Noblesse Oblige

In my continuing series of oblique and esoteric column titles, I offer you “Noblesse Oblige.”

If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s French and translates to “nobility obligates.” It stands for the idea that if you are privileged, you have a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those who are less fortunate.

It’s a nice idea.

I first heard the term in a college class on Southern literature. We were reading a Faulkner novel, and the professor was lecturing on the great writer’s sense of justice and fairness among the upper crust. For reasons I cannot explain, the phrase stuck with me, and I probably don’t go a month without thinking of it in some fashion.

I first saw the concept of noblesse oblige put into practice when I was working for B.A.S.S. in 2011. The company had been purchased by a trio of investors the previous fall, and everyone was worried about the future. Rumors were flying, and the one that had credence was that B.A.S.S. would be moving from Central Florida to somewhere in Alabama.

I didn’t want to go. My parents had relocated to Florida a few years earlier and they were getting on in years. My mother had recently broken her hip. My father was ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease and about to go into hospice care. Staying close to them was the most important thing in my world. My job was a distant second, though I had to pay the bills.

Eventually, the rumors of a move became fact, and plans were laid to relocate to Birmingham. Some staff were notified that their services would no longer be required. Others were given the option to make the move. I was in the latter group.

A few weeks later, some of the new senior staff from Birmingham came to Florida to meet with the employees one-on-one. If you had questions or issues, this was your chance.

I scheduled an appointment with the new Chief Operating Officer. I wanted to tell her about my family situation and explain that my job could be done from anywhere thanks to telephones, computers and the internet. She stopped me after a sentence or two and said I would move to Birmingham and be ready to go on November 1, or they would replace me … quickly and easily.

Then she began singing the praises of Birmingham, which in her eyes was a beacon of virtue and earthly delights in a sea of mediocrity. I asked if she had ever lived anywhere else.

She hadn’t.

The entire meeting lasted less than three minutes. I thanked her for her time and went down the hall to one of the new owners. Jim Copeland was a retired attorney and former CEO of a global financial services firm. He sat on the board of directors of several major corporations and was a heavy hitter in the business world. He was also an avid angler.

I told him about my situation, and — realizing that this would be my last chance to keep my job — I eschewed any false modesty. I told him I knew as much or more about the sport of bass fishing as anyone alive and that I wanted to keep my job but that I had family obligations. I asked him if he really wanted to work with someone who felt differently.

He told me that he and his wife had experienced similar challenges in their family. He understood.

Jim Copeland. Photo: BASS

Before I left, Mr. Copeland told me that he would go to bat for me. He didn’t make any promises — and I didn’t ask for any — but I felt better about things as I walked away. I’m guessing he gave people confidence his whole career. I can tell you that he led with trust.

A week or two later, I was told I could keep my job and work from home indefinitely. I had been able to appeal to Mr. Copeland’s sense of fairness and justice … or sympathy … or maybe just business judgment.

After that, Mr. Copeland was an occasional visitor to events where I was working. He would invariably come over to say hello, ask about my family and thank me for my efforts with B.A.S.S. At the Bassmaster Classic, he stood at the entrance to the Champion’s Toast party and thanked B.A.S.S. employees for their work in creating the sport’s biggest event.

I truly appreciated these gestures, and I know that other B.A.S.S. workers did, too. Mr. Copeland was the least visible of the owners, but he was liked and respected.

I left B.A.S.S. in 2014 to become the Managing Editor of FTR. Sometime around then, too, Mr. Copeland sold his interest in B.A.S.S. I know this only because his obituary listed him as a “former” owner.

Jim Copeland died on January 8 at his home in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, after a short illness. He was 72.

Mr. Copeland didn’t teach me the phrase “noblesse oblige,” but he certainly showed me what it looked like in real life.

He will be missed. His family and friends have my deepest sympathies. Our sport and our world could use more people like him.

Rest in peace.