Dolores Kopel

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My mother, Dolores Kopel, passed away in August, age 91. In this post, I’d like to share some of the speeches from her Celebration of Life, which was held on September 25. The post includes excerpts from remarks by Colorado First Lady Dottie Lamm, by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, and by me. As Rep. DeGette said in a 2008 congressional tribute to Dolores and my late father Jerry (an 11-term State Representative), “They were the original ‘power couple’ long before dual careers were more outwardly prevalent or socially acceptable.” Cong. Rec. E1229 (June 12, 2008).

The full video of the Celebration and the program for the Celebration (with newspaper clips from Dolores’s career) are available at jerrykopel.com. The site also  contains much more about Jerry and Dolores Kopel, including an archive of Jerry’s award-winning columns for the Colorado Statesman, in the years after he retired from the Colorado House of Representatives.

All the transcripts below are edited for clarity, accuracy, and concision.

Colorado First Lady Dottie Lamm

[Dottie Lamm was First Lady of Colorado during the three terms her late husband, Dick Lamm, served as Governor in 1975-87. She was and is a major political and civic actor in Colorado, in her own right.]

I have known Dolores Kopel since my husband, Dick Lamm, joined her husband, Jerry Kopel, in the Colorado Legislature. [In 1980] Dick asked me if I would walk door to door campaigning for Jerry. Well, I don’t know if he thought I needed more experience, or Jerry needed help, but I gladly obliged. I was grateful for the conversation and persuasion skills that I learned from him, and that served me at countless tours for three decades more. After door-knocking, I met Dolores, who became a colleague and a soulmate in many progressive causes.

She and Jerry practiced law together for many years, which included a bar refresher course for prospective lawyers. [Earlier,] they were journalists together. Jerry even switched jobs [leaving journalism to become a lawyer], so they could spend more time together. Talk about a partnership marriage, and they were figuring it out in the mid-fifties, when most of us budding feminists were still struