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GRAHAM - He fought in Vietnam, stood up to alcoholism, survived the death of his son and most recently had been battling lung cancer.

In the end, it was a young driver at a notorious intersection in Orange County who killed Kenneth "Ronnie" Copeland on Monday afternoon. He was 60.

Copeland, a Mebane native, never had it easy. But he learned to handle his struggles with strength, humor and a Harley-Davidson, said his wife, Sandy Copeland.

According to his obituary, Copeland is a founding member of Sober Bikers United, a family-friendly motorcycle club with a nationwide membership. On Thursday, the "In Memory" section of the Web site included Copeland's photo with his biker nickname, "Dusty."

Copeland grew up in Mebane, enlisted in the Army and served with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam.

The war took its toll on Copeland, and he took to self-medicating with alcohol, Sandy Copeland said.

When he went looking for support at Alcoholics Anonymous (where he still was a member in good standing), Copeland also met Sandy.

He usually wore biker shirts and jeans. His hair grew long enough to braid, and a rough beard covered his face. Some said he resembled Willie Nelson.

"That bad boy look just gets me," Sandy Copeland said, "but he was a sweetheart."

They were married for 14 years. She rode across the state on the back of his Harley. Copeland became the stepfather to her three children, and over the years the family grew to include seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The couple laughed and fought, and they also coped with the death of Ronnie Copeland's only son from a heart condition.

Two years ago, Copeland injured his shoulder, and during a pre-operative exam, doctors found lung cancer, Sandy Copeland said. He'd had several surgeries to remove the growths, but they kept returning.

This year Copeland started chemotherapy. Before the treatments, he and two friends cut off their hair to donate to Locks of Love, a nonprofit that provides hairpieces to needy children suffering from long-term medical hair loss.

Copeland's last treatment was in July, and his hair finally started growing back into what he jokingly called "light blond" fuzz. Since braids seemed a long way off, Copeland shaved it into a mohawk.

On Monday afternoon, Copeland was riding home from an appointment at the VA hospital in Durham.

He originally had planned to drive the couple's Pathfinder. But Monday was a beautiful day for a motorcycle ride. He took the Harley instead.

About 3 p.m., Copeland was heading home to Snow Camp on Old Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road. At the intersection of White Cross Road, 16-year-old Justin Tilley of Chapel Hill looked both ways before starting into the road in a Jeep.

Tilley first saw the Harley when it slammed into his windshield, Trooper P.L. Snipes said.

Despite her own loss, Sandy Copeland said she doesn't blame Tilley for her husband's death.

"My heart goes out to that child," Sandy Copeland said. "I feel so sorry for that boy."

Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008 or jessica.rocha@newsobserver.com.

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