Thank you for all the kind words you've sent our way. Funerals have a way of making each of us aware of what it takes to nurture relationships that matter. They take time. They take small gestures. And above all, they require genuine generosity.
There will always be more I could have said to or done for my dad to show him what he meant to me, or what impact he made in his time here. In the end, he will remind me always that we really don't know how much time we get. Every day does matter. Thanks, again.
Written by Kenneth Kopperud and Kristine Kopperud Jepsen
As many of you know, he died of aggressive lymphoma, but with characteristic sarcasm, he made clear that he was not “fighting” cancer. Yes, he was courageous in weathering treatment without complaint, but he maintained: “It’s not a fight. If the cancer’s there, it’s winning.”
The months of waiting -- first, to see if his disease could be destroyed, then to see if it could be suppressed, and finally, to see how it could be managed peacefully through hospice care, provided him and Cheryl blessed time to reflect on what really matters.
Here, thanks to the input of family, friends, and former students, is a survey of the good he leaves behind:
Keith always cherished family. Born into an extended clan of 13 aunts and uncles, most of whom farmed and raised their families within 10 miles of each other, Keith called his childhood magical. “I always knew I had a pretty special family,” he said, relishing their tradition of celebrating a family birthday, baptism or other potluck-worthy event nearly every weekend of the year. When he left for college, he was glad to outgrow the daily chore of milking Holsteins alongside his dad, Marlin, but he always recounted their quiet time together in the warm stalls, shoulders against the cows’ flanks, with reverence. Milking also gave him the “strongest hands in the 7th grade” -- and the stinkiest locker, after the barnyard slush had thawed from his boots.
Later, when he became a parent himself, Keith drew directly on the example of his father Marlin, who, when it was time to milk in the morning, called up to Keith to wake up and then, whistling, went out the door. No reminding, no nagging, shouting, or arguing -- only enthusiasm for the task at hand and excitement over a new day. A sleepy teenager could not help but to get up and get to work.
Keith cared about getting a job done and doing it right, or at least with the best of intentions (he was famous for not reading directions and just diving in). When, in 98% humidity, the July sun came blazing along the west side of an enormous Victorian house he’d be painting -- he painted several homes in the summers in Wayne over the years -- he’d keep at it until his paint sprayer spluttered and ran dry and the Prairie Home Companion theme started playing on the radio. “We got ‘er now, this is the easy part!” he’d say to Kenneth or Kristine -- or whomever was working with him that summer.
Despite his tireless drive to finish a project, Keith never hesitated to take a break from the work and sit and talk with the homeowner or anybody else that happened upon the jobsite. These pauses in the action usually only energized him more, sometimes to the chagrin of Kenneth or Kristine, who might have had their eye on quitting time. Then, with the day’s work done and still humming to himself, he’d take the extra ten minutes to work the paint out of his brushes, in the shade, in the cool water from a garden hose, as suppertime rolled around.
He whistled under his breath both when he was working happily and when he was irritated, usually tapping his foot or bobbing his knee compulsively. If he was really torqued, his left eyebrow would flit up and stay there, but that was usually reserved for junior-high band students who couldn’t see, while they were too busy emptying spit valves on each other, that he had their best interests at heart.
In his 33 years in Wayne Public Schools and seven years with Echo Charter School in Echo, Minnesota, he taught nearly 3,000 students to play flute and clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, sax, percussion or tuba, helping them take up musicality to last a lifetime. He continued to support band programs wherever he went, often giving lessons, driving equipment to concerts and field competitions, and playing in pep band as a volunteer. One year, he gave a speech to his 7th and 8th grade band that coined a phrase he would repeat often throughout the coming years: “It’s fun to be good!” However, it could have easily been his personal credo: “It’s fun to be alive!” or more simply, “It’s fun!”
In the sanctuary of his own basement, Keith built up chops for tuba -- an instrument he hadn’t trained on particularly -- in order to join the professional quintet A Touch of Brass. From 1985 to 2006, he relished their custom arrangements of classical, jazz and contemporary literature, driving to rehearsals on Wednesday nights and playing no fewer than six services each Christmas and Easter, among dozens of other gigs a year. He played for both his nephew’s and his son’s weddings, and he earned a scholarship to Interlochen Adult Band Camp, at the needling of his daughter, in 2014. If ever a tuba was featured on the radio, no matter the listening volume, Keith would say “Hey, hey, hey, turn that up TURN THAT UP. Nice tuba solo!” and wiggle both his eyebrows.
