and couldn’t understand what had happened to her appetite or why we were laughing at her!
1972: the night the four of us rented a cabin at Jonathan Dickinson State Park and, since Dee and Marcy were on a diet, when morning came they went “havers” on their glazed donut – 14 times.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Nick came to work at Powell Bros. Produce Co. on Clare Ave. One afternoon Daddy, Nick, and I were in the office doing books and taking orders over the phone. I answered a call and a man with a southern drawl asked for “Eugene”. That was my father’s first name but only family from North Carolina ever called him that.
Turns out it was my Uncle Clarence and, after hanging up, Daddy turned to Nick and I and said:
“Shorty’s coming to work here. He’ll be getting in next week and we gotta get him and Bertha a place to stay.”
It was summertime and business was so slow we couldn’t keep the help we had working more than five or six hours a day. I piped up and asked:
“Why are we hiring someone else to just sit around?”
Daddy came back:
“We got nothing to say about it – it’s Shorty.”
James “Shorty” Hunter had worked for the Powell family his entire life. I was told that his father and grandfather had done likewise for the Dobson clan, my paternal grandmother’s family back in Burke County, NC, dating back to before the Civil War. (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions). Seems he had gotten too old to work in the fields picking beans and cutting cabbage so my uncle was retiring he and his wife to Florida. Only when he showed up at the warehouse the following week, did we realize how hard it would be for Shorty to fit in.
In the produce business (circ. 1968) there were only a few tasks that had to be accomplished. It wasn’t rocket science–some took orders over the phone before writing up and pricing invoices. Others traveled at night to a farmer’s market in Miami, Belle Glade, or Pompano and brought their loads back to the warehouse. Still others filled the customer’s orders, loaded the trucks and made deliveries. Although the jobs were all hard work, they were relatively simple and required only a strong back and two basic skills … drive a truck and know how to read. James Hunter couldn’t read or write and had never in his life had a driver’s license.
Enter “Mister Nicks”. That was what Shorty had started calling him and, soon after he came to work, Nick found out that an exception could be made for the written part of the exam and embarked upon a month-long project to get Shorty his driver’s license. In the afternoons after everyone else had gone home, Nick would put Shorty on a booster seat cushion behind the wheel of one of our pickups in the parking lot of the old National Guard Armory across the railroad tracks from the warehouse. Afterwards, Nick would drive Shorty down to the “Project” on Southern Blvd. where, on his own time, he had found and arranged for a government supplemented rental home for the Hunters. Every morning at 5:30 AM, the routine would begin anew when Nick would pick Shorty up and bring him in to work.
With Nick’s tutoring and verbal assistance at examination time, Shorty got his first driver’s license. Now Nick took on the more difficult problem – Shorty being able to read the invoices and make deliveries. No, I’m not going to tell you that he taught a seventy year old man how to read but he did work out a system of loading trucks and separating the individual orders that, combined with customer honesty and Shorty’s memory capability for the stops involved, got the job done.
The important take away from this whole episode is the fact that Nick Coppola gave unselfishly of his time and effort to another human being–one that could never repay him. And it didn’t stop there. A few years later, Mr. Nicks set Shorty up in the landscaping business at the properties he owned and even solicited other accounts for him. Hunter Lawn Care owned only three pieces of equipment … an old Ford pickup that Nick had donated, a walk behind power mower and the signature long-handled axe which served Shorty as a weed-eater.
To Nick, family was everything. Soon after he came to work with us there was an occurrence in Palm Beach County I’m sure few of you remember. The public school teachers went on strike. There was a civic crisis and the call went out for college educated volunteers to teach classes. Having recently knocked on doors and been a poll watcher for the Goldwater campaign, I fancied it my southern conservative anti-union duty to step into the breach. The next day I found myself teaching an American History class in the Old Shop Building at Palm Beach High. At lunch time I called my father back at the warehouse to make sure everything was okay.
“Things are fine but I had to get your mother to come in to help out on the phones, Nick called and said ‘he wouldn’t be coming in today'”.
Puzzled, I ask Daddy if Nick was sick?
“No he’s not sick. He just said that his brother George is a teacher and that ‘if you were going to take his place – he certainly wasn’t going to take yours!”
That was my first and last day as a school teacher. I was back at Powell Bros. the next morning and so was Nick.
My brother Brad returned from the U of F in 1971 and Nick Coppola came to the realization that “blood really was thicker than water”. He had become an integral part of our growing food service business but he had also been acquiring a few rental properties and felt, rightfully so, that his and Marcy’s future lay in borrowing money from Rumsa Eassa or Vince E. at the bank and buying more houses. Nick operated with a simple business philosophy: pay as little money down as possible, fix them up and either rent them out or move Marcy and Chris in for a year or two before planting the geraniums, selling um off, and moving on. As all of you know – he was right again.
During all this Chris was growing into a tall handsome young man and times were good. Nick and I sailed the Keys, relived our glory days, and planned for an even brighter future. In 1989 we sold the food business and Dee and I spent the next three summers in Foscoe, North Carolina where the Coppolas had taken up residence. Chris graduated from Appalachian State and came back to West Palm Beach to build a successful career for himself. Nick and Marcy were right on his heels and for the entire decade of the 90’s we were all back together again.
- ** Christopher Coppola died at age 33 in his apartment in West Palm Beach on Friday evening March 31, 2000. He wasn’t found until mid-day on Monday. Nick had to break out a window only to find his son dead on the living room couch, the shower running, the TV on, and his blue blazer, slacks, shirt, and tie laid out on the bed. Nick never let Marcy see his body; he didn’t want her to remember him that way. Within a few years, Marcy was also dead … obstensibly from some rare genetic condition, but really from a broken heart.
The world didn’t stop turning fourteen years ago but in most ways it did for Nick and it certainly did for Marcy. Today, as I say goodbye, it’s only been the happy years I’ve chosen to remember and I can hear Nick whispering to me right now – “that’s enough Powell, sit down!”
Before I do, I want to leave you with one thought. During the sixty years I knew Nick Coppola, he performed every service and act of friendship under the sun for me and my family. Everything from regularly whitewashing our old 1920’s stucco house on Flamingo Dr. to providing for my parent’s comfortable retirement by marketing, selling, and drawing up the mortgage agreements on our old warehouse when we moved to Riviera in 1982. He spent hours in very personal and candid conversations alone with my father and was told things no son would ever hear from a parent, drunk or sober. Nick goes to his grave having known more about me and my family than any man or woman who has ever lived. During his lifetime, I asked him to help me at every turn with tasks both great and small but, even with all of the hardship and personal grief he faced in later years, he never ask me for anything. Not money, not advice, not sympathy–nothing. It is almost as if the good Lord put Nick Coppola on this Earth to be …
** note: This paragraph was not spoken as part of the eulogy for obvious reasons, and did not appear on the written copy I read from. But, I did manage to slip all those many pages under Nick’s folded hands before they closed the casket.