Simcha Lev ben Tzvi v’Channah
Leo Saul Koppell- 174. Born in Brooklyn, NY- 3/30/33, the eldest of Harold and Jessie’s two boys. When I was little, for the longest time I thought that his middle name was “Salt.” Leo survived his brother Eddie by almost 10 years, and he lived to his 2d Bar Mitzvah age of 83. Harold worked as a dentist and Jessie was a schoolteacher. They raised their family in the tight-knit Jewish community in Manhattan Beach. My dad was, quite simply, one of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet. He was just so sweet and never really wanted anything for himself. He was the quintessential mensch.
My mother, of course, was the love of his life. They grew up across the street from each other on Amherst St., he was #12 and she was #9. For Leo’s Bar Mitzvah, my grandparents, Hyman and Ruth, gave him a pair of binoculars as a gift, the better to facilitate the shidduch. It worked! Leo felt that he had to sneak out if he dated another girl, and mom felt guilty when she was caught necking another boy on the front stoop. She went off to college at Brandeis University, but returned home to finish her education at Brooklyn College in order to be closer to her beloved Leo. My dad still had to pass the steak test. Ruth and Hyman took Leo and Sandy away for the weekend to Lakewood. For the record she wants you to know that they had separate rooms. Leo legendarily consumed 5 steaks in one meal and the deal was sealed.
The couple were married in an incredibly elegant wedding ceremony at Brooklyn Jewish Center on April 2, 1955. They enjoyed an amazing 61 years as husband and wife.
Growing up with two brothers, Michael and Philip, mom and I were completely outnumbered. The hockey season followed the baseball season which followed the football season, or something like that, and the dinner conversation every night was more of a statistical exchange and less of an actual conversation. Dad was the master of every statistic, and baseball reigned supreme. I had the occasion of traveling with him in Europe and observing dad introduce himself as follows: “I’m Leo Koppell, I’m from NY, and I’m a Yankee fan.” It was such an important part of his life; I do believe that the game was on on Sunday in his hospital room and I’m told by people who know that it was probably better that he was not consciously able to absorb whatever the score was.
He was a numbers guy and being on time was critical. I remember as a child pulling up in front of someone’s home at 7:25 and waiting until 7:30 so that we could be precisely on time.
Our family grew to embrace David, Fran, and Laura; Harrison and Leanne, Daniel and Valerie; Jonathan, Steven and Stacey, Arielle and Dahlia; Jessie and Xan, Sarah and Tim, and, of course, Emily and Helena. I take great comfort in knowing that dad got to meet Ron before he died, and to know that I had love and support in my life.
When we were little, Leo used to sneak M&Ms to us in bed before we went to sleep, and he would always say hi to all of the kids in the park next to the NY apartment. When we were growing up, he would often take me and Michael and Philip to the park while mom enjoyed some R&R.
My dad loved his kids and, oh!, did he love his grandkids. Even in his recent years, when it was challenging for him to interact, he still lit up and became the most engaged in the presence of his beloved grandchildren. Casino with grandpa was always fun! I know that we will all treasure the memory of our recent cruise in honor of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Just 10 days ago, Leo delighted in singing, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” with Emily. Leo Koppell was happy, and he knew it!
When you think about my dad, you think about family, first and foremost. He was not defined by his job. He had a Bachelor’s degree from NYU in Accounting and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and yet, when you think about my dad, it’s all about who he was as a person. I remember when I was in 3d grade and the teacher gave us an in-class assignment to write about what our dad did for a living. I handed in a note saying that I didn’t know and would find out and complete the assignment as homework. Ultimately he founded a dynasty of accountants!
My father was a devoted and loyal friend; it was one of his top, priority values. He and mom had many lifetime friends, and Leo would always make sure that the conclusion of any date was the setting of the next date. He would bend over backwards to maintain relationships and was completely conflict averse. This did mean, however, that on the very few occasions when my dad got angry, boy did it get your attention!
