December 26, 1986

In September of this year, and as the first of a two-part post, I wrote “You didn’t do them any favors.” As a prelude to that earlier post, I added: “This will be a post in two parts. This is the first part. I hope I have the courage to write the second. If I do, the second part will appear on December 26.” Here is that second installment. It will make much more sense if you read the first.


I had been selected to become a United States Magistrate Judge in November of 1986. Judge Ross, and my law partners, worked hard to make that happen. My wife, Verdella, was overjoyed at the prospect of living in Omaha. We would move into our new home some 225 miles to the east of Lexington in early January, and the kids, Marne, 14, Lisa 11, and Keller, 6, would start school.

Verdella was my high school sweetheart. She was tall, like daughter Lisa. While not exactly beautiful, Verdella was striking in the way stately blue-eyed German girls are striking. Everyone loved her. She was kind, funny, and the life of the party. She taught high school kids drama and French. Despite the fact that her father had been raised in Franklin, Nebraska, Verdella grew up down the street from me in Maumee, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Her father, Bill, had died in May of 1986 after a long and distinguished career as a surgeon.

Mark called me, and said he was out of prison. He asked whether he could come over. On the evening of December 26, 1986, Mark arrived. At six-foot three, he was as muscular and good looking as ever. Verdella fixed a crab and cream cheese snack, and the three of us talked while Marne and Lisa watched TV in the other room. Keller was asleep in his room. The Christmas tree shone brightly. It was a happy time.

Mark was great. Eight years in prison had not harmed him. In fact, he seemed more centered and at peace than at anytime I had seen him before. He spoke excitedly about moving to a southern state with his parents where they would raise cattle on a new farm. He was excited.

After about an hour, Verdella walked into the kitchen to get something. I don’t recall what it was. Pretty soon, I heard a crash. Mark and I ran to the kitchen. Verdella was laying flat on the ground. Her eyes were rolled up in her head, and she had lost control of her bladder. Marne came running in as I tried to administer CPR. I think I told her to call 911. Mark stood there feeling, I am sure, quite helpless. I told him to leave. Having just been paroled, I didn’t want to cause him complications when the police showed up.

The fire department and police arrived rapidly. Lexington is a very small town. I remember one of the volunteer firemen, who I knew very well. He was trying to keep his facial features neutral, but I saw it in his eyes. The rescue squad took her to the hospital that was only a mile or so away. The guys on the rescue squad asked me to drive myself. I am pretty sure they did not want me to see what they would be doing on the ride to the hospital. A neighbor came to look after the kids. Doctor Joe, our family doc and good friend, met me in the emergency room. He had tears in his eyes. Verdella was dead. She had just turned 40.

I learned later, after the autopsy, that Verdella died of idiopathic myocarditis–an inflammation of the heart muscle of unknown origin but frequently caused by a viral infection like the common cold. Patients who are hit with this illness are often asymptomatic. That was the case with Verdella.

What happened during the following days is all a blur. Verdella’s mom, Merle, and her sisters from Ohio quickly arranged to fly to Omaha on December 27. One of my pilot friends agreed to take his light twin-engine airplane to pick them up and bring them to Lexington. My dear friend, Pat, came over from Kearney and sat with me deep into the night. I called a clinical psychologist, who was a client, and asked for his advice about telling Keller the next morning. Like the psychologist predicted, when I told Keller, using very simple words, there wasn’t much of a reaction. I held him on my lap for a few moments, and then put him down. He sat on the floor and played with his trucks. I think I saw a tear.

We held a memorial service in Lexington for Verdella in the protestant church we had attended in the past. I remember dear Marne acting like a perfect little adult, greeting people and doing exactly what her mother would have done. Little Lisa, who still hates public attention, shrunk into the shadows. The four of us–the kids and me–saw Verdella’s body one more time at the funeral home. It was excruciating.

The seven of us–the kids, Verdella’s two sisters, her mom and I–flew back to Toledo. Verdella’s body followed. She was to be buried next to her father. The funeral was set for January 2, 1987. We were all staying at Merle’s home. On New Year’s eve, Kip, my brother came to see me. We talked quietly, and I told him I was not feeling well. So, he left. I had an awful pain in the stomach. I tried to lie down, but the pain got worse.

Eventually, I got up, and spoke quietly to Brad, my brother-in-law. I asked him to take me to the hospital. By then, I could not sit up straight. By the time we made it to the emergency room, I was beginning to go into shock. The last thing I remember is being wheeled down a long corridor with a nurse trying but failing to intubate me as I vomited.

I awoke late in the afternoon on New Years in what I seem to remember as a dazzling white room. The children were standing next to the bed. I learned that I had been operated on by Bill’s former medical partner. A stomach ulcer had ruptured and the contents of the stomach had spilled into the abdominal cavity. The rupture was about the size of a quarter, and it looked to Bill’s partner to be cancerous. As it turned out, there was no cancer. The hole had been caused by taking too many over the counter medications (Excedrin Extra Strength and aspirin) for migraine headaches.

About four days into my hospital stay, Judge Ross called me. He had Judge Beam on the line with him. Judge Beam was then Chief Judge of the District of Nebraska, and would soon be elevated to his present position as judge on the Court of Appeals. Judge Ross made it clear to me that I must come to Omaha, and that I must not allow Verdella’s death to interfere with the new job. He was gentle and kind but insistent. Judge Beam was supportive too. I took their advice.

I was far too weak and sick to attend the funeral. The children buried their mother without me. I learned later that the wind chill was fierce. You have not experienced cold until you have felt in your bones sub-zero temperatures driven by a wind coming off Lake Erie in January.

