More than 6,000 people have died in Massachusetts from COVID-19. These lives lost are much more than a number — they're individuals with fascinating lives and people who loved them. We're remembering and sharing the stories of some of the people we have lost in a series titled "Lives Remembered."
George Coppez was a veteran, a father, a grandfather and a Boston sports fan. He served in World War II, stationed first in Hawaii — after Pearl Harbor — and then at Westover Air Force Base in Western Massachusetts.
Coppez, who died from COVID-19 on April 8 at the age of 98, was also a drummer. And after the war, he got a call that he'd talk about for the rest of his life.
The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was in town, and they needed a fill-in drummer.
"I guess my father was the only one locally that could read the music,” said Coppez's daughter, Diane Craven. “So he ended up that day filling in for the drummer."
Coppez had been playing drums since age 7, and he was used to playing small venues with local jazz musicians. The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra was one of the most famous big bands in the country at the time. And the fill-in gig went well.
"Jimmy Dorsey, I guess, liked the way he played, and he asked him to go with him to New York," Craven said.
Coppez went with the band. But after a month, he got a call from his wife back home.
"They had a decision to make whether he was going to stay with the band or if he was going to come home,” Craven said. “My mom sort of gave him an ultimatum. And he decided to be with his family."
They’d go on to raise three kids together. Coppez worked for decades as a lithographer at Curtis Business Forms in Holyoke. He coached football at Holyoke High School. It was a good life. But any chance he got, he'd tell the story about that one month in the mid-1940s.
Coppez's children said he made the right choice. But in a recording Craven made of her father when he was in his 90s, Coppez sounded like the finality of the decision weighed on him.
"I quit,” he said. “And I was, I was done."
His career with Dorsey was over, but Coppez played in jazz bands and orchestras for decades — in theaters, in parks and at weddings.
"He played all kinds of things,” said his oldest daughter, Pat Klopfer. “He played my senior prom. Oh yeah, it’s great going to your prom and your father's playing in the band,” she said with a laugh.
As he got into his 60s, lugging his drums from gig to gig started to get tiring. Craven said the last straw came in the form of an unexpected thunderstorm during an outdoor show. She said her father hated lightning.
"It was a phobia for him, it really was," she said.
He had to pack up all his drums during the storm.
"And I believe he just came home and said to my mom, ‘That's it, I'm done,’” Craven said. “Within a week he sold his drums."
His children said Coppez could be stubborn. When he made up his mind about something, he stuck with it — even if it meant giving up something he had loved.
For the next several decades he focused on his family, and his other great love — Boston sports teams. A favorite memory of his son's, also named George Coppez, was going to a Celtics game with his dad in the afternoon, and then to a Bruins game together that evening.
Even though he wasn’t playing, his family said that Coppez was always a drummer. Whenever he heard music — especially big band jazz, his favorite — he'd be tapping on a table to the beat.
At age 93, Coppez moved to the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. That’s where he met Sarah Michel, who runs a music program there. She was intrigued when she heard Coppez was a drummer.
"I decided to start asking him, ‘Hey, Georgie. Maybe I'll get you to play the drums again,’” Michel said. “And his response was always, 'Nope, nope, nope.'"
But she didn't give up. Michel suggested his family get him a snare drum, and sure enough, he loved it. So, more than 30 years after he'd given up playing, the family decided to surprise him with a whole drum set.
"The first morning he saw them, he was ecstatic," Craven said.
"And by golly, he walked right to that drum set and he sat down and started playing,” said Michel. “And it was, it was just jaw dropping."
Coppez's drumming became a fixture of the Soldiers' Home's weekly music sessions. In 2015, Michel decided to plan an event in Coppez's honor.
"I just wanted to do something special for Georgie," she said.
Michel's husband, Keith DaSilva, is also a drummer, so Michel planned a competition between them and called it the "Great American Drum-Off." They took turns, drumming in different styles as she played the keyboard.
In the end, Coppez was the victor. It was just as Michel had planned — a moment of celebration, to honor a man who was a veteran and a veteran musician.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, Coppez’s memory and drumming skills slowed down.
Then, this spring, dozens of veterans at the home contracted COVID-19. More than 70 residents have died of the disease since mid-March. Coppez was among them.
Craven was with him in the end.
"I was able to sit with him for, for like the last maybe six hours of his life and talk to him and just hold his hand and say my goodbyes," Craven said.
Her brother George was at home, waiting to hear from his sister.
“And I says, you know, I'm going to put Dorsey on,” he said. “And I was listening to the music when she gave me the call."
When she left the Soldiers' Home that day, Craven said she put a big band station on the radio.
“Just kind of like, ‘Here's for you, Dad,’" she said.