COLUMBIA — Step inside their south Columbia home, and something stands out before you even get through the doorway. Love. It’s on the walls. Its aroma is in the air as the secret ingredient in the green beans cooking on the stove. A love for sports. A love for family.
Get past all that and talk to the people responsible for that home, and there’s a sense of a tangible bond, their love for each other. Gene and Fran Koepke’s 39-year relationship is one that’s been tested, but more than that, it’s one that they haven’t kept to themselves. The Koepke’s love for each other is one they’ve extended to not only their own two children, but to hundreds of Columbia College basketball players over the course of nearly two decades.
As a 13-year-old, Gene Koepke noticed he couldn’t run as fast as the rest of his classmates, or climb steps without having trouble. He and his parents knew something was wrong.
Gene Koepke had been born with muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. For the most part, Gene Koepke’s body was fully functional at the time, but the disease slowly took its toll on his muscles and forced him into a wheelchair by the time he was 25.
He would later find out that he actually had a 1-in-4 chance of contracting the disease.
“Nobody knew,” Gene Koepke said. “My mom and dad just had the same bad gene and they got together in my case.”
Columbia College senior Mikel Fields heads to the scorer’s table to check into the Cougars’ game against William Woods. On the way, he saves a nonchalant, instinctive fistbump for Gene Koepke.
Fields, a Columbia native, didn’t feel the full force of the Koepke’s support until he arrived at Columbia College. Four years later, Gene Koepke, now 60, has parked his wheelchair next to the bench nearly every time Fields has suited up for the Cougars.
“Him being there really gives us all a sense that even though this is a basketball game, there’s more than basketball going on there,” Fields said. “There’s people that care about you and people who want to see you succeed and get to know you for more than just a basketball player.”
Bob Burchard, Columbia College head coach, said Gene is just a big a part of his team as any other member.
“For us, I think Gene’s somewhat of an unofficial assistant coach,” Burchard said.
Just before Christmas in 1968, a mutual friend introduced Gene Keopke to Fran Stafford. Stafford was attending business college in Jefferson City at the time, and a young Gene Koepke was working for the Missouri State Penitentiary just a few miles away. After an initial friction with Fran Koepke’s parents over their decision to elope just seven months after they began dating, Fran Koepke’s grandmother helped her parents understand her decision.
“A lot of it was that they didn’t think I knew what I was getting myself into with having to take care of Gene,” Fran Koepke said. “But they were also mad that we didn’t have a traditional wedding. Gene and I loved each other and knew it would work, so now, 39 years later, I’d say we were probably right about that.”
Although Fran Koepke does spend much of her time caring for her husband, she hardly sees it as a chore. Just the opposite in fact. For Fran Koepke, caring for him is simply a manifestation of her love for him.
Whether it be something as simple as cutting meat, or a more difficult task like bathing or dressing Gene Koepke, the act is done out of love, not obligation.
“We’re going to grow old together,” Fran Koepke said. “He’s there for me whenever I need him, and I’m there for him. How else would it be?”
Outside the Southwell Center, the Cougars men’s and women’s basketball teams pile into cars in anticipation of an annual tradition. Once everyone has found a seat, the teams head south on Highway 63 for the Koepke’s lake house in Lake of the Ozarks.
“They made me feel at home right away,” freshman forward Jake Alexander said, adding that the trip did a lot to ease his transition into college. “They just acted like I was one of their own. My first impression was that these were probably the nicest people I’ve ever met. For them to be out there cooking so much food for everyone, it’s just great to know we have people like that in the program.”
Although the annual trip is something to thank and reward the players, for the Koepkes, the trip is more than just a day of food, sun, and fun on the water.
“It’s just so much fun for us to watch these kids,” Fran Koepke said. “Some of them have never been to a lake, or rode on a boat, or gone fishing. For us, we feel like we can give them something they haven’t been able to have before.”
The Koepke’s lake trip isn’t the only time they open their home to the Cougars. Since the practice schedule only allows a few days for players to return home the celebrate the holidays, most years they will host meals for the team around Thanksgiving and New Year’s, providing the players with a hometown environment and a home-cooked meal in an atmosphere where both can be hard to find.
The Koepke’s daughter Laura and her husband Jeff arrive at the house for dinner just after 6 p.m. A series of tests revealed that since there was no trace of muscular dystrophy on Fran’s side of the family, their children wouldn’t have a greater chance of being born with the condition than any other child. Laura and Mark, were two healthy children who now, 27 and 24, respectively, both live in Columbia. Now, with the kids out of the house, the Koepkes have seen their relationship evolve once more.
“I think as you grow older, love grows into companionship,” Fran Koepke said. “Even though you still love the person, and that love is definitely still there and still strong, you’re just there for each other.”
Gene Koepke made his way into of the Southwell Complex for the first time in 1989. With the Cougars still playing the role of perennial doormat, the Koepkes were one of a select few to wander through the turnstiles that night. Before he knew it, Gene Koepke was hooked. Although he had attended Missouri games since 1970, the Columbia College program offered something different.
“It was just so much more personal,” Gene Koepke said. “I also get a lot closer to the games now, being on the bench.”
For all the fun the Koepkes had at Missouri games, they now found a program they could take a vested interest in, a program they felt deserved their time and money. They had found their second family.
“I think it was around the first time we made it to the national tournament,” Burchard said. “Kemper Arena back then wasn’t really inviting to handicapped persons, and someone just kind of said, ‘No, you’re not going to sit in a horrible spot in the arena, you’re going to sit right down here with us, where you’ve got a good view and you’re a part of the game, because you’re a part of this team.’”