Daughter & Dad: Different Paths, Similar Patterns

By: Maureen Mahan Copeloff with Thomas W. Mahan

In the end days of December 2011, Tom Mahan (my dad)  published a book; almost two weeks later, I finally published mine.  Neither of us knew, when we started, that the other was writing a book, but our discovery enabled us to share the adventure and compare notes.  Like so many other times in my life, my dreams and aspirations paralleled dads.  Despite following different paths, we have often arrived at the same destination.


Dad retired to the wonderful town of Brevard in 1992.  In 2009, I followed suit, moving into a house less than a mile from his.  Dad loved his brief, three-year career as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard where he discovered much about himself and was known as the Mister Roberts of the Coast Guard. I loved listening to his sea stories, imagining him as the young lieutenant.  Therefore, he wasn’t surprised when, after completing my MBA at the University of South Carolina, I joined the U.S. Navy.  Like dad, I learned much about myself in the military as I saw and experienced the world.  The Coast Guard and Navy helped us develop the self-confidence to make hard decisions and embrace difficult assignments.  More importantly, we learned the value of working as a team member, of being a shipmate to people around us.


We had the opportunity to make the military a lifetime career, but chose different paths.  Dad, after much internal debate, declined the offer to continue his quest for a career in academe; I seized the offer and served just short of 30 years in the Navy, loving the exotic locations and the level of responsibility the military gave a young woman.


Dad distinguished himself in his academic career.  He implemented and directed the first city-to-suburb school desegregation project in the country in the mid-1960s.  He continued in minority education with his leadership of the award-winning Project Achievement, a collaborative program between The Citadel and Burke High School, for high-risk African-American youth, in Charleston, South Carolina.  He spent his career serving and working to improve his community, assuming  challenging and often very difficult assignments.


I rose to the rank of Captain (equivalent of a bird colonel in the Army, Marines and Air Force) and was privileged to serve my country around the world working in electronic communications.  I joined the Navy when they first allowed women to serve in combat support functions and am proud to have been part of the group whose perseverance helped transform a male-dominated institution to one in which today’s women serve as equal members.


Dad had spent seven years in the seminary studying to become a Catholic priest.  He earned a baccalaureate and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and began his studies in theology before realizing that the priesthood was not his destiny.


His interest in theology, along with a penchant for the impractical, passed onto me because I majored in comparative religions, a major with the same market value as a degree in philosophy.  When dad inquired about parlaying his degrees into income-producing assets, his major adviser suggested that he consider those years an investment and strike out into a new field.  I also quickly discovered that my degree had no direct connection to employment and decided that I must be practical.  I enrolled in USC’s MBA program.  Of course, I didn’t count on a major recession in 1979 or the resistance I encountered as a woman with an MBA when I tried to find an industrial management job.   The Navy beckoned with opportunity and the chance to see the world.


I mentioned earlier our book publishing adventure.  Dad and I have always loved and respected the power of words.  Last year, we decided that we had something to say and share.  So what do our publications say about our daughter-father dyad?  At first, our books seem unrelated.  Mine is titled Discovering Germany: The Treasures of Beer, Castles, Food and Friends; dad’s Faith Burning with Hope: A Catholic Layman Wrestles with His Church appears, at first, to be from a different planet.  Yet these books concern exploring, discovering, and  keeping an open mind about finding treasures in unexpected places.  Dad is fond of this quote: grace is everywhere. Our books illustrate that: mine documents the gifts awaiting the patient and observant traveler exploring and embracing the riches of a different culture; dad’s looks inward and notes the joys of relationships and the excitement of faith.  We felt the importance of sharing our experiences, thoughts, and observations to encourage others to embrace life’s joys.


As any reader of my book will quickly note, my constant and supportive companion on my ventures is Sylvan, my husband of over 30 years, also a retired Naval officer.  We met on my first assignment at the Naval Air Station in Sicily and married there a year later.  He was a willing partner through our 30 years of military service around the world, through our travels to over 65 countries, and our transition to retired life in Brevard.


