Copthorne Macdonald – A Journey from Emotional Immaturity to Wisdom

In many ways Copthorne “Cop” Macdonald was ahead of his time and not just in wisdom. As a social experimenter, as an inventor, as an engineer, as an ecologist, as an independent scholar and as a philosopher he was out in the front row leading the way with the best of them. But his immature decisions at a young age could have easily resulted in a very different outcome.


Wisdom of Copthorne Macdonald
Copthorne Macdonald
12 Mar 1936 – 20 Dec 2011

We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all.
– Dorothy Day, Journalist, Activist

From 1995, when he created The Wisdom Page, until the time of his death, Cop was an inspiration for the many visitors to his website wanting to learn about wisdom. One of his colleagues, Tom Lombardo, who took over as Director of The Wisdom Page, noted Cop’s passing as follows:

Cop was a dear friend and inspiring and supportive colleague. He possessed a deep understanding of both science and philosophy, as well as a personal presence and character that embodied the quality of wisdom. Indeed, Cop devoted the last couple decades of his life to the study of wisdom and the ongoing development of The Wisdom Page—the premier website for readings and other educational resources on wisdom.[1]

To amateur radio enthusiasts, Cop is remembered for his development of a Slow Scan Television system in the 1957 as an engineering student at the University of Kentucky. SSTV is used to send images via radio – the forerunner of our ability today to take a picture on a cell phone and immediately upload it to Facebook. Newspapers of the day carried the story and described applications such a newspaper photographer having the ability to transmit photos via a car two-way radio back to their office.

In recognition of his extensive contributions to Amateur (Ham) Radio over many decades, Cop was inducted into CQ Magazine‘s Ham Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.[2]

Copthorne Macdonald’s Background

Copthorne Macdonald was born on March 12, 1936. His father, Donald Macdonald, was a corporate salesman of Scottish decent. His mother, June, was a member of the Copthorne clan, one of the social elite families in the district whose names would appear from time to in the social pages of the local newspapers. Cop’s grandmother, Frances Copthorne, was an accomplished composer, vocalist and pianist and had performed at the White House in Washington DC at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt.[3]

Cop grew up in various places in the U.S. as his father’s work required. In 1947 the family moved to Winnetka, Illinois, on the North Shore of Lake Michigan. Around 12,000 residents lived in this quiet, leafy suburb of Chicago in the 1950s, the same number as today. Skokie Junior High was only a short distance away from their home.

In Cop’s extensive writings his description of family life is one of contentment with an involved father and a loving mother. Here he says his father helped inspire him to follow a career as a communications systems engineer:

Of my own moments of wonder, the first that I clearly remember occurred during the summer of 1941. I was five years old then, and my father had just given me a crystal set radio and a pair of Cannonball headphones — earphones we called them back then.
This sort of radio-inspired wonder continued to surface from time to time as I grew up.
. . . my childhood interest in radio eventually led me to enter engineering school, and through my studies much about the world around me became demystified; a lot of the magic was rendered rational.
Despite this, the wonder didn’t disappear. Even today when I sit at my ham radio set and talk to someone in Europe, or the Caribbean, or the South Pacific, or exchange on-the-air pictures or keyboard data with them, that feeling of wonder arises again.[4]

And writing about his mother:

My mother was an early riser, and a cheerful one. What’s more, she felt that this was appropriate behaviour for the whole family. One of my earliest memories involves being awakened in a sunshine-filled bedroom by mother standing at the foot of my bed singing Yellow Bird . . . Despite Mother’s efforts and relative success, I do not always bound out of bed, delighted to greet the rosy-fingered dawn — let alone a gray one.[5]

From all his accounts it seems it was a happy household when he was growing up.

The Murder-Suicide Plan

The 1958 newspaper articles to do with Slow Scan TV were not the first time Macdonald had featured in the press. On Wednesday February 1, 1950 newspapers around the USA published a front page story of a schoolgirl who was shot and injured by a 13-year-old boy the previous day. The articles identified the girl as Nancy Penfield, 14, a pupil at Skokie Junior High school in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb just north of the City of Chicago. The assailant, who had given himself up to police shortly after the shooting, was identified as a classmate of Nancy’s, one Copthorne “Coppy” Macdonald.

