NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - It’s been 11 years since an aggressive cancer killed Popeye’s founder Al Copeland. Since then, his oldest son has vowed to do something to save others.
Doctors diagnosed Copeland with Merkel cell carcinoma in 2007. With only months to live, Al Copeland didn’t just accept his fate, he made every second count.
“This is like the top of the earth. So blessed to be up here. This is a property my father owned.”
Al Copeland is at the helm of the empire his father built.
“I’ve got a beautiful view of New Orleans. A beautiful view of Lake Pontchartrain.”
The floor of offices at the top of Copeland Tower are more like a shrine to a man who Al Jr. saw as more than a dad. He was everything.
“This was a plaque on his desk. One of my favorites. ‘The world belongs to the discontented.’ This was his mantra,” says Copeland.
Alvin Charles Copeland was a force of Nature.
“I’m from here. I’ve lived here all my life,” said Copeland Sr.
A bold, neon spirit who grabbed opportunity, made it go his way and lived a dream.
“What I do know about it is he worked really hard 18 hours a day. This man was a beast. If he was going to take on a challenge he took it on with a vengeance,” says Copeland.
He started with nothing.
“He lived in the projects and he was happy to have a pair of shoes for his feet. He said that many times.”
Born in New Orleans and brought up in Arabi, Al and his two brothers, William and Gil, were raised mostly by his mom Augusta and his Mamere’.
Gil opened a doughnut shop in the 60s and later helped his younger brother Al with a franchise in Arabi.
“I remember him opening up Tastee doughnut shop. He worked in a doughnut shop and there was a chicken place down the street doing twice the volume and half the hours. And he said ‘I’m in the wrong business I have to get in the chicken business,’” said Copeland.
“I was 9-years-old when Popeye’s was founded. By the age of 12, 13 it started to roll and life started to change when he started being more flamboyant. You know.”
Fast cars, speed boats, restaurants and hotels. Even Christmas lights. Big Al’s life was big.
“Business he created for us, we still enjoy today. Popeye’s, Copeland’s, Cheesecake Bistro diversified foods and seasoning.”
Never content, he built his legacy and his body.
“He was bench pressing 300 pounds and leg pressing 1200 pounds.”
He seemed healthier than most and then…
“He gets a bump under his ear and he doesn’t know what it is. And he’s traveling. He’s in Las Vegas. They diagnose it. They think it’s a staff infection. They give him antibiotics. Then he goes to Destin and starts to stumble and he said something wrong and not feeling right,” says Copeland. “It’s biopsied and we find out it’s cancer of some sort. Then we find out it’s Merkel cell and Merkel cell is very rare. Only affected 2000 people in the United States a year at the time.”
Merkel cell is an aggressive form of skin cancer linked to exposure to ultraviolet rays and in a high percentage of cases is associated with a virus.
“Merkel cell is a very, very deadly cancer. It’s a very fast-growing cancer. A nine-month terminal cancer guaranteed. Terminal in nine months,” says Copeland. “We all went to Houston when he was diagnosed. Went to a hotel and had a couple of days together and traveled back to New Orleans. At the Thanksgiving dinner in 2007, we all sat down and we always said what we were thankful for. And we came to him and he said, ‘I’m thankful for life and I want to find a cure for this cancer.’ We made a promise at that moment we’d find a cure and hopefully save his life. Only shortly after that he started taking chemo. He wanted the strongest dose that could be given to man. Lance Armstrong dose. And it really had a negative effect on him. We had to go to Germany because nowhere in the US had a treatment program for him that would work. He couldn’t take another intravenous does of chemotherapy. It would kill him. He said, ‘I want to see my lights.’ The doctors all recommended against it and he said, ‘I’m going to see my lights.’”
The Copeland Christmas light display was something to see in front of his home in Metairie. He wanted to see it one final time.
“We had to go take him in an ambulance. Brought him in a stretcher into his home, put him in a wheelchair, showed him all the lights. He sat out there for two days with nurses to take care of him. Then we got on a jet,” says Copeland.
“My dad spent his whole life trying to find a way to make a dollar and the last six months he wanted to find a way to get right with God. He was a spiritual man and wanted to find God and wanted to find forgiveness for his sins. He had never been to Rome so he wanted to go to Rome and meet the pope. The pope was out there but we met Fr. Nolte who guided us through the Basilica and we went to mass there and had a great spiritual journey. He said, “Get on my right side and when it is time to stand I want to stand to confess my sins. And I need to stand up. Will you help me and hold me?’ I said sure. He was literally shaking and sweating. Both of us were literally shaking and sweating to hold him up so he can fulfill that need for himself. We ended up going to Lourdes where the blessed Virgin Mary was seen to St. Bernadette. Great experience for us. Bathed in the healing water and went back to Munich.”
Copeland died on Easter Sunday in Munich just hours after his family attended Easter Mass at a picturesque church.
“On that journey, he died on March 23. That was a good three-month period. We were on this fight together. When we came back home, we flew on his jet right into the airport here in New Orleans and we did a burial true Al Copeland style. It was a fancy carriage, horse and buggy carriage. All the race boats, cars, motorcycles all out there and we continued to have a celebration of his life.”
Copeland’s journey ended. But his loved ones never forgot their promise to find a cure.
“He’d say keep going, don’t stop.”