A lover of life, sports and snow. A role model for his younger brother. A St. Louis Cardinals fan who loved Albert Pujols.
A life indelibly graven on the hearts of his family and friends, a legacy inextricably linked with unspeakable tragedy, Preston Cope’s name won’t soon be forgotten in Marshall County.
Barely five years gone, taken in the Jan. 23, 2018 shooting that also claimed the life of fellow Marshall County High School student Bailey Holt, memorial golf and whiffle ball tournaments in Preston’s name, and the social media tag #belikebailey still serve as unifiers and anchors of memory in a community where the pain is still ever-present.
“It’s January 23, 2018 for us, every single day,” said Preston’s father, Brian Cope, in a recent interview.
“We’re kind of stuck in time, I feel like, sometimes.”
Cope and his wife, Teresa Cope, have lived in their home in Marshall County for more than 20 years, and considered moving in the aftermath of the shooting that also injured 14 others.
But after a few renovations to help give them a new view of the home, they decided to stay.
“I’m glad we didn’t move,” Cope said.
“We still are here. We feel Preston.”
For the Cope family, the last five years have seen the pain of tragedy mingled with the love of their community, the success of government initiatives mixed with frustration of practical implementation, and the desire to move forward in life with the weight of loss that holds them rooted to the spot.
“We try to pick up the pieces as best we can,” Cope said.
The couple hold tightly to their faith and the fruit they’ve seen born in the past half-decade, including the Preston Cope Foundation and charity events like the ever-growing Preston Cope Classic Wiffle Ball Tournament that allow them to give to community charities.
“We just want to give back through his name, because that’s what he would want and that’s the community that’s been there for us,” Teresa Cope said.
And the pair remain fierce advocates for school safety measures, having played a notable part in passing a recent school safety bill and adding language protecting the privacy of victims of violence.
“Losing a child is the worst thing a human being can go through. We don’t want anybody else to have to go through that. We don’t want anyone to have that emptiness, that heartache every single day,” Brian Cope said.
While he said he’s frustrated that some localities across Kentucky don’t seem to be reaching the standards mandated by the bill, he’s dedicated to pursuing a day where kids don’t have to feel unsafe at school.
“I just feel like that’s the most important thing we should be doing.”
Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall still thinks about the shooting and its aftermath nearly every day.
“I remember all these little bitty details,” Darnall said in a recent interview.
From the snow lingering on the ground during his morning run to hopping in the shower and driving to work where he didn’t answer his ringing phone because he drives a stick-shift Jeep, to the Benton Police officer tearing down the road evoking concerns there was a major wreck, the day is seared in Darnall’s memory.
“The first message I saw was from my wife, Jenny, saying ‘I’m out. I’m okay. I’m stuck in a field. Can you come and get me?’ ”
Darnall assumed she’d been in a wreck, but later found out she had taken a van full of students in the aftermath of the shooting and driven them to a safer location and gotten stuck.
Then he walked into the school’s commons area.
“It was just a gut punch, that scene, and I’ll never forget it. It was horrible. Just horrible.”
Backpacks abandoned and cell phones buzzing and blinking.
“It’s just seared into my brain.”
In short order Darnall had to pivot from shock and horror to prosecutor, as he assisted the commonwealth’s attorney’s office throughout the process of securing a life sentence for shooter Gabe Parker.
Parker pleaded guilty to life without the possibility of parole for 20 years.
But more than his own contribution, Darnall credits first responders with an impeccable response to a chaotic situation.
“They did everything absolutely by the book,” he said of police and emergency services, “down to the ambulance service and traffic control.”
“Everybody knew what they needed to do, and they executed it perfectly.”
Even as Darnall progresses through the timeline of events and court proceedings, it’s difficult for him to digest the fact that it’s been five years.
“It’ll take a couple generations for maybe some of the memories to fade,” he said. “We can’t forget the victims ever.”
“Marshall is always gonna be strong.”
Brian Cope has saved on his phone a quote he ran across online, of unknown authorship: “Be grateful for every second of every day that you get to spend with people you love. Life is so very precious.”
He makes sure not to miss any baseball games where his son, Maddox, is playing, calling his son “one of our reasons for living.”
And while the sadness of losing a son may never go away, Brian Cope remains steadfast in the belief that God can turn broken to beautiful.
“A lot of good things have come out of it in ways that we don’t even know.”
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