After Macdonald gave himself up to police he was interviewed on January 31 by Winnetka Police Chief, Rex Andrews. He was previously a major in Army Intelligence in World War II and acknowledged as one of the most capable and incorruptible police chiefs in the U.S.

Asked why he shot Nancy, Macdonald answered, “Because she told things about me.” He told Andrews that because of what Nancy had said to other girls, he had lost his most recent girlfriend. Although he didn’t tell Andrews exactly what Nancy had said, Cop admitted “They were bad things, but true.”

He told Andrews he had lured Nancy to come to the music room on the pretext the teacher wanted to see her. He shot her in the head once with a sawn-off .22 calibre rifle he had stolen from a neighbour’s house and then fled from the school.

Macdonald’s lengthy statement to police explained what was behind it:

It all started out last spring when I went out with Nancy a couple of times. Once I asked her for liberties and she refused and so we broke up. So then this year I got a real nice girl and thoughts like that never entered my mind with her.

But this Penfield girl told her what I had asked, and so, I am almost positive, that’s why this girl quit me. I hated Nancy so much I wanted to destroy her. I wanted to kill myself after the shooting. When I got out of that school I looked around and realised—well—I had gone nuts. All my troubles were nothing, now, compared to what I had done.[6]

The reason this was front page news was that the two families were residents of Winnetka, one of the most affluent suburbs in the United Stated. In actual fact the Macdonalds rented their house and, while comfortably off, were not considered wealthy but typical middle-class.

The next day in the Illinois Juvenile Court before Judge Robert J. Dunne, Chief Andrews repeated what Cop told him what the liberties were that he’d asked from Nancy:

Sex Intercourse. I asked her to mess around with me. But I never had any relations with her.[7]

Meanwhile Nancy was in hospital with a bullet lodged in the neck. Reports said she had a shattered jaw from the dum-dum bullet Cop believed would produce maximum damage. The case was adjourned to a later date so that outcome of Nancy’s injuries would be known.

Nancy was recovering but was still in shock by the time the case returned to Juvenile Court on February 27. This time Macdonald told the court he had stolen four guns in burglaries and hidden them in his home. He admitted he had threatened to kill his younger brother, David, who had discovered one of the guns. He said he didn’t get on with other pupils which is why he had run away from home the previous year. In retelling his story about shooting Nancy, he said, “As soon as I pulled the trigger and it was all over I was sorry. I knew that it was a crazy thing to do, but I must have been nuts.”[8]

James Cherry, the assistant DA, demanded that Macdonald should be sent to the Illinois School for Boys at St Charles for treatment and discipline. Prior to establishment of the school in 1904, errant children had been generally treated in the same way as adults, and even sentenced to death in some instances. The stated purpose of the school was “to provide the boys with a strong education in both intellectual and vocational studies so that once released they could live a life of usefulness.”[9]

But by the 1950s is was not living up to its ideals. The open-walled institution meant hardened delinquents were escaping at will or were difficult to control. Some inmates gained notoriety for crimes committed after they left the institution. The most notorious was bank robber and murderer “Baby Face” Nelson back in the 1920s. He was sent there several times, once for stealing a car as a 13 year-old.[10]

Psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Stein, testified in court that he found Copthorne Macdonald to be “sane but emotionally disturbed.” He also said Cop had the highest I.Q. of any subject he had examined in the previous 12 months and recommended he be removed from his family for a period of adjustment and study.[11]

Defense lawyer Sidney Moody asked that permission be granted to send the defendant to a private institution for proper care. It was then left for Judge Dunne to make his decision.

The Judgement

Judge Dunne had been assigned to be the presiding judge in the Juvenile Court in 1947. After a year in the job he had described it as heart-breaking due to the lack of resources to do the job properly. He was particularly critical of the Juvenile Detention home in St. Charles, which he said “is filled with hardened delinquents 15 to 17 years old.”[12]

On March 8, 1950 Judge Dunne directed that Cop be kept in detention at the Children’s Village, a private school at Dobbs Ferry, N. Y., that specialized in the care of emotionally disturbed boys. The school is on the Hudson River north of New York City and some 1300 km (810 miles) away from his home.[13]

Macdonald was fortunate to have been sent to Children’s Village instead of being sent to the State-run correctional facility in Illinois. There was agreement by the authorities that he had to be moved from his home environment as he was obviously out of control and heading toward delinquency.