While he loved teaching, a good political skirmish, and entertaining his grandkids, Keith may be best remembered for his ability to connect with virtually anyone -- and mean it -- even if his mode of communication was a flurry of small talk or busywork: painting, woodworking, sweeping up, washing the car, washing dishes, ordering two desserts, or bemoaning a tragic loss by a beloved sports team. He always seemed to be curious about the people around him and would instantly have a list of 2 or 3 things he wanted to talk about whenever he interacted with someone, especially if that person was wearing a Twins hat. His conversation style was one of agreeable sincerity with an undercurrent of mischief that was never too far from the surface.
He approached life much the same way, as if saying “Don’t worry about all that bad stuff, it can’t bring you down for too long. Just think of all the good stuff there is to be excited about!” He used several trademark catchphrases which were usually paired with pieces of advice that he would bestow on anyone who would listen. On marriage: “Don’t fight the current, buddy, just float downstream and drink beer!” On personal health and fitness: “I’m on the Big Shirt Diet: Buy a big shirt and eat whatever you want!” There are others that might recounted outside of a house of God. Above all, Keith was truly generous with his time, which, it turns out, was most precious.
Keith loved his wife, kids and grandkids enormously. Although he was admittedly unskilled at the romantic gesture, he and Cheryl were a complete team and he cared for her more than he could have ever told her in 63 short years. They had the same work schedule most of their lives, even sharing a commute for the latter part of their careers. They were inseparable, even when that meant every phone conversation was on speakerphone, unbeknownst to the party on the other line.
He relied on Cheryl and she on him because their love was one of faithfulness, understanding, and vulnerability that both parties happily accepted and were not afraid to show the rest of the world. He treated Cheryl with unflinching kindness, respect and care, always quick to mention that “she makes my life easy.”
Even during the past year and a half of his cancer treatment, when his deteriorating physical condition required Cheryl to shoulder more and more of the burden of everyday life, I’m sure she still would have said likewise.
He selflessly shared his time with his children at all stages of their lives. When it was past time to come in from a game of catch outside, he would say, “Alright, I think I gotta go in” -- but could easily be talked into spending at least 15-20 minutes more. Keith and Cheryl went to EVERY band and choir concert their children participated in during college, even if it meant dragging a surly teenage Kenneth on the 3-hour trip to Sioux Falls on consecutive weekends.
When his kids grew up Keith became at home away from home, visiting Kristine in rural Decorah and Kenneth in Omaha. He had looked forward to retirement if only because it would free up his time to make these trips more frequent and longer in duration. He anticipated these visits with marked enthusiasm, often planning multiple home improvement projects per trip, with or without the consent of the homeowner in question. Keith relished talking on the phone or on Facetime with his grandkids. He was known to repeatedly call or text when a day went by with no communication, especially when he had something he wanted to say. His persistence, while occasionally wearing, was completely understood to mean, “I care about you, and I just want to hear about your day.”
If Keith were listening to this tribute -- and he is, somewhere out there -- he would surely have leaned over by now and whispered to you, “Ok, ok, ok, Let’s go eat.” And so, we must commemorate Keith’s love of food.
Pie, ice cream, caramel rolls, lefse, root beer floats, scotcheroos, apple crisp, breakfast out, breakfast in, bread pudding, rømmegrøt, molasses bread and butter -- well, butter on just about anything. And salt. Usually both butter and salt. Literally, Keith was a connoisseur of sweeter cuisine. We all knew this was a preference passed down from his mother, Verna, who wouldn’t flinch to add 2 cups of sugar to anything.
Keith was famous for, at first, refusing large portions but then refilling his pie plate with ice cream...or pie, until it worked out that he’d have enough of both down to the last bite. He mistakenly ate other people’s lunches in teachers’ lounges, cut slivers from pies and casseroles that were saved for potluck functions, and was famous for saying, “Here, I’ll split it with you” -- meaning, he would eat most of it. He complimented your good taste by leaning over to scoop a bite of something right off your plate.
Keith enjoyed a good meal as he enjoyed life: bite by bite, scattering several crumbs, but always in earnest. He never missed a chance to tell you what he relished. It need not be fancy to be darn good.
Keith -- we love you, and we will miss you completely. No way around it.
But we will pay what you gave us forward: the magic of making music -- AND reading those pesky rhythms correctly. We might give a second look to that used Buick LeSabre or Toyota pickup when we’re in the market for a car. We will tune into NPR, turning it up during the tuba solo, or watch the Twins (win or lose) just for you. We’ll call our close family and friends often, even if all we have to talk about is the weather. We’ll approach life as if it were something to marvel at and enjoy, even if it is a lot of work. Hey, hey, hey, maybe we’ll even order a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, double-cream-double-sugar, every once in awhile -- and then save the styrofoam cup in our car door, just in case.
All that and more. Our memories are rich.
Godspeed into the great refrain. Or is it the coda?