The Virginia Gentleman: Ed Copenhaver

1942-2016

Ed Copenhaver and John Weintraub bought Frager’s Hardware in 1975.

Ask any Capitol Hill resident, “Who is Mr. Ed?” Most would reply, “The helpful, unassuming man at Frager's Hardware.” Ed Copenhaver was a daily presence at the store, solving many a home improvement fiasco with sage advice while mentoring employees including several generations of Hill teenagers.

He died early on the morning of June 27 after an 18-year fight with cancer. He was 73.

A Virginian

Son of Edwin Henry Copenhaver Jr. and Lightfoot J. Jordan, Ed was born on Sept. 6, 1942, in Charlottesville, Va. Along with a sister, he grew up near the University of Virginia. Graduating from St. Christopher's Episcopal School in 1961, he attended the university and received an engineering degree in 1966.

It was in college that Ed formed his friendship with John Weintraub, his future business partner. They met while pledging at Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. “It was nice to see someone other than the Richmond crowd,” recalled Ed in a 2002 interview with John for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. The two shared a room at the fraternity their second year.

Ed was the kind of person “who makes you feel he has all the time in the world to listen to your story and then head you in the right direction,” said John in a March 2012 Hill Rag article about Ed’s retirement. The art of listening is probably the one thing that made his business career such a success, Ed told the Hill Rag. “It took me a little while to realize that whether it is a customer or an employee, the best thing I can do is really listen to what they want, and then see how I can help them with the situation.”

Ed went to Naval Officer Candidate School after college and then received his officer’s commission. Sent to Vietnam, he served on a landing ship. After two tours in Asia he entered civilian life, taking an engineering job with Charles H. Tompkins. There he worked on the construction of the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and of the East Wing of the National Gallery.

Ed returned to school in the mid-1970s for a master’s degree in engineering administration from George Washington University. He reconnected there with John, who was working on an MBA while living on East Capitol Street. They decided to go into business together and almost bought a printing firm before being advised against it. They kept looking.

A Life in Hardware

“I had a neighbor on East Capitol, a retired guy,” recalled John, “who mentioned, ‘Why don't you go down and see the Fragers. They're interested in selling.’ Old George and Julius would constantly ask every customer that walked in, ‘You want to buy this business?’” Ed and John visited and talked to the Frager brothers, but Ed was not impressed. “Dirty. Dimly lit” is how he remembered the store.

The two friends spent another year examining alternatives, before John's wife urged them to take another look at Frager's. Recalled John, “We walked in and old George took a little note off his ... I remember him pulling this off the counter ... ‘Yeah, you guys were here a year ago.’ He couldn't pronounce our names, Dopenagger and Weintroff – something like that. ‘Yeah, I remember you guys.’ So they were really ripe for selling.”

The friends bought Frager’s Hardware in 1975. They kept the name since it had become synonymous with hardware on the Hill. George Frager, one of Fritz “Frank” Frager’s sons, stayed on at the store to help Ed and John learn about managing a retail hardware business.

George’s motivation for mentoring the new owners served a dual purpose. “George needed an excuse to get to the Hill to keep a long-standing relationship going with his lady,” explained Ed. “But for me it was really instrumental to have George around.” He recalled, “One of the first things George did was teach us how to count out the money from the registers at the end of the day. Of course today everything is computerized, making the business much different.”

The original store located at 1115 Pennsylvania Ave. SE was one of those places where you pushed open the door and instantly stepped back into the 1920s. Uneven wooden floors supported crowded shelves stocked with anything and everything a Capitol Hill resident might require. Upstairs offered rooms devoted to sleds, lighting, and other specialty items. The perpetually disheveled administrative offices were located there as well. Accessed by a narrow, creaky stairway, the basement housed facilities for cutting screens and glass. The Garden Center occupied a lot in the back. The paint store resided in an upscale corner of the complex. In between lay the world of lumber.

Cognizant of the challenges of navigating the store’s varied offerings, Ed and John made sure to station employees by the front door. They served as the establishment’s spirit guides, leading customer initiates to the perfect gizmo, gadget, or potion while dispensing advice and tips on DIY projects and renovations.

For 37 years Ed worked a two-week shift where he would take three days off at the end of each period. During this time he never recalled feeling stressed out or not wanting to come into the store, he told the Hill Rag. “We went from not doing that end of the business very well, to making it a very good service and business for the community,” he added.

“Ed was never trying to make a sale,” said friend and co-worker John Marshall. “He was always helping people. If you came into Frager’s, he wouldn’t sell you the most expensive fix, but would find you the easiest, most economical solution to the problem.”

In order to spend more time sailing, Ed retired in 2012 and sold his portion of the business to John. Yet he continued to work the floor on a regular basis. When the store burned to the ground on June 5, 2013, Ed helped John get the business up and running.

