Ray Coppinger, Hampshire College professor, dog researcher, dies

  • Lorna and Ray Coppinger are shown in an undated photo. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

  • Ray Coppinger —HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

  • Ray Coppinger is shown with a canine friend in this undated photo. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

Published: 8/22/2017 11:54:39 PM

AMHERST — Renowned canine researcher Raymond Coppinger, a biologist and one of Hampshire College’s founding professors, died of cancer on Aug. 14 at the age of 80.

Coppinger was a professor of biology passionate about wildlife conservation who, family, former colleagues and close friends uniformly agree, was deeply committed to his students and to the Hampshire College student-centered pedagogy he became synonymous with.

“What he was first and foremost was a teacher, a teacher of students,” Coppinger’s wife, the biologist and science writer Lorna Coppinger, said Tuesday, emphasizing his dedication to whatever he was focused on. “Whether it was his students, or his family or his science, he was totally immersed in it.”

The Coppingers are prominent figures in the canine science world, who have conducted in-depth research, co-authored scientific articles and co-written two books about dogs, the most recent of which — “What Is a Dog?” — was translated into seven languages.

But writing together is often a difficult process, and Lorna Coppinger chuckled as she recalled how her husband’s ideas were constantly growing and changing. He would bring her a draft that she would add to and edit, and then he’d change everything up again.

“It was kind of frustrating to work with him, but I learned how to do it,” she said.

A colleague and friend, longtime Hampshire linguistics professor Mark Feinstein, said Coppinger was a “famous, fierce and cranky defender of his ideas,” but that he was also willing to have those ideas confronted and challenged.

“And there were people who thought he was hopelessly off base, which sometimes he was, and also smart enough and strong enough to acknowledge that,” Feinstein, who wrote the book “How Dogs Work” with Coppinger, said. Often, those ideas would be challenged by his own students, with whom he published many articles. “Ray never wavered from that core assumption that students were at the heart of it.”

Mixing scholarly, personal

The Coppingers moved to Montague in the early 1960s when Ray was completing his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, and they built their own home, which became a classroom of sorts for students, many of whom stayed close throughout the years as they advanced in their careers.

“Dozens of graduates from Hampshire College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts, as well as European university graduates, became friends and colleagues, responding to his engaging and dedicated style, his humor, and his deep knowledge of the subject,” a memorial statement from Hampshire College reads.

Coppinger was appointed to Hampshire’s faculty in 1969 as one of the college’s founding professors. In those early years, his scholarly pursuits and personal life bled into one another as he became a musher in New England, where he would race and breed sled dogs, and study their physiology and behavior. The New England Sled Dog Club voted Coppinger Sportsman of the Year in 1973.

In the 1970s, Ray and Lorna Coppinger traveled the world researching sheep-guarding dogs, bringing some home to study at Hampshire, and eventually working to develop the Anatolian shepherd breed here in the United States.

Biology professor Lynn Miller, also one of Hampshire’s founding faculty, credits that work with saving the U.S. sheep industry by helping develop a non-lethal method of controlling predators .

“That made him very, very very famous with the sheep breeders of the United States,” Miller said. “And that was one of the aspects of Ray’s science — he was always looking to find answers to real problems.”

In addition to raising dogs, the Coppingers also studied canine evolution and their origins. The couple’s 2001 book, “Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution,” challenged the belief that hunter-gatherers domesticated dogs by breeding them from wolf pups. The Coppingers favored a theory that dogs domesticated themselves by scavenging off humans, a view that many canine scientists today, though certainly not all, believe to be the most likely way domesticated dogs came into existence.

An adventurer

Beyond the research, however, Coppinger was a family man with a side-splitting, disarming sense of humor to go along with his brilliant mind. Miller credits Coppinger’s friendship, and anecdotes, for example, with helping him cope with his frustrations with scholarly life.

“When I got to Hampshire College I was not in love with academia,” Miller said. “And he was always the one who was able to calm me down and make me tolerate being a college professor.”

Coppinger delighted people with his vivid and humorous storytelling, much of which was drawn from his own personal experiences.

“He could take anything and he made a story out of it, and it was fun,” Lorna said.

She recalled one of the first weekends they spent together, and how afterward she overheard him telling other students about their trip and was stunned at his ability to recount the details in a captivating tale. “He made it so exciting and interesting.”

“There’s a void in my life, that’s the only way I can put it,” said Barry Coppinger, Ray’s double cousin — their mothers were sisters and their fathers were brothers. “He was an adventurer.”

Coppinger’s longtime fishing buddy, Hampshire economics professor Stanley Warner, went on many of those adventures with him. For almost 20 years, the two spent a summer month in northern Quebec camping, fishing and talking about everything from Chinese economics and dog behavior to death.

“I once said to myself, ‘If you’re going to pick a fishing buddy, look for somebody with his own backhoe,’” Warner said, laughing.

The idea was that someone like Coppinger who also had a backhoe would undoubtedly be a polymath, and Coppinger was exactly that: a dog-mushing biologist who built his own house and drove big-rig trucks to put himself through school at Boston University.

“His intellect reached very widely across literature, history, music, art,” Warner said.

Coppinger’s humorous book “Fishing Dogs” was dedicated to Warner: “Unable to think of anyone better, I dedicate this book to Stan Warner.”

“It was a dry wit,” Warner said with a laugh.

After retiring from Hampshire, the Coppingers traveled the world, but stayed close to their two children and grandchildren.

“I hate to use the word perfect, but he was,” Lorna said.

Coppinger is survived by Lorna; his children, Karyn and Tim, and their spouses, Craig Kling and Lise Marshall Coppinger; his grandchildren, Isabelle, Josephine and Tai; and his cousin, Barry.

Hampshire College will hold a memorial service for him later this year.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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