Reports from the school to Judge Dunne over the next months indicated that Cop showed “excellent adjustment” and that he was taking on leadership roles.[14]

On June 28, 1951, Judge Dunne finally granted Cop probation under the supervision of his own parents.[15] Now aged 15, he could get back to a normal life, or more accurately be described as a “re-formed” life.

Nancy Penfield did recover from her injuries. Reports in the society pages said she “made her debut in 1955 at a summer tea in her parents’ garden” in Winnetka. The reports said she had graduated from Bradford Junior College and Northwestern University and was a teacher in California and about to be married.[16]

Responding to trauma

Many researchers have found that a trauma or difficult life event experienced by individuals result in negative or positive outcomes. Some individuals remain bitter, angry and cynical with ongoing mental anguish while in other individuals experience post-traumatic growth and wisdom. For example, German wisdom researcher Professor Judith Glück led a project which found that the wisdom situations more often involved difficult or negative life events.[17]

For post-traumatic growth and wisdom to occur after a traumatic event, it requires questioning of values and core assumptions combined with a critical evaluation of the event, what led to it, and the consequences in the aftermath.[18]

Margaret Plews-Ogan, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia, found that those who experienced a traumatic event and measured high in wisdom did so because “they made a courageous choice to make a difference in their own lives.”[19]

It would appear that Cop did come of the Children’s Village school with post-traumatic growth. By then Cop appreciated that asking for “liberties” from a girl he hardly knew was not appropriate behaviour. He also realised stealing guns, threatening others and shooting people he didn’t like was not the way to solve his problems. He was determined to change his ways and he did.

In 1951 he obtained his Amateur Radio (Ham Operator) license. This required demonstrating proficiency in radio theory and Morse code. Inspired by his long-time interest in electronics and ham radio, he went on to graduate in May 1958 from the Engineering School at the University of Kentucky. He then proceeded to work for the Federal Telecommunications Laboratories in Nutley, New Jersey, which later became known as ITT Laboratories. Other companies he worked for in the period up to 1975 were Westinghouse Electric Corp., Ball Brothers Research Corporation and Vidcom Electronics. [20]

In his writings and interviews, Cop never refers to his own problems back in January 1950. But some 40 years later he was able to offer an analysis of emotional impulses in general:

Have you ever watched the process by which these reactive mind states arise?
It all starts with an emotional impulse . . . it might be a pang of desire, jealousy or fear . . .a flash of anger, hate or lust.
Once having noticed an impulse there are three ways of dealing with it — not all of them equally appropriate:
1. We can prolong the impulse by identifying with it and weaving a story around it, by feeding energy into a process that maintains it. If we do this, then a state of anger, fear, jealousy, or desire arises. This, in turn, may result in anger-based, fear-based, jealousy-based, or desire-based action of some sort.
2. Another option is to deny or repress the impulseCopthorne Macdonaldto push it into the subconscious. This is apt to have unfortunate consequences later, since repressed material is not really gone. It often returns and causes trouble.
3. A third option is simply to note the impulse, realize its automatic, mechanical, ancient brain origin, and let it go.[21]

As we all know it’s not always easy to adopt the third option. And who doesn’t want to keep their own transgressions secret.

Emergence of wisdom

In 1971-72 Cop undertook a 13-month backpack trip around the world. Also in 1972, the report on sustainability from the Club of Rome was released as a book, The Limit of Growth. Both were eye-openers to him. From then on he wanted to explore the human situation — personal, social, economic, and ecological — in more detail.