Eight days after my operation, I was released from the hospital. I was confined to Merle’s home for another week. Then, Merle, the kids and I flew back to Omaha, picked up my station wagon and drove back to Lexington. I was very weak. I had lost a lot of weight. With the help of great friends in Lexington, we packed our things, saw the moving van off,* and drove to Omaha to begin our new lives.

A few days later, I began the new job. I remember barely be able to lug my briefcase into the federal building on the first day of work. I especially remember feeling completely alone. I was 40 years old and the line for “marital status” on the employment papers said “widower.”

What about Mark? I never saw him again. But, I did learn that Mark was subsequently involved in a horrific automobile accident down south. Tragically, it left him paralyzed.

Verdella’s words still linger. Despite my overly earnest representation of Mark, I hadn’t done anyone any favors.


*As only little boys can do, Keller got friendly with one of the rough guys on the moving van. The fellow had a pocket knife that fascinated Keller because it looked like the moving van. The guy gave Keller the knife. It is pictured below. Joan, my dear wife since 1992 and the only mother Keller has really known, keeps the knife on the window-sill next to the kitchen sink. That way, Keller can’t miss it when he visits from Australia or other far off places. It is an odd but important reminder of his past.

photo (3)

16 responses

  1. Such a sad tale, a vivid reminder to take nothing for granted. I was wondering the other day is it just human nature that we forget so readily how precious is life, that it takes jolts like yours to set us right, even if only temporarily? Perhaps it is just how we are wired, but I can’t imagine facing another day again the same way having been through what you did at such a young age.

  2. Judge, I’m sorry to read of such a sad anniversary but glad that you and your children were, somehow, able to move forward. As I’ve learned from some rough patches in my own life, lack of choice can be a great motivator. (I did not know you were originally a Maumee person. I’m from Sylvania, and I know something about those bitter winters.)

  3. Judge Kopf – thank you for sharing such a powerfully personal story. I am sorry for your loss.

    As for your representation of Mark, you did your best – I’m certain that there is satisfaction knowing that you fulfilled that duty.

  4. Judge Richard Kopf,

    Love is the Greatest of All! Verdella lives inside your HEART!!! Verdella is still with you each day and All her Loved Ones!!! Her Beauty Lives On!!! May her precious Memories Live Eternally!!

  5. It was a terrible thing to have to go through and completely understandable why this time of year would bring you down, in and of itself. It is good that you survived. Sounds like Judges Ross and Beam did you a favor by pressuring you to stick with the new job, but you had to do that hard work. My guess is Verdella would approve of the job you’ve done bringing yourself and your family forward from that terrible time 27 years ago.

  6. Judge Kopf,

    As I read your story, I was touched deeply. As my heart ached for you and the reliving of your circumstances, I was reminded of my own story (which I hope brings you comfort of knowing others have survived a similar road).

    When I was 18 years old, my dad took my mom to the emergency room because she wasn’t feeling well. Long story short, she died the following day in the coronary care unit, after having a massive heart attack. Two months later we found out my dad had cancer and he died 8 short months later. I was adopted as an infant and told how special I was because they wanted me desperately; and suddenly without parents. I was so sheltered, I was CLUELESS of how to survive in an adult world!!!!

    I wandered in despair for several years, but thankfully rejoined the world a stronger human being (with MUCH DEEPER faith and less desire to ATTEMPT to control anything in life). I also realized how complex the brain is and how helpful counseling can be (taking into consideration the varying levels and types of mental illness).

    I am now 51 years old and thankful for every step of my journey – realizing I wouldn’t be who I am today without walking every path (including the painful ones). I agree with the others, that your wife lives on through you and your children; just as my parents will always live through me!

    I decided recently to attempt to locate my birth mother. Honestly, as a mother myself (I have three children and a perfect grandchild) I simply want to THANK HER for giving me life (she didn’t have to) and REASSURE HER – no matter what the circumstances in her life at the time (or now), she made the right decision! My parents were amazing and I couldn’t have been raised in a better family or under better circumstances!

    I want you to know how much I ENJOY your blog! I look forward to reading every single post you write! Thank you for taking the time to share your professional (and personal) life with us; I’m grateful!

  7. Rich, that’s quite a recounting of what was surely the worst day of your life. As for Mark, I was steeling myself for an ending where he committed some gruesome crime after release. I suppose it’s debatable whether you did him any favors, but I don’t see where you did him(or anyone else) any disservice. He got mental health treatment for whatever good it did or did not do him. He served a non-trivial amount of time in prison. The rape victim was spared having to testify. Karma had the last laugh. Best, Pat.

  8. Theresa,

    Thanks very much for your kindness. I hope this blog does show a personal side. Not so much my personal side, but the fact that federal judges are quite ordinary. Their lives are filled with same hopes, and the same disappointments as everyone else.

    All the best.


  9. Thanks for sharing your painful story. The day after you posted it, I attended a celebration for a local lawyer, one of our best. He was something like 60 years old, in the prime of his career and in excellant health, at least until he got brain cancer. He had surgery, chemotherapy and is now recieving hospice care. Kudos to his wife for planning a party he could attend. There was a huge turnout of friends, relatives, co-workers, colleagues and even a few judges.

    As people, we all need to remember our lives can end unexpectedly or change forever by the unexpected, or expected, for that matter, death of those we love. As judges, we need to keep in mind that those we judge, are in the same boat.

  10. Judge Kopf – I have just read this post. I knew it would be sad, so I waited to read it. I am glad that you had the courage to write this post and I am so sorry for the pain that you suffered. It seems that you have been able to live a full life and raise your children with your wife, Joan. I appreciated that you provided such touching and positive memories of Verdella. I hope that the memories of those early years in Lexington give you some comfort. Elaine Mittleman

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