White hydrangeas, a black power fist, Kanye West’s “Every Hour” bumping from the speakers, and a photo of Jesse Cope sporting his signature smile greeted a small group of Cope’s friends and family as they gathered to celebrate his life. The energy in the Boys and Girls Club gymnasium was palpable, as guests recounted fond memories and sang songs to remember the beloved husband, father, minister and teacher. Hundreds of mourners attended via livestream to honor his memory.
Cope had recently retired from a two decade long career in various student support programs at Burlington High School. He was also a highly visible advocate for children in the community and countless alumni credit him with helping them succeed. Cope died of natural causes on September 3, 2020.
“[Cope] had such an impact on so many people’s lives. He changed my life and I know he has changed many others’ too,” Thu Thach, a graduate of the 2020 class, said.
Alumni remember Cope as a friend and a mentor they could go to with any troubles they had at school or at home.
“Cope’s office was always just open for any student at any given time,” LyLy Dang, a BHS 2018 alumna said. “If you ever stop by, you see a big ol’ smile on his face because he was always excited to talk to as many students as possible. He was overall such a positive, energy ball. He was always there to uplift students and really make sure you had a voice at the school and a sense of place.”
Dang is presently in her third year at the University of Vermont. Haji Haji, BHS class of 2018 and an undergraduate student at Champlain College, echoes her sentiment.
“That’s why so many kids would want to go see Mr. Cope when they were having a bad day,” Haji said. “…You just start talking to him and he’ll say something and he starts laughing. That smile, his smile, will just brighten up your day. That’s just the type of person he was.”
In his last years at BHS, he could be found every morning on the landing by the library, affectionately called “The Stoop”, sitting in a lawn chair with his colleagues and greeting students with a smile. Students said Cope always asked how they were doing and helped them start their day on a positive note.
“Loving. Caring. Giving. Compassionate. Thoughtful. Respectful,” Henri Sparks, the Burlington School District (BSD) Director of Equity, said. “There wasn’t a kid that Jesse came in contact with that he didn’t have an affection for, that he didn’t care about.”
After a stint as custodian, Sparks hired Cope for a position at the Alternative Day Program (ADP) and the Student Support Center. He said Cope always went above and beyond for students.
“Jesse was the kind of person that really believed in building those relationships and going the extra mile: doing things for kids on the weekends, making sure kids had shoes and clothes,” Sparks said. “I’ve seen plenty of times where he would bring some of his own shoes to give to students. He was just a loving, nurturing person.”
In a reflection forwarded to the BHS Register, Josh Edelbaum, a social worker at BHS and one of Cope’s former colleagues in the Student Support Center wrote of Cope’s love for students.
“When I first heard Jesse had died I thought he must have given so much of his heart that he didn’t save enough for himself,” he wrote. “However I was challenged yesterday to consider that actually we as humans have the capacity for limitless compassion. Defining that as “The wish for all living beings to be free of pain and its cause” I must agree that Jesse’s love and care for others was limitless.”
Edelbaum then describes with apparent emotion the heartbreak Cope had felt for students when they shared with him their troubles and tough stories.
“The tears would flow often after students walked out the door as he recognized he could not simply end their suffering,” he wrote. “Yet the work seemed to sustain his energy and passion and he was always ready with a smile, some kind of crazy life story, some way to simply connect and relate to their experience that made everyone around feel at ease even if only for just a few moments.”
Thach recounted a time where Cope stopped and assisted as her older sister fix a flat tire on her way home from school.
“It didn’t matter if he knew you or not,” she said. “He was like a helping hand. He was willing to help anyone he could.”
After Cope’s passing, his family started a GoFundMe to help cover the funeral costs. Within two days they surpassed their goal. The site had 265 donors and over four thousand shares. Contributions poured in from friends, BHS alumni and faculty, and community members who also lit up Facebook with their condolences, stories, and appreciations for Cope.
“I am sad to hear of Mr. Cope’s passing. I graduated BHS in 2004 and still fondly thought of him on occasion to this day. My condolences to his family,” a FB comment by Katie Lawrence read.
“The way my husband was when we met, he was favored in the community as a protector for all his cousins and they called him ‘Black star’,” Clea Cope said.
Clea Cope shared that his investment in the Burlington community was similar to that of his connection in his hometown community of Guthrie, Kentucky. Cope used to run basketball tournaments in the neighborhood where Haji lived complete with cookouts and music. Haji said often fifty to sixty people would come.
“People would be there from twelve in the afternoon to seven, eight o’clock. That’s the type of respect he had in our community and there would be no altercations that day,” Haji said.
Haji credits Cope for helping him through rough times at school. He appreciated that Cope reminded him to be understanding of others and less quick to judge people outside of his circumstances. Haji admired that Cope never brought negative feelings into work with him.
“For kids like me, he was definitely a role model because seeing an African American person who has a family, raised two kids, and is going to work a regular job everyday. A lot of us don’t have those role models in our lives,” he said.
Haji remembered Cope sharing stories of growing up and his own experiences. These include machine and custodial work. Cope’s journey inspired Dang who recalled that Cope told her that she could do anything if she set her mind to it. His persistence was infectious.
“It wasn’t that he just believed in me. He told me that you are going to fail in life and once you do fail, you’re gonna get back up stronger. You can fail as many times as you want but that just makes you stronger. Many people may not see that, but that’s what you have to do to fight and show yourself that you are so much stronger than that. He always motivated me to push myself,” Thach said.
Sparks said Cope really believed in caring and reflecting his faith in his actions. Cope, outside of his work at BHS, was an outreach pastor and youth leader for the community.
“He was a very pure soul, very driven with faith and loving God,” Dang said.
Clea Cope believes that her husband completed what he was set on earth to do and shared at the memorial service that Cope had passed with a smile on his face.
“People will always remember Cope. He’s a legend, definitely in my neighborhood and he’s a legend at BHS. He left a great legacy. People will remember him. That’s why sometimes you don’t even have to say anything because that person is always going to be remembered just because of what they did,” Haji said.