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Alumni Feature - Strong Foundation

When Utah native and long-time USU supporter Thomas Coppin first set foot on Utah State’s Logan campus in 1957, he was undecided about a major, but open to new challenges.

“I was a guy with few goals, except I knew I wanted an education,” he says.

His advisor and geography professor, the late Edwin L. “Eddie” Peterson, took the young Aggie under his wing and advised Coppin to take an Army ROTC class.

“Dr. Peterson was gruff, but he always made me feel as though I was worth his time,” Coppin says. “He said if I stuck with ROTC, it would lead to a commission and I’d be telling people what to do instead of them telling me what to do.”
ROTC 1900's

The undergrad took his mentor’s advice to heart and discovered he liked ROTC’s military history classes and strict physical education requirements.

“Somewhere along the way, I had an epiphany – I wanted to study medicine,” Coppin says. “When I told Dr. Peterson about it, he was flabbergasted, but encouraging.”

His new mentor, Professor Thomas Bahler, was less surprised and assured Peterson that Coppin “would do alright.”

“So, I had a path forward and took my classes seriously,” Coppin says. “I loved the atmosphere at Utah State. It was so easy to get to know people and I always felt my professors were genuinely interested in me.”

He convinced his brother, David, a Cache Valley physician, and another brother, Patrick, to become Aggies, as well.

In those days, the student body barely hit 5,000, he says, “If the farm kids had the quarter off to attend classes.”

Coppin, too, paused his studies to serve an LDS mission to The Netherlands. During summers and on weekends during the school year, he worked at his dad’s car dealership, Coppin Motor Company, in Brigham City

“I did everything except sell cars,” he says. “I worked at the lube rack, swept floors, knew the parts room inside and out and trained as an apprentice mechanic.”

His savings from work and a 90-cents-a-day stipend he received as a third and fourth-year ROTC cadet paid for his schooling, room and board.

Determined not to break his debt-free record, Coppin, who completed his bachelor’s degree in 1963, applied to only one medical school, the University of Utah.

“The price was right – under $600 per year,” he says. “Dr. Bahler was not happy with my decision. He wanted me to apply to Baylor Medical School in Texas.

Coppin stubbornly stuck to his frugal guns and entered the U. While in Salt Lake City, he met up with Joanne Andersen, a former flight attendant and alumna of his high school, whose father, incidentally, was also a car dealer.

“We hit it off and I married the competitor’s daughter,” he says.

Upon graduation from medical school in 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated, Coppin accepted an Army residency in pathology. His military career, which lasted 30 years, took him to varied sites in the U.S. and overseas, including Germany and England.

While in Germany, the father of four served as chief of the pathology service. He was selected as an exchange officer at the Royal Army Medical College in London, where he reviewed all pathology for the Royal Army. Coppin turned down a selection to the Command and General Staff College and, instead, opted to accept a position as chief of pathology at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Hospital in Washington, where he’d completed a residency years before. Madigan’s pathology residency was on probation, but Coppin worked to correct its deficiencies, enabling the residency to earn full accreditation within five months

During his Army career, Coppin also served as a pathology consultant to the U.S. Surgeon General. He retired from the Army in 1993, and continued his medical career in private practice. After fully retiring in 2006, he established a program to restore surgical pathology to a 1,000-bed teaching hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. He made multiple trips to the West African nation, on his own dime, to establish a functioning service and teach pathology to local physicians. His student recruitment efforts were supported by Pathologists Overseas, a non-profit network of volunteer pathologists, whose worldwide mission is taking surgical pathology to underserved areas.

Reflecting on his USU years, Coppin says, “ROTC took me along and became a challenging and rewarding career – all because of Professor Eddie Peterson.”

He advises current USU students “to enjoy learning.”

“Don’t be in a hurry,” Coppin says. “Take a variety of classes and be open to new ideas and opportunities. There’s always something to learn.”

Asked how he learned to give, Coppin cites his gratitude for education and credits his parents, Thomas Frank and Elisabeth “Lucy” Schinkol Coppin

“During World War II, they worked tirelessly to collect food and clothing for civilians in The Netherlands, who were living under Nazi occupation, and their service continued throughout their lives,” he says. “They left an exemplary legacy of giving and community service.”