Building Bridges: An Interview with David Couper

David Couper is a man who is certain. Certain, passionate and persistent. As I listened to him answer my questions and share his story, I was continually struck by both the convictions this man holds, and how his life story seems to be one of holding to convictions even in the face of grief, of profound disagreement and even of family strife.

How did he become so sure of himself, his choices and his values? He would say that being a police chief, and a pastor, has given him a lot of power. And that power makes certainty easier. He would also say that that power comes with responsibility. Responsibility to call out injustice and to always put service over self. In fact, he becomes quite passionate when talking about the responsibilities we all have to think of others, to eradicate injustice, to always put service over self.

David was born in Minnesota in 1938. His family moved 16 times in his first 18 years and, while that might have left some young people angry, or rootless, David attributes some of his character to the responsibility he felt in, and for, his family in those early years. He remembers being 14 or 15 and driving a truck to Duluth to help his dad. While he may not have learned his compassion from his father, he did learn to work hard. When asked who inspired him, he speaks reverently of his grandmother, Virginia Couper. She graduated from college in the late 1800s and was a profound influence on who he is today. She was an example of strength, certainty and commitment to justice. Often, as David told his story, he mused over the influence she had on the path he has followed. She was a religious woman whose faith directed her to always put service over self. She was also an educator who believed in knowledge, a poet and an early antiracist. And she was a woman of her time, signing birthday cards to her grandson, “Mrs. E.W. Couper.” David internalized her lessons and brought them to his work as a police officer, then chief of police; to his calling as a pastor of two Episcopalian churches over the last 25 years; and to his life as a whole.

Where many of the people I have interviewed for this column are not well known, David has held a presence in the Madison area for decades and has a voice heard by many through his blogs. I encourage you to read his work. He is passionate about better policing, about learning to see a world that isn’t all about ourselves, and about the importance of truly understanding others. His books, blog and poetry are all worth reading. You can find his books at Arcadia Books in Spring Green. Improvingpolice.blog and christinyouchristinme.blogspot.com are his blogs.

David was gracious enough to have me out to his home two different times and to let me ask my questions in an effort to get beyond his remarkable resume. His personal story is, of course, interwoven with his professional accomplishments, don’t get me wrong, but my hope here is to portray the man behind all those accomplishments.

Growing up on hobby farms outside of Minneapolis gave David a love of nature, of outdoor spaces. But the route to our Driftless Region was circuitous. In the ’50s he attended the University of Minnesota High School, an experimental lab school that he credits with his ability to cook and understand the Russian language. While other schools were clearly dividing boys and girls into their “appropriate” schooling environments, his high school required boys to take home economics. And now, 70 years later, David still enjoys cooking. That school environment of excellence and pushing boundaries influenced his world view. He continues to work on his Russian.

After graduation from high school he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving in the Marshall Islands. Young David witnessed hydrogen bomb testing and later learned to parachute jump from planes. Sixty years later, he remembers his feelings of God during that time. Later, as a reservist, he had his sea bag packed and ready to go, thinking that then-President Johnson would surely be sending reservists to Vietnam. Instead, to David’s surprise, the draft was implemented. He still believes that that was a politically motivated decision. After his discharge from the Marines, he returned to Minneapolis where he continued his education, receiving a B.A. in Russian, and then an M.A. in sociology. When his time in the Reserves came to an end and he had completed his degrees, he followed the path of many retired military personnel and became a cop.

From the start of his career in policing David saw his role, and the role of police in general, as one of guardian, not warrior. That distinction colored his long, successful and sometimes adversarial career in law enforcement. By 1972, he had replaced Chief Wilbur Emery, also an ex-Marine, as chief of police in Madison, where journalist Sophia Willer referred to him as the “Chief of Change.”

Those early years in Madison were hard. Many of the officers didn’t like the change for which he advocated. He found himself and his family shunned at police gatherings. That took its toll on all of them. They needed a safe place to get away from the stresses of their life in Madison.

In 1980, he and his wife, Sabine, bought land they named “New Journey Farm” in the Iowa County town of Brigham. After many years of using the land as a retreat from their city life, they finally moved to the Driftless full time in 2006. The land now has over two miles of walking trails where he can practice the Japanese art of forest bathing and clear his mind. He loves the woods and the hills, and finds being in nature to be a reminder that we are just one creature among many. A creature with a responsibility to the land.

When I asked David what he wished people knew about him, he laughed. He has lived a life in the public eye, sometimes to the detriment of his family. So, for him, the better question was what he wished they didn’t know. While there weren’t pieces he would take out of his story, he just wished that his convictions hadn’t hurt his family when he took over in Madison.

He also said that he has learned after Sabine’s death last year that it is possible to love someone who is gone and to love someone who is here. At 83 he has found love again with Christine, his partner and wife who brings him great happiness today. It seems that David is not a man to be kept down for long.

David is full of hope, energy and conviction even in the face of great loss. He believes we can be better, but when he sees injustice and unfairness around him it makes him profoundly sad. And he continues to dedicate himself to teaching and preaching compassion for our fellow humans. In the face of that sadness, though, his ability to practice loving kindness makes him happy.

He is a planner, and making plans helps him when he faces adversity. He knows, however, after a lifetime of powerful positions, that he has had opportunities to plan and to do that he would not have had were he a person of color. And that knowledge affirms his conviction that we all, especially those of us who are white, have a human responsibility to work to understand the circumstances of all whom we encounter and to treat them with compassion. We must be fair, equitable, and just in all of our interactions. Without exception.

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email Jennifer Moore-Kerr at jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.