As far as most people can remember, Chiyoko Copeland had only been late to her job once.
Even then, Copeland, who had worked in the dining hall at Hill Air Force Base since 1995, wasn’t technically tardy. She was just standing outside, waiting for her shift to start. She didn’t realize her watch battery had died and her clock was wrong.
“I had to get my phone and show it to her,” said Isilda Abel, Copeland’s project manager.
So when Copeland didn’t show up for work on Dec. 18, her co-workers feared the worst for the 75-year-old, widely known around the base because she walked everywhere no matter the weather. She wouldn’t accept rides from anybody.
Her co-workers were right to worry.
Of the thousands of walks she’d taken in her life, her trek that Friday was her last. She was killed when a car hit her as she crossed a street in Layton on her 4-mile journey home from the store.
‘I guess part of us didn’t want to believe it was her’
It was three minutes into the 6 a.m. shift when Copeland’s co-workers began to panic, Abel said.
They looked for Copeland outside. Then Abel got in her car and searched for her on nearby streets. She even went to Copeland’s house only to find all the lights off.
When Abel returned to the dining hall, a worker told her she’d heard on the news that a 75-year-old had been hit by a car in Layton and died.
The dining hall workers assured each other that it was someone else. Then Copeland’s son, Rusty, called.
“I guess part of us didn’t want to believe it was her,” Abel said.
‘We can’t force her to get in our car. We tried.’
Copeland began walking everywhere after she and her husband, who also worked at the base, divorced in 1999.
Although few people knew her well, Abel said everyone on the base knew of the short woman who braved snow, heavy rain and the summer heat, armed only with an umbrella and small backpack. She walked 10-mile roundtrip trip to and from work everyday.
Anyone who’s used the bases south gate has likely seen Copeland walking, Hill spokesman Micah Garbarino said in an email.
Since Copeland’s death, Abel said airman and others have been coming into the dining hall to ask about Copeland and to see for themselves if what they heard is true.
Before her divorce, Copeland would accept rides if people asked. After that, something changed, said Chanphen Duncan, who has worked with Copeland for more than 20 years. People would still offer to give her a lift, but she’d always say no.
“We can’t force her to get in our car,” Abel said. “We tried, but then it would be kidnapping, you know? She won’t do it.”
One morning when it was raining particularly hard, Abel tried to take Copeland to work. She drove to Copeland’s house and back to the base but didn’t see her along the way. When she asked the person manning the entry gate if Copeland had passed through, he said yes. A long time ago.
“How in the hell did that lady get past me? I got here and she was already in the parking lot with her little umbrella, waiting to come to work,” Abel said.
Once, Duncan said, Copeland told her she didn’t accept rides precisely because she didn’t want to be kidnapped. She also tried not to carry money with her during her commutes.
Although Duncan has a different theory. She thinks Copeland just wanted to be independent.
Abel said it was Copeland’s pride that wouldn’t let her accept the charity.
‘She’s at peace’
The day of her death, Copeland walked to the base to get paid. She was off on Fridays, but insisted on coming in to get her check then, even though Abel had offered to give it to her early, so long as she didn’t cash it before payday.
From there, she walked her regular path out of the base to State Route 193, then down North Hill Field Road, which she took all the way to Walmart, where she did her shopping after she deposited her paycheck.
That Friday, she bought two new pairs of shoes, put them in her backpack, and headed west to her home near the other Walmart in town, a Neighborhood Market off S.R. 193. She didn’t like that store as much as the Supercenter south of the base, Abel said.
About 5:20 p.m., she attempted to cross the street near the 700 block of Main Street, where there wasn’t a crosswalk. She made it to the median, and a car stopped to let her pass — but another car didn’t, Abel said. Abel suspects the driver didn’t see her, since it was getting dark.
The car hit Copeland. She was taken to the hospital, where she died. The 33-year-old driver wasn’t cited, Layton police said.
Duncan said she was restless that Monday night after Copeland died. When she came to work Tuesday, she was still half asleep, because every time she closed her eyes, she saw the face of the woman she worked beside for the past two decades.
“I feel bad. I more than feel bad. I cannot explain to you,” Duncan said, struggling to find the right words. “It broke my heart.”
At the dining hall, Abel said it will be hard to replace Copeland, not only because she was a hard worker (she was among the only employees who’d regularly clean the hard water build-up inside the dishwasher), but also because Copeland was a one-of-a-kind person, a “unique lady.”
If there’s any solace to be found in Copeland’s death, Abel said it’s that she believes Copeland is now in a better, kinder place.
“I know she’s at peace,” Abel said. “She had a rough life.”