Growing old at a young age

Saturday, March 8, 2003

WOLF LAKE, Ill. -- Sean Copeland said goodbye to childhood a long time ago.

The 18-year-old from Wolf Lake, Ill., assumed the burdens of adulthood seven years ago after his father died of organ failure and diabetes. His mother, battling alcoholism and depression, also suffered from a rare, debilitating disease that finally took her life in February 2002.

But instead of succumbing to what many would find overwhelming, Copeland focused on improving his life and the lives of others.

The Shawnee High School senior became anything but a stereotypical teen. So it didn't surprise those who know him when he filed in January as a candidate for school board during the first week possible.

"I had my paperwork prepared in advance," he said.

He doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs. He reads his Bible daily and has never gotten into trouble at school. Just don't call him square.

"I'm really not a nerd," Copeland said. "I do have fun, I hang loose with my friends and I cut up."

His weighted voice contrasts his fresh-faced appearance, sounding more sage than youthful.

Perhaps that is because he continues to assume adult roles. He is a radio news anchor, a Sunday school teacher and a campus ministry founder. In summers, Copeland goes on mission trips in the poorest areas of Southern states.

"Of course, I'm biased," said his aunt Maryanne Boren. "But he's remarkable."

Always a fighter

He's always been fighter, although he has had every reason to give up, she said.

A month before he was due to be born, his mother, Lillian, suffered an aneurysm. The ambulance taking her from Cape Girardeau to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis was accompanied by an obstetrician in case baby Sean would have to be delivered in case she died on the way.

Doctors determined she had Marfan's Syndrome, an illness that attacks the cardiovascular system, and Sean became the first baby ever born on the cardiac unit of the hospital.

But his birth had a serious complication that required immediate surgery on his cranium. He was born without a "soft spot" on his skull, the opening that gradually closes as a baby grows.

Doctors broke apart his skull and created a makeshift soft spot. The procedure caused nerve damage to one of his eyes and he later underwent eight eye surgeries to correct the problem.

While Sean lived with his mother, he began preparing their meals and started making out the household bills as an eighth-grader.

Before her death, she acknowledged the sacrifices he made.

"She told me, 'You've not really been a kid,'" Copeland said. "With her illness and disabilities, it forced me into these adult roles and into maturity."

But Copeland is not saddened or regretful by those sacrifices.

"It's all made me who I am, my personality and my nature," he said.

At times, he was moved back and forth between his aunt and the cornerstone of his Baptist faith -- his grandmother, Becky Copeland, who died in 1995.

He now lives with his aunt and her family, but for the most part takes care of himself, Boren said.

"I really can't explain it," Boren said. "He's really risen above it and gone beyond what any of us expected or believed."

Before and after classes, Sean Copeland produces 10 radio news shows a week on WIBH-AM 1140 in Anna, Ill., where he also is host for a live gospel music show on Sundays. He landed the job a year and a half ago by asking station manager Maury Bass, who is also his Sunday school teacher, to listen to his audition tape.

Bass put off listening to it, thinking it could be awkward to reject a church member. But on a weekend trip with his wife, he finally popped the tape into his van's player. Copeland's voice came across the radio speakers steady and clear, full of maturity.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Wow,'" Bass said. "My wife told me, 'If you don't hire him, there's something wrong with you.'"

A few listeners had trouble at first believing someone that young could sound so authoritative and professional, Bass said. But ever since, Copeland has been well received.

Passion for district

When he filed for the Shawnee School District No. 84 Board of Education, Copeland fulfilled a goal he had thought about for nearly four years.

"If I didn't think I had something to offer, I wouldn't be running," he said. "I often thought that even if it's not me, there needs to be a liaison between the board and the students."

His decision was also sparked by a "dissatisfaction in my high school experience," he said. He believes Shawnee's current curriculum doesn't adequately prepare students for the rigors of college coursework.

He decided to file now, rather than wait until after college because his career choices may take him elsewhere after he earns a degree in social studies education and a minor in broadcasting. He will either attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale or a local community college.

Copeland has the top grades in his class. New principal Ray Puckett has known Copeland for only a year but thinks highly of him.

"If all the students were like him, we wouldn't have any trouble at all in schools," Puckett said. "I think a lot of him."

Superintendent Gary Hill said Copeland is "mature beyond his years," but not so atypical that he does not fit in well with his classmates.

Copeland is running against three incumbents for the three open seats on the board: Rodney Brown, Paul Pinnon and Randy Lambdin. If elected, he will sit on a board that directs the superintendent's job while he's still a student.

"It's a quirk in the mold," Hill said of the situation. "For two months we would wear dual hats, depending on what the setting is. We had a tongue-in-cheek conversation about that. He came into my office and I said, 'Sean, if you get elected to office, you might be signing your own diploma.'"

For Copeland, filing for office hasn't made any difference in his social life.

"My close friends support me," he said. "I don't know that they understand, but they support me."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: