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Lawyer retires after helping countless people stay home

December 14, 2016
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Almost everyone who talks about their friend Orville Copsey begins with the stories about his suits.

Copsey is an attorney, so suits and ties are just part of the job. He wore them during his nearly 40-year career at CNA Financial Corp., and when he started volunteering at Indianapolis Legal Aid Society after he retired from full-time work in 1997, he continued sporting the attire.

Much of his work for legal aid involves representing older, sometimes disabled residents whose homes have become uninhabitable. In Marion County Environmental Court, Copsey works to rehabilitate the residences and help the clients stay put.

At times, that effort will require Copsey to gather his cleaning materials and go into the home himself to scrub, polish and sweep. On those days, just like his days in the office or in court, he puts on a suit as a sign of respect to his clients.

Dec. 2 was like any other day as he again put on a white shirt, pulled on a gray suit, clipped a couple of pens to his pocket and headed to ILAS. But this time, he was going to the office to say good-bye. At 85, Copsey is retiring at the end of December from the nonprofit’s Elderly and Disabled Housing Program, an initiative he largely started.

Legal aid colleagues, local attorneys, judges and a few staff members from the Marion County Public Health Department gathered to wish Copsey well and thank him for his service.

Copsey is credited with working with opposing counsel to find solutions to, literally, very messy problems, and helping homeowners stay in their houses. The natural adversary to his work is the Marion County Public Health Department, which files lawsuits in the environmental court against individuals living in unsafe conditions. But the reaction of the health department workers who came to his party shows Copsey has a knack for finding common ground.

“He’s awesome,” enthused Debra Carroll of the health department. “He was my angel.”

Born in Blackford County, Copsey grew up on a farm. He proudly states he was valedictorian of his high school class before he wryly adds the class contained just 14 students. Copsey went on to Indiana University in Bloomington, getting a degree in social work before heading to law school.

It was his undergraduate studies that led him to ILAS. He explained he always felt a little guilty about never using his social work skills, so he knocked on the door of legal aid. Almost as soon as he started volunteering, he was helping clients facing removal from their homes.

In addition to his wardrobe, Copsey also brought a keen knowledge of the so-called rainbow book. This was a list of social agencies and government departments that provided services around the community. It picked up its name because the pages were different colors.

Copsey was introduced to the reference manual through his volunteer work at the 211 call center. In his prime, he worked at ILAS Mondays through Thursdays then answered phones on Fridays. Repeatedly leafing through the pages of the book, he learned who could do what.

More than knowing who could help, Copsey had a gift for getting resources no one else could. ILAS attorney John Sage remembered his well-dressed colleague getting one elderly woman a new roof and heater for her home. Another time, he enlisted employees from a local company to help remove piles of paper from a house and even convinced the city of Indianapolis to donate a dumpster.

“He’s a very special person doing very special work,” Sage said.•

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