At funeral services for Justin Koppeis on March 9, Thomas Rollins approached close friend Joe Koppeis — Justin’s father — about doing something special to memorialize Joe’s son, who died at age 34 on March 3.
One of Justin’s favorite hymns was “On Eagles Wings,” and it just so happened that the World Bird Sanctuary, of which Rollins is a board member, would be releasing a bald eagle from Cliff Cave Park in south St. Louis County within two weeks.
The bird sanctuary had nursed the eagle back to health after it was found shot and injured last year. Such releases are rare — just one or two per year — with only a few people attending, handlers mainly. But on a windy but sunny afternoon March 21, about 100 people witnessed this rare and special event — Justin’s parents, Patty and Joe; his stepson, Bryce; his daughters Addison, Reagan and Harper; his grandmother, Carol Saylor, relatives and friends. In addition, two busloads of students, faculty and staff came from Immaculate Conception Parish in Columbia, Ill., where Justin was a parishioner and his children go to school.
With assistance from bird sanctuary operations director Roger Holloway, Joe Koppeis did the honors. He clutched the eagle’s talons with well-protected gloved hands and pressed the back of the eagle against his chest before making a two-handed, under-arm toss to launch the eagle on its flight to freedom.
The eagle soared low over the bluff, then swooped up over the Mississippi River before turning left toward a stand of trees as the crowd oohed, ahhed, cheered and clapped.
“Look at him go,” Rollins marveled. “Wonderful. Wonderful.”
“I feel really blessed and lucky to be able to do it,” Joe Koppeis said, adding that he and Rollins were determined “to create a great memory” for Justin’s children — none older than 10. The youngest, Harper, is only 3 months old.
Rollins, who has been on the bird sanctuary board for 30 years, wanted to do “something to stand out” for his longtime friend: “I knew we had this eagle so close.”
The wild bald eagle was one of two brought by the World Bird Sanctuary on this day. A tame bald eagle, handled by naturalist C.J. White, also was on hand for pictures and a Q&A with the Immaculate Conception students.
After opening remarks from Holloway and Rollins, Koppeis thanked everyone for attending and also Rollins “for this great opportunity.” Justin’s uncle, Deacon Michael Burch of Immaculate Conception Parish in Park Hills, then blessed the wild bald eagle to be released.
He drew from the story of creation in the Book of Genesis: “So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name. The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals ….”
“We ask the Lord to bless this eagle, a sign of strength and freedom, that will soar in the air for many years,” Deacon Burch added. “Let it remind us of your majesty and power over all living creatures in memory of all those who have left this world and especially Justin Koppeis. May the eagle be our symbol of peace and freedom that they now share in eternity.”
Then, just before the release, Justin’s first cousin Joe Koppeis, a professional singer, gave a stirring rendition of “On Eagles Wings.” As if on cue, the eagle held by White majestically spread its wings and flapped for the final line “… and hold you, hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Coincidence? Perhaps. Or maybe it was a God-cident, His hand nudging the eagle at precisely the right moment — the only time that the eagle spread its wings before, during or after the 30-minute ceremony.
“It turned out to be a great day,” Burch said, before quickly correcting himself. “It was a beautiful day.”