Near 100th birthday, joie de vivre a big part of Montclair woman’s story
By Lou Fancher
When friends and family gather in the Montclair home of Eleanor Schroer Koplan to celebrate her 100 years of life Dec. 11 — just days before her actual birthday on Dec. 16, one thing is certain: there will be laughter.
Born a century ago and widely and affectionately known as “Ellie,” Koplan has led a remarkable, thrill-filled existence that includes multiple waltzes (literally) and just as many wrestling matches (metaphorically) on life’s stage.
Koplan grew up in the East Bay’s Albany, the daughter of Kunibert and Wanda Louise Schroer. Her father, an original owner of Humboldt Hospital (later named Albany Hospital), died at age 67 in 1952, and her mother (born in Hanover, Germany in 1888) died in 1985 at 97. Koplan’s older sister, Wanda Schroer, in her later years contracted scleroderma, and Koplan took care of her, often feeding her by hand, until she too passed away.
Koplan, having graduated from Oakland’s former College of the Holy Names College (now Holy Names University) and after initially pursuing a nursing career, had determined she was best suited to being a schoolteacher. After teaching fourth grade and remedial reading to men at Schofield Army Base in Hawaii just after World War II — she shared a house with seven other teachers and often swapped much-dreaded communal cooking chores to sub in her colleagues’ classrooms — Koplan taught second and third grades for 14 years in Oakland and Berkeley schools.
Among her students was Elihu Harris, a boy resistant to recess (literally having to be carried by Koplan and once by classmates to the playground). Harris went on to become the Oakland’s 46th mayor, then a state Assembly member and later chancellor of the Peralta Community College District.
At age 53, Koplan married Harry Koplan, the high school sweetheart she had split with more than three decades before. Her husband, born in November 1920, had one son and a step-daughter from a previous marriage, and, though the couple remained childless, they enjoyed each other’s company immensely along with many nephews and cousins who composed the Koplan family tree. At age 80, Harry Koplan died, just a few months after the couple had formed a new friendship with their neighbor across the street, Julie Saba. Saba, 61, recalls meeting the Koplans in September 2001, just a few days after 9/11 attacks occurred.
“I was trying to make my house habitable when the agent called and told me to turn on the television,” Saba said.
Along with people all over the country, Saba was shocked and devastated by news of the attacks. As a physician and research scientist specializing in pediatric oncology (she holds the John and Edna Beck chair in pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and is adjunct professor of pediatric hematology and oncology at UC San Francisco), Saba’s concern for life added special insight and extra significance to the events of that day and the weeks and years afterward. Reaching out to neighbors was a natural response, and their casual “hellos” in 2001 took on a special urgency about a month after Koplan’s husband had died, when Saba saw an ambulance arrive across the street around 11 one night.
“I ran over as the neighborhood doctor and found Ellie had developed shingles and was in pain from the stress of losing Harry,” Saba said. “I went with her to Alta Bates and advocated for her. We became immediate friends after that.”
During the last 20 years, Saba has heard marvelous stories. Saba says their conversations are full of laughter and Koplan’s high-spirited, “hysterically funny,” lovely and lively mindset that is always looking for a joke.
“Partly because she’s deaf and has been from an early age, she likes to be in control of the conversation,” Saba says. “She’s developed survival tactics to be sociable. She needs to lip-read, and although she has a cochlear implant, she has a hard time hearing. She’ll take charge of conversations, tell tall tales. She’s just delightful.”
Among the stories are accounts of bravery, tenacity, flirtation and downright fun. Koplan once suffered Guillain-Barré syndrome during an era when the condition was little understood. The syndrome has a body’s immune system attack its own nerves, leads to paralysis and weakness and can result in death. Resisting being put on a ventilator, the first sign of lost reflexes and strength returning was demonstrated in typical Koplan fashion.
“A very stuffy doctor examined her every day,” says Saba. “She had no reflexes and couldn’t move. Then one day, he turned away and she kicked him in the butt to show him she was getting better. He said, ‘That’s a first.’ I say, whatever keeps you in that joyful social state, whatever gives you that energy to keep going, that’s what makes the difference.”
The stories shared in emails from family members are similar. Saba provides context: the Koplans were frequently at the Highlands Country Club, where Harry Koplan played tennis, she swam and they kept liquor in their lockers to enjoy during spontaneous or planned cocktail parties with friends. Granddaughter Crystal Koplan Mungarro remembers being “launched” by adults into the pool and her splashes rated by Koplan. A more recent memory: “I always giggle about the time we went to Easter brunch at the Claremont hotel and she stopped a kind, older man (her junior) and told him he’s “still got it” and honestly, I don’t think that’s the first or last time she did that in my presence. She’s hilarious and loves to make people laugh.”
Nephew Harvey Champlin says Koplan’s life includes sojourns in Europe, engagement to an Arabian prince, meeting and being blessed by Pope Pius XII and more. At her 95th birthday party at Berkeley’s Claremont Hotel, Champlin says she was elegantly dressed and danced with him to the delight of onlookers. Another nephew, Sandy Champlin, says Koplan “touches your heart like no other” and is “a national treasure (to which) words do no justice.”
A final story from Saba illustrates what makes Koplan tick. Finding herself covered head-to-toe in paint as a teacher when a student knocked over an easel, Koplan instead of choosing anger had the students line up by the window, marched herself to the outdoor courtyard below, and had the janitor hose her down. Laughter was made into a lesson that taught forgiveness, can-do problem solving and classroom joy.
Perhaps, then, the best way to celebrate Koplan’s 100 years of living and to hope for the same is to lift a glass, dance a jig, spin well-told yarns, adopt unmitigated joie de vivre and always surround oneself with bountiful laughter and the love of friends and family.