A Good Mentor

“A lot of really good folks have worked with me over all of these years,” Ed told the Hill Rag in 2012. Mentoring them was one of his major preoccupations. “The measure of a man is that he is a friend to all and brother to anyone in need,” remarked Marshall. “By that metric Ed was a great success in life. He helped employees in distress to attend school or fix a car.”

Recalled longtime friend Steve Keller, “You could take Ed out of Frager’s, but you could never take the Frager’s out of Ed.” “When we would go to West Marine for sailing hardware, he would treat the sales folk as if they were his customers, asking how their day was going. Much as when he managed the Frager’s floor, he offered them encouragement. This was precisely his role at Frager’s, where he kept staff spirits high.”

Ed particularly enjoyed the mentoring role of hiring young Hill kids for their first afterschool job. There were three reasons he believed that these teenagers made such excellent employees. “The young folks are quick learners, are energetic, and pay attention to what you are telling them,” he said.

Many of them stood up to testify to his kindness at his commemoration service held at the chapel at Congressional Cemetery on July 9. “My dad died when I was two,” said nephew Peter Cook. “We lived in Alexandria. He took me sailing. He bought me my first computer,” he remembered. “We were really pioneers of drones. Back then we would put together model airplanes with tiny working piston engines. We would go to the park. There we would start the engines by hand. Controlled by a wire, they would fly in a circle. To a little boy like me flying them was the most amazing thing,” recalled Cook. Ed had wanted to be a Navy pilot but could never pass the medical, Cook said. This was the closest he got.

Community Activist

Ed loved to walk through the Hill, recalled his companion of more three decades, Sharon McIlrath. He would talk to everyone and anyone he encountered. “Everyone knew him. People I didn’t know would stop me to ask about him,” she said. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kirsten Oldenburg called him “one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. He had a genuine interest in anyone that he encountered.” Outside Frager's, Ed worked to improve the community. He walked with the HillEast Orange Hat patrols along with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Will Hill, a longtime friend. “It didn’t matter what the temperature was. On Sunday nights we walked. Dinner usually followed the walk.” For years Will got Ed to write, print, and distribute the Beat 31 newsletter, recalled McIlrath. Ed also served on the Metropolitan Police Department's Citizen Advisory Council.

Ed fought the Boys Town development on Potomac Avenue SE. “He was involved the entire time, a key member of the team along with Will Hill,” said Ellen Opper-Weiner, a friend and fellow neighborhood activist.  “We succeeded in stopping a project that would have destabilized the neighborhood.” As a result the Hill got its first Harris Teeter and a large residential complex. Ed and John also gave generously to the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF). The two received CHCF’s prestigious Community Achievement Award in 2002. “Frager’s has always been way out front in supporting good things for our community,” said CHCF President Nicky Cymrot.

Ed was also interested in the environment. A tinkerer at heart, he built a huge compost bin in the basement of his Virginia home. His cleaning lady rebelled at the sight, forcing him to relocate it to the porch, recalled McIlrath. Whenever the District would trim its trees and chip the branches, he would collect materials for his compost box. To further help the process along, he would add horse manure garnered from Fort Myer. The goal was to use the heat given off by the compost pile to reduce his fuel bills. “Once he moved it outside, I was never sure if or how it worked,” said McIlrath.

Ed was also intrigued by the plight of the American chestnut tree, which had been decimated by blight. Ed and McIlrath prowled forests together in search of shoots on surviving stumps. Chestnut tree preservation was among Ed’s favorite conversation topics.

Long-Time Companion

“I met Ed at the hardware in 1978,” recalled McIlrath. “I was just going to slop some tar on my leaky roof. Ed informed me that would not work. Then he asked me out.” She turned him down. Several months later McIlrath returned for a door hinge. Ed offered to help her hang the door. “I had out-of-town company coming over who were sleeping in that room. So I said yes,” she recalled. That started their romance.

A Virginian at heart, Ed always kept a home in Alexandria. “It was his refuge and place to putter on his few days off. The rest of the time he lived on the Hill with me,” said McIlrath.

“Ed always drove jalopies that served as taxis for any transportation needs that anyone at Frager’s could envision,” recalled Keller. “The one he owned during the late 90s had a pair of pliers on the front passenger seat that of course you had to pick up to sit down. However, they were to open the door from the passenger side. On hot days the hood of the car was left partially propped up to prevent overheating. And of course there was a metal hanger serving as an antenna.”

Ed loved the water. In 1994 he and Keller joined a sailing club. When the two retired in 2012 they bought a sailboat.

Ed is survived by McIlrath, sister Lightfoot C. Cook, and nephew Peter H. Cook. Donations in his memory may be made to:

We who have learned from the wisdom of the civil engineer turned hardware store owner and community activist will miss seeing that Virginia Gentleman in his blue Frager’s apron greeting us at the door.

Ed with two longtime employees in the store. Photo: A. Lightman
One of Ed’s passions was sailing and when he retired in 2012, he bought a sailboat with his friend and fellow sailor, Steve Keller.