A “take charge kind of guy” who could always be found chomping a premium cigar, William J. Copeland personified the Greatest Generation.
The Uniontown native and World War II veteran worked for 36 years as an executive at what is now PNC Financial Services and devoted decades of his time and talents to helping others.
Mr. Copeland died of heart failure Feb. 16 at his home on Catawba Island, Ohio, but not before he made a lasting impact among many foundations and organizations in Pittsburgh.
“I know I am speaking for all members of the Pittsburgh Foundation family — board members, staff, grantees, donors and community partners — that there is a deep sense of loss over losing such a phenomenal leader,” said foundation president and CEO Maxwell King about Mr. Copeland, who served on the foundation’s board of directors in the 1980s and 1990s. “But there also is such tremendous admiration and gratitude for his extraordinary contributions.”
Mr. Copeland volunteered on numerous other boards, such as the National Council of Boy Scouts of America, the Family House and Civic Light Opera and Robert Morris College, mostly during his time at PNC, where he started in 1947 as a trust administrator.
“He was just a wonderful human being,” recalled Tom O’Brien, CEO of the banking firm until his retirement in 2000. “He was extraordinarily bright and able. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was always able to be the person in the executive suite who could calm things down.”
Born on July 4, 1918, Mr. Copeland was the son of Thomas A. and Jean Armour Copeland.
In December 1941, while serving as a U.S. Army Air Force master sergeant at Ellington Field near Houston, Texas, Mr. Copeland married Margaret Emler, who died in 1979. In January 1981, Mr. Copeland married Joan Engelsen of Sandusky, Ohio, who survives.
Before the war, Mr. Copeland graduated from Penn State University and completed one year at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He went on to serve in the military for five years before completing his law degree.
While working at PNC during the late 1970s, Mr. Copeland fell in love with Catawba Island on Lake Erie in Ohio, after visiting the area to explore a private island owned by a client.
No ferry operator was willing to sail to Ballast Island — a small island near Catawba — so her husband boldly rented a small fishing boat and make the journey himself, Mrs. Copeland said.
“The guy was shaking his head when he left the marina,” Mrs. Copeland said of her husband, who had no previous boating experience. “I could picture him in his banker’s suit, tie, cufflinks and cigar. By the time he got back to the marina, he said, ‘I’m in love with this area and I’m going to come back and live here.’”
The couple moved to Catawba Island after Mr. Copeland’s retirement in 1983 and spent many happy years golfing and fishing on their boat with their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beloved Labrador retriever, Honey-B.
“Because he was so busy in Pittsburgh after his wife died, he had to learn to balance his life and business,” Mrs. Copeland said.
Mr. Copeland rose through the ranks at PNC, first as a trust administrator and eventually as executive vice president of the trust division and vice chairman of the board. He was later named vice chairman of the board of the bank’s holding company, PNC Financial Corp.
PNC executive vice president Sy Holzer remembered Mr. Copeland well.
“He was one of the superstars of our company,” said Mr. Holzer, who has worked at the company for more than 40 years. “He was a brave lawyer and one of the finest speakers in the country. He just had a gift — he was a very significant contributor to the growth of our trust division.”
Mr. Copeland’s contribution to the Pittsburgh Foundation was invaluable, Mr. King said.
“The groundwork he laid … positioned the foundation for extraordinary growth in ensuing decades as well as strategic grantmaking that has improved the quality of life for residents across the region,” Mr. King said.
Mr. Copeland was devoted to making a significant impact at the various foundations and groups he volunteered with, Mr. O’Brien remembered, and he continued his volunteer work for many years after retirement.
“When he did something he wasn’t just a member, he was a leader,” he said.
Along with his wife, Mr. Copeland is survived by his son Thomas Copeland of Youngstown, Ohio; daughter Claire Parker-Moon of Chattanooga, Tenn.; stepdaughters Dawn Houser, of Marcellus, Mich.; Jennifer Turner, of Sandusky, Ohio; and Beverly DiDio, of Parma, Ohio. Also surviving is one grandson, nine step-grandchildren and 13 step great-grandchildren.
Funeral services were held earlier this week in Ohio, but a local memorial service is being planned soon. Memorial contributions may be made to the William J. Copeland Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation.
Janice Crompton: email@example.com, 412-263-1159 or on Twitter @janicecrompton.