Even before my retirement was official, I had accepted the position, pro bono, of executive director of Transylvania County’s unique program to enhance the quality of life for persons, especially children, with disabilities at the Free Rein Therapeutic Riding Center.  Free Rein, where horses help humans heal, uses interaction with horses to help clients build  self-esteem and confidence along with physical coordination, patience, and self-control.  Before our household goods or car arrived stateside, I was overseeing the operation, coordinating the various aspects of the program, building team spirit and morale, and expanding the program to include students from Brevard Middle School; Davidson River Alternative High School; and Rise and Shine, an African-American after-school support program.   My  immediate leap into action could not have happened without Sylvan’s behind-the-scenes presence in handling the myriad of details involved in returning  to life in the USA after living in Germany for four years.


So how did I end up involved with  Free Rein so quickly?  I was, of course, following in dad’s footsteps.  He had been connected with Free Rein for several years prior to my taking the reins (pun intended!).  After about two years as a widower, Dad married Susan Petersen, a talented lady who had volunteered with the horses and was about to join the Board of Directors.  Susan, a local massage therapist and popular vocalist, introduced her new husband to Free Rein and seduced him into joining the board. 
When I was close to retirement, he realized that the Naval skills I had used to lead sailors, oversee projects, and budget funds would serve equally well in this new environment.  I never would have transferred from sailors to horses if Dad hadn’t paved the way and really demonstrated the incredible healing that comes from this human-horse interaction.  Today, therapeutic equine programs help injured veterans adjust to civilian society after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Working pro bono for non-profits is a family pattern. I became one of Transylvania County’s Master Gardener Volunteers and have worked for the past two years in the horticultural rebirth of the area around Transylvania County’s Silvermont Mansion.   I also work with a group of Brevard Middle School students in Earth Keepers enhancing the grounds, learning about horticulture and appreciating our planet,  and being part of the ventures of the Transylvania Garden Club.  In addition, I strongly support women’s rights and education and actively work as a member of the Brevard Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) raising money to provide scholarships for local women to attend college.


Of course, dad’s pattern preceded me.  Shortly after moving to Brevard, he spent his weekdays at Brevard College establishing a learning center for students with learning disabilities or learning problems.  When J. Thomas Bertrand, J.D., the new college president, began transforming the college into a four-year institution, Dad helped design a curriculum for the psychology major, worked with the committee to select a full-time coordinator, and taught courses in human development, experiential learning and organizational behavior as an adjunct faculty member.  Except for teaching, he completed these duties pro bono.  He was also appointed by the County Board of Commissioners to TREND, the mental health board that oversaw the delivery of mental health services to Transylvania and Henderson Counties. He chaired TREND for two years.  When Brevard Academy, Brevard’s public charter school, discovered financial and morale problems,  Dad was asked to take over in mid-year as principal, again pro bono. When he left 15 months later, the Academy was out of debt and at the highest-ever enrollment.  Again, these activities could not have been completed without Susan’s support and encouragement.


Is there any particular talent or skill that has made our daughter and dad efforts in these varied undertakings successful?   I credit the values we learned serving our country in the Coast Guard and the Navy.  We value every team member, look for ways that we can contribute to numerous aspects of our community, whether military, civilian, religious, educational, therapeutic, or recreational.  We have learned to be moderate risk takers thriving on challenges, and we don’t fear failure.  Our paths have often diverged, then unexpectedly connected, but we have always shared the fundamental belief that grace is everywhere.  Neither of us can imagine an isolated life with so many wonderful discoveries to be found everywhere. Today, Dad and I share advice on our various projects, commiserate as fellow authors, and swap sea stories as we enjoy being part of the wonderful community of shipmates here in Brevard.


Maureen Mahan Copelof is a retired US Navy Captain and recent author.  She and her husband Sylvan live in Brevard. You may contact her and read an excerpt of her book at www.DiscoveringGermany.com.


Thomas W. Mahan is a retired psychotherapist, professor, first Dean of Graduate Studies at the Citadel, and recent author. He and Susan live in Brevard. You may contact him and read an excerpt of his book at www.FaithBurningwithHope.com.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker