When the original Willard Preacher, Clarence "Bro" Cope, first preached at Penn State in the 1970s, he had to avoid insults and flying pies.
Now, the 61-year-old, white-haired, suspender-clad Cope -- who returned this August after a long hiatus -- says students are just as eager to listen and to argue with him as they were three decades ago, insults still intact.
When he started, Cope was often hit and spit on. Cope, who preached at Willard from 1976 to 1982, was even targeted by a student armed with pies. Though he avoided the pastry-throwing assailant, a friend of his was not so lucky.
Despite the negative feedback that comes with preaching, Cope said after turning 60 last year he had a strong desire to give sermons again. Though his age makes preaching more physically challenging, he has a chair nearby for when he gets tired of standing.
"It's more exciting than it was then," he said.
Cope's road to religion was rocky. After three years in the Marine Corps, Cope, Class of 1972, got divorced, impregnated his girlfriend and graduated from Penn State within the same month, he said.
His life fell apart after his daughter was born because her mother kept her from him, he said. At that point he joined a swingers club and became an alcoholic and a drug addict, he said.
"I immersed myself in immorality," he said.
It was then, at his lowest point, Cope said God saved him.
The date was Dec. 3, 1974. Cope was a 28-year-old Fidelity Bank employee living in Philadelphia. He was working up the courage to jump out a nearby 14th-floor window when he says God spoke to him.
"God said, 'You did this to your life with no regards for me,' " Cope said.
At that moment, Cope told God he would do anything if God fixed his life.
"I felt instantly pure, which is something I'd never felt," he said.
For two years, Cope spent his free time studying, reading and learning everything he could. In 1976, he said God called him back to Penn State. He had daydreams about preaching in the middle of the HUB-Robeson Center, but he was making a good living as a systems programmer in Philadelphia.
He finally decided to "trust God explicitly for all things." As soon as he made that decision, he claims he forgot everything he knew about computers, a fact his boss was not too happy about.
He promptly resigned, packed up his Chevy Vega and drove to Penn State. Preaching didn't come easy to Cope at first. His first sermon took place in front of the Pattee Library and lasted for about 15 seconds, he said. He was originally afraid to speak at Willard because of large crowds that gathered there.
Being the Willard Preacher was never a lucrative endeavor for Cope. He had no financial backers and took no unemployment benefits, but he said God helped him get by. When he first started preaching, he slept in his car for a year. Even when temperatures dipped to zero degrees, God provided him with warmth and sustenance, he said. He would say 'Lord I'm hungry,' and then find a hot sandwich on a nearby window sill, he said.
The story is emotional for Cope, who became choked up telling it.
"Most people's problem is God is so surreal, so imperceptible that they can't trust him," he said, but he added his life experiences leave him with no doubt God has touched his life.
In 1982 Cope took his sermons on the road, traveling across the country to preach. It was then that Gary Cattell took over the Willard Preacher reigns.
Cattell credits Cope as "instrumental in me becoming a Christian." The two met in the early 1980s.
"I would be preaching where Gary is standing, and he would wander in," Cope said of Cattell, adding that Cattell was "a long-haired hippie freak."
In 1984 Cope stopped traveling. He has spent about 23 years trying to build a base from which he can finance his preaching. He started numerous businesses involving computers, most of which quickly went belly-up, he said.
However, in 1986 he founded DMCons, Inc., a computer consulting company. He has cut back his involvement at the company and may even dissolve it because of a newfound excitement he's found for preaching after returning to Willard this year, he said.
He attributes the excitement to being more informed than he was in the 1970s. Cope has recently become interested in science and often incorporates it into his sermons, with controversial statements such as families that have no genetic mutations can safely intermarry and "prior to the flood, the average life span was 800 years."
Arguments between Cope and students who listen on the Willard steps can become heated. Penn State Atheist and Agnostic Association President Nat Jackson (senior-anthropology) comes to the steps almost every day to debate both Cattell and Cope.
As the two argued Monday, Cope blew a red whistle that hung around his neck to drown out Jackson's words and then called him a "priest in the high religion of stupidity."
That kind of event is commonplace while Cope is preaching. His in-your-face style of preaching can be off-putting, said Andrew Wilson (junior-history). Wilson comes to Willard three or four times a week to listen to sermons and discuss them with others.
"He has a very aggressive style. He's trying to convert you by being aggressive," he said.
Cope plans to take his message on the road at the end of September. He will temporarily leave Penn State to preach in Missouri and Georgia, he said. Though he has little money to fund the trip -- he'll be staying with supportive families in the areas -- Cope says God will take care of him, the way he always has.