On returning he founded New Directions Radio, an international network of radio amateurs. Its purpose was to use ham radio “to help create a more aware, more caring, and more responsible human society.”[22]

In 1974 he presented a futurist’s view of a possible future that ultimately become real after the Internet boom started world-wide in the mid-90s, some 20 years later:

Since I have at least a full share of idealist’s blood which is always sending me into one fantasy or another, I’ve been trying to “dream big” about a particularly wild possibility: that of a ham-radio-based information system which really works. In my more exotic visions I’ve pictured a great resource center on a mountaintop with high-gain antennas pointing toward the far corners of the world. I think of books, magazines, tapes, films, resident experts, and phone-patch access to still other authorities; a computer unerringly uncovering obscure articles which provide needed information; medical resource people watching incoming images of microscope slides on their slow-scan TV screens, checking radio-transmitted electrocardiograms, and helping distant patients back to health.[23]

In 1975 Cop abandoned his engineering career and moved from the USA to live in Canada, settling in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He initially worked as a medical orderly and later as an environmental consultant before finally becoming an independent scholar and writer. He started to become involved with Buddhist and other meditation practices on his journey to better understand wisdom. Again he was ahead of his time as the psychologists who were just starting to study wisdom are only now concluding that meditation, and especially mindfulness meditation, helps promote the acquisition of wisdom.[24]

In the 1980s he was concentrating on developing a science-compatible way of interpreting mind and matter. He first presented his ideas in a paper in the peer-reviewed journal, ZYGON, in 1994. [25] In this paper he explored evolution to help with our understanding of ourselves in the universe. Only in recent years has ‘Big History’ become an important subject taught in universities.[26] He later elaborated his ideas further in his third book, Matters of Consequence.[27]

His first book, Toward Wisdom, was published in 1993. In preparing for it, he had spent 15 years reading hundreds of books and scientific papers and practising meditation. He explained how the book came about:

The book began to take form when I started to see my quarter century of adventure, experience, and insight in the context of wisdom and the growth of wisdom. For one thing, I realized that whole-person development was one of the keys to becoming wise: development of both intellect and intuition, analysis and synthesis, left brain hemisphere and right. For another, I realized that many facets of the world problematique — biosphere degradation, resource depletion, and the continuing follies of war and terrorism — could be attributed to a serious lack of wisdom on the part of both power-wielders and ordinary folk. [28]

Probably the greatest legacy that Copthorne Macdonald has left us is his website, The Wisdom Page. This was established in 1995 to be “a compilation of wisdom-related resources — various on-line texts concerning wisdom, references to books about wisdom, information about organizations that promote wisdom, wise activities, and listserv groups concerned with aspects of wisdom.”[29]

Since his death in 2011 colleagues of Cop have keep this resource going as the focal point for all the contributions Cop made in his quest to share his knowledge and insights into wisdom-related issues and inspire others to follow. All his books and articles are available for download.

In 2010 Cop wrote a letter to students who had attended Professor Alan Nordstrom’s personal writing class at Rollins College in Florida. The course was based on Cop’s second book, Getting a Life.[30] This extract from his letter could be a summary his own experience in acquiring wisdom:

As some of you pointed out, you can’t expect 20-year-olds to find themselves at the far end of the wisdom spectrum. I certainly don’t expect it. As the research of University of Florida wisdom scholar Monika Ardelt has pointed out, the wisest old people tend to be those who have had major life challenges and have managed to work through or around them. Out of a challenge resolved comes a broadened view of how things work, a greater sense of personal empowerment, and increased confidence in one’s ability to face future challenges. The 20s are a time of exploration, experimentation, and perhaps at some point, commitment to a passion. Each of you shows every sign that you will be living this time intensely. And to the extent that you live it attentively, in the learning mode, you will grow in wisdom, challenge by challenge.[31]

Postscript

I’ve admired the work of Copthorne Macdonald for many years now, ever since I read Toward Wisdom. In researching Cop’s background for this blog post I couldn’t believe what I’d stumbled across when I read about the what happened in 1950. Could it possibly be the same person who did this terrible thing as a teenager? I was in two minds about raising matters that occurred 67 years ago and I certainly would not have published it if he was still alive. But I’ve included it in the post because it is, after all, an episode in his life which helps explain his being.

Vale Copthorne Macdonald.

Notes

1. “Dedication: With Love and Admiration,” The Wisdom Page, http://www.wisdompage.com/index_copdedication.html.

