East Tennessee State University

Retirees Association (ETSURA)

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Tommy Copeland and his airplane.

A classic ETSU story involves Tommy Copeland, former chair of the  Biological Sciences Department, back in the days when the students on campus had a flying club.  Copeland was sponsor of the club, and a secondhand plane had been bought for use by its members.  In time, however, the license for the plane was lost because fabric covering its fuselage had deteriorated.  The club didn’t have enough money to replace the fabric, so Copeland decided to take the aircraft home to see what he could do. The plan was to make the necessary repairs in his basement.

To get the plane to his house, which was on the side of a steep hill, Copeland took off the wings, put them in his truck and tied the fuselage to the back of the vehicle. Of course, a lot of people stared at the spectacle as he pulled it through town.  Copeland parked the plane in front of his house until flying club members arrived to help him move it to the basement.

The next night, the Copelands were expecting dinner guests at 6:30, but a smokedetector salesman knocked on their door at 6. Copeland eyed up the man, who was about 6-foot-7 and had huge feet, and told him he wasn’t interested in whatever he had to sell.  But the salesman told Copeland that his wife, Jean, had invited him to stop by at 6 to show their children slides about fire prevention. 

After repeating that he wasn’t interested in buying anything, Copeland agreed to give the man 30 minutes of his time — but absolutely no more. “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, but, when I came by yesterday, I saw an airplane parked in front of your house,” the salesman said. “How did you get it here?” Copeland said he had been flying for most of his life, so accomplishing the feat was no problem. “See that hill over there?” he said. “I came in low and slow. I got the wheels on the ground, and down the hill I came. Then I reversed the prop, slammed on the brakes, and said, ‘I’m going up that hill.’ If I see that I won’t stop before I run into the end of the street, then I’ll make the plane spin around.”  The awestruck salesman responded with a “Gawlee!”


Copeland agreed to take the salesman to the basement and show him the plane. In exchange, the man promised not to tell anyone he had seen it in a residential area. As he gazed at the fuselage, the salesman asked where the wings were. Copeland told him the wings were attached by only two bolts, so they were easy to remove. The man’s reaction was another “Gawlee!”


“How do you navigate?” he asked. “Let me show you,” Copeland said. They climbed into the plane, and Copeland turned on the system. By this time, the saleman’s 30 minutes were up, and the dinner guests had arrived. “But I haven’t gotten to tell you about my smoke detectors,” the man said in a pleading tone. As Copeland tried to get the man to leave, he got no support from his wife, so guests and all ended up viewing the slide presentation.

A few days later, Copeland got a phone call from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA had received a report about a plane being flown in and out of the city limits. When Copeland told the real story of how he had pulled the salesman’s leg, the FAA official howled with laughter and said, “I’ve heard all kinds of lies, but this is the biggest one I’ve ever heard!”



"Tales of the University" is a regular column provided by the ETSU Retirees Association about the university and the people associated with it through the decades.  Faculty, staff, students and alumni are encouraged to share their memories of ETSU with the Retirees Association for consideration for future columns.  Stories, comments and suggestions may be sent to Dr. Willene Paxton, chair of the Tales of the University committee, 1203 Lester Harris Road, Johnson City, TN 37601, or willenepj@charter.net.

Mailing Address:  Office of Human Resources
ETSU Box 70564
Johnson City, TN  37614-1707
Telephone:  423-439-4457
Fax:  423-439-8354
TDD:  423-439-4710

Office Hours:  8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. E.S.T. Monday - Friday
Office Location:  Rooms 307 and 311, Dossett Hall

Updated on 09/07/10