Bridge was the big focal point of their social life and dad not only accumulated many Master’s points throughout his lifetime, but he made two slams in his final week of life. He ran a bridge club and enjoyed many bridge cruises. If Leo won at bridge, it was a good day! As the child of bridge players, I had to know enough to hold the cards if they were short a 4th. When I was in rabbinical school I called my father proudly one time to tell him that I had seen a note in the mailroom advertising for a 4th in bridge. “Dad,” I told him, “I’m going to call them.” His reply- “You can’t play bridge!” I guess he was the one to know!
The Pollacks, Anita and Bernie, have been special life-long friends. They have shared every joy and sorrow and so many amazing trips; mom says they were the perfect traveling companions. The Crystal cruises were a highlight, but it was the companionship every step of the way that was most meaningful. In recent years, trips to the Norwich Spa with the Audrey and Burt Citak have also brought both mom and dad great joy.
My brothers and I recall many awesome family vacations, especially our 3-week trip out west. My parents fondly remember a vacation in Vancouver, Banff, and Lake Louise, which was beautiful and wonderful except for the time that my father abandoned them all when he could no longer endure high tea. My parents loved theatre and my dad particularly enjoyed music. A musical Shabbat would even bring him to shul.
Here’s a little known fact about my dad—- back when he used to enjoy reading, he not only enjoyed Robert Ludlum but he was a closet fan of Danielle Steele. He LOVED his TV shows and watched them like it was his job! My mom was the one who was Jewishly connected; dad was clearly along for the ride. He did serve on the synagogue board and used his accounting skills in service to the community as treasurer of the congregation. His greatest contribution to the Jewish people was running the temple bowling league, and, of course, supporting my mom in all of her endeavors.
My mom’s devotion to her husband has been nothing short of epic. We all recognize that there is no way he would have lived as long and as well without her tender loving care. On Thursday they took a walk to the park next door and it was so beautiful that mom felt moved to take a photo and email it to me. It was that night that he choked and lost consciousness, never really recovering.
Sandy was the force behind PT and OT and keeping him moving and engaged. Even at the very end of his life, on Sunday afternoon, as he lay dying, she found a warm cloth to wipe his face and some intensive lotion to rub into his feet. When Rabbi Wernick heard of my dad’s death, his comment to my mom was, “Every man should have a wife like you.” Mom- you have set a very high standard. We know it is going to be so hard for you to be alone, and please know that we are here for you. Mom and dad would always call us and sing a full chorus of “Happy Birthday.” She said she doesn’t know if she can continue that tradition, noting that, “I only sing duets.” And when it was his birthday- oh!- you’d better call him. He had a list and he would check off the names of who called. Mom said he would have loved to have kept a list of all the people who have reached out to the family this week to remember him. It would have been quite a long list!
My dad has been ill for quite some time. Parkinson’s kind of sneaks up on you and it’s hard to know exactly when it began its ugly march- maybe 10 or 15 years. How ironic that when mom and I made our way to the mortuary on Sunday, the entrance to Central Park was closed for a Parkinson’s walk. For many years he has been saying, “I’m ready for heaven,” but we just kept him alive for one more simcha, one more simcha, one more simcha. Heaven, as Steven pointed out- 55.
Leo’s life has been more and more constrained by Parkinson’s. Though we are so sad to lose him, we all take comfort in knowing that just as he has a good life he had a relatively good death. We weren’t quite ready to lose him; his death comes as somewhat of a shock. Yet we are glad to know that he did not suffer. As he lay dying, my mom began to sing to him, in his final moments of life, these words from his beloved Frank Sinatra:
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way
Leo Saul Koppell did it his way, and we are all so blessed by his memory and his legacy. We can best honor his memory by renewing our own devotion to the values that he held dear—- family, first and foremost; loyalty to friends, sincere kindness, and genuine concern for others. Zecher tzaddik livracha- may the memory of the righteous be for blessing.