2. “About Cop Macdonald,” The Wisdom Page, http://www.wisdompage.com/aboutcop.html.

3. “Summer Places,” (blog), posted September 6, 2016, https://academicmusiciowa.com/2016/09/06/summer-places/.

4. Copthorne Macdonald, Getting a Life: Strategies for Joyful and Effective Living (Charlottetown, PEI: DeepUnderstanding, 2001), 116.

5. Macdonald, Getting a Life, 111.

6. “Course in Sex Held Factor in Girl’s Shooting.”, Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 25, 1950, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1950/02/25/page/3/article/course-in-sex-held-factor-in-girls-shooting.

7. “Course in Sex Held Factor in Girl’s Shooting”.

8. Edwin Kennedy, “Winnetka Boy, 13, Tells Plot to Slay Girl.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 28, 1950, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1950/02/28/page/1/article/winnetka-boy-13-tells-plot-to-slay-girl.

9. “Illinois School for Boys at St Charles,” https://sites.google.com/site/stcharleshistoricbuildings/main_page/local-buildings—alphabetically/illinois-school-for-boys]

10. “Illinois School for Boys at St Charles”.

11. Kennedy, “Winnetka Boy, 13, Tells Plot to Slay Girl”.

12. “Judge Reviews Barriers of Job Nobody Wanted.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 13, 1948, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1948/12/13/page/5/article/judge-reviews-barriers-of-job-nobody-wanted.

13. “Boy, 13, Who Shot Girl, Sentenced to Private School.” St. Louis Star and Times, Mar 9, 1950, https://www.newspapers.com/image/204722888/?terms=copthorne%2Bmacdonald.

14. “Pupil Who Shot Girl is Making Good in School.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 21, 1950, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1950/12/21/page/17/article/pupil-who-shot-girl-is-making-good-in-school.

15. “Boy Who Shot School Mate Gets Probation.” Decatur Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), Jun 29, 1951, https://www.newspapers.com/image/90961303/?terms=copthorne%2Bmacdonald.

16. Judith Cass, “Miss Nancy Penfield Engaged.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 12, 1960, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1960/08/12/page/17/article/miss-nancy-penfield-engaged/

17. Judith Glück et al., “The wisdom of experience: Autobiographical narratives across adulthood,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 29, no.3 (2005): 197-208.

18. Jeffrey D. Webster and Xiaolei C. Deng, “Paths from trauma to intrapersonal strength: worldview, posttraumatic growth, and wisdom,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 20, no.3 (2015): 253-266.

19. “What Is Wisdom?,” Margaret Plews-Ogan, March 26, 2013, https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2013/03/26/what-wisdom/.

20. “About Cop Macdonald,” The Wisdom Page.

21. Copthorne Macdonald, Toward Wisdom: Finding Our Way to Inner Peace, Love and Happiness (Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 1966), 61.

22. “Copthorne (Cop) Macdonald,” Collective Wisdom Initiative, http://collectivewisdominitiative.com/files_people/Macdonald_Cop.htm.

23. “New Directions Radio: Sharing Information,” Copthorne Macdonald, Nov 1974, http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/new-directions-radio-sharing-information-zmaz74ndzraw.

24. Monika Ardelt, “Being wise at any age,” in Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people. Volume 1: Discovering human strengths, ed. Shane J. Lopez (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008). http://users.clas.ufl.edu/ardelt/Being_wise_at_any_age.pdf.

25. Copthorne Macdonald, “An Energy/Awareness/Information Interpretation of Physical and Mental Reality,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 29, no. 2, (1994): 135–151.

26. David Christian, Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, 2008).

27. Copthorne Macdonald, Matters of Consequence: Creating a Meaningful Life and a World That Works (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Big Ideas, 2004).

28. Macdonald, Toward Wisdom, xiv.

29. “Copthorne (Cop) Macdonald,” Collective Wisdom Initiative.

30. Macdonald, Getting a Life.

31. “A Skype-With-Webcam Session and Exchange of Letters with Alan Nordstrom’s Students,” The Wisdom Page, http://www.wisdompage.com/Rollins2010Letters.html.

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