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Beloved University professor passes away at 64

Robert Douglas Cope remembered for compassion, engaging lectures

Associate Professor of History Robert Douglas Cope— known as Doug by colleagues, friends and family — passed away Oct. 6 at the age of 64.

During his 31-year stretch at the University, Cope became well-known among undergraduates for his vibrant and engaging lectures in courses on colonial Latin America, conquests, the Mexican Revolution and, most famously, pirates.

“Above all, he really was a master storyteller,” said Jennifer Lambe, associate professor of history.

Lambe first met Cope while she was an undergraduate at the University. She took three classes with him — HIST 0233: “Colonial Latin America,” HIST 1967E: “In the Shadow of Revolution: Mexico Since 1940” and an upper level seminar on resistance and rebellion in Latin America. Lambe was consistently drawn to Cope’s courses because of his ability to “communicate the material in a way that made it come alive for students.” He could engage “everyone in the class in a really effortless way,” she added.

Cope wore many hats during his time at the University: He served as a first-year and sophomore advisor, an advisor for undergraduates and graduates in the Department of History, a graduate student supervisor for the colonial Latin American field of study and a concentration advisor for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. In each of these positions, Cope demonstrated an incredible dedication to students at the University, Lambe said. “Doug was the kind of person who you asked to do something, and he would always say yes,” she added.

Javier Fernández-Galeano PhD’19, visiting assistant professor of history who knew Cope as a professor and mentor at the graduate school, remarked that Cope possessed a “legendary” talent for engaging students through his lectures. Without the aid of Powerpoints or other presentations, “students were able to visualize the historical narrative because of his incredible capacity to make his lectures so tangible,” Fernández-Galeano said.

Cope also made Fernández-Galeano feel personally welcome in the field of academia. “As someone who came from a humble background, he was always invested in making everyone feel included. That kind of presence is something very unique in academia.”

Cope’s compassion for others also extended into his academic research. He was particularly interested in studying marginalized communities and ensuring historical justice for indigenous people, Fernández-Galeano said.

Cope’s first published book, titled “The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720,” explores categories of race in Mexico during the colonial period.  The book was “a classic in history from below” — a historical narrative captured from the perspective of marginalized groups — and received an honorable mention for the Herbert E. Bolton Prize for the best book in Latin American Studies, said Neil Safier, associate professor of history and director of the John Carter Brown Library.

Before he passed away, Cope was working on a book examining working class individuals and the informal economy of Mexico City in the eighteenth century, said James Green, professor of Latin American history and director of the Brazil Initiative. The Department of History is hoping to find the manuscript of the book on Cope’s computer so that his work can be published.

Though Cope’s colleagues described him as shy and introverted, when Cope discussed his research “he was full of life and energy,” Green said.

Cope was raised in a working class family as the oldest of four siblings. He first entered higher education at St. Clair County Community College, where he earned an associate degree in humanities in 1977, before receiving a bachelor’s degree in history from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan in 1979. Cope continued to study Latin American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning his master’s in 1981. Following his graduation, Cope was accepted as a Fulbright Scholar and chose Mexico as his host country.

One of his sisters, Marikay Cope, remembers her older brother returning from his trip and trying to teach her Spanish. Cope loved learning languages — he was fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and could read and write in French, Marikay said.

“Doug has always been the smartest person I know. We laugh sometimes that he got the lion’s share of the family,” Marikay said.

Because Cope was 14 years older than Marikay, he was already away at college while Marikay was growing up. Her fondest memories of their time together are during the summers when her older brother returned home. As a young girl, she remembers Cope scooping her up and letting her ride on his shoulders, telling her stories and making impressions of Sesame Street characters. “He did a really great Grover,” she said.

It was a tradition every summer for Cope, Marikay and their father to make the drive up to Detroit for a Tigers baseball game. Baseball was Cope’s favorite sport.

Above all, Marikay remembers her brother for his quiet compassion. Cope contributed to over 50 charities throughout his life, supporting causes such as the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, firefighters and various animal charities.

Oftentimes, Cope would make a donation in the name of his nieces and nephews, Marikay said. “If you were to talk to any of his nieces and nephews, their greatest memories of their Uncle Doug were the unique things he would send them,” Marikay said. One year, he sent his nieces and nephews a letter notifying them that he had adopted a cow to help a family in a foreign country in their name. Another year, they received a stuffed toy seal along with a certificate verifying that they had saved a seal’s life.

But outside of the packages sent to his nieces and nephews in the mail, Cope’s family was unaware of his many other charitable donations, Marikay said. While looking through Cope’s apartment after he passed away, Marikay and her sisters discovered dozens of letters from charities Cope had donated to over the years. “He never talked about (his donations). But I think he felt like he made a good living, and he didn’t need all of the money he made. He wanted to use it for something good,” Marikay said.

Cope is survived by his three younger sisters — Melissa Zantello, Marge Fagan and Marikay —  along with his brothers-in-law and several nieces and nephews.

The Department of History will be holding a memorial service for Cope Dec. 13 at 4 p.m. The service will be hosted at the John Carter Brown Library.


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