When Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver was in high school, like the 200 teenagers hearing him speak Tuesday in the Academy of Richmond County auditorium, a future as a politician was never a thought.
“I guarantee nobody I hung out with saw the whole mayor thing coming,” Copenhaver said about his days at Evans High School.
But as he grew up, he kept options open. He listened to people criticize the workings of Augusta and watched politicians get dragged to federal court for corruption.
After a career in real estate and nonprofits, he decided to try to be better than what he’d seen. He said he came in as an outsider, a kid who always thought he’d grow up to be a journalist, to break up the politics as usual. After seven years as mayor, he points to progress.
Copenhaver told the students to follow passions in life and to stay focused on bettering the community. In their hour together, students asked how he keeps commission meetings under control, his opinion on charter schools and his best time competing in the ESi Ironman 70.3.
“He answered every question I had on my mind as they came up,” said junior Christian Huskins. “It was cool to see a politician in our city listen and speak to us on a personal level.”
Copenhaver stood behind a microphone in a suit and tie and used his life story as a lesson. During three campaigns, he stayed away from negativity and in 2006 won 67 percent of the vote. In 2010 he asked supporters to donate to a nonprofit instead of his campaign and won 64 percent of the vote.
“If you give people an alternative to what they saw with just a negative rhetoric of politics, they’d go to the alternative,” he said.
He told students he wants to make Augusta the most thriving mid-sized city in the country, but much of that goal is already accomplished. He told them about youth leadership opportunities in the city and the projects to come.
What struck senior Justin Harmon the most was how Copenhaver didn’t always have a game plan, yet managed to be successful.
Harmon, just accepted to Clark University for performing arts, said it gave him some reassurance to go for his career as an actor.
“You always see him on the news, but to see him come here and tell us to live life to the fullest was different,” he said.
ARC Principal Tim Spivey said it was good for students to hear about local politics from the source. Like Copenhaver’s beginnings, Spivey never thought he’d be a principal when he graduated from ARC in 1975.
“If you want to do something, you can do it,” Spivey said. “You never know what you can be 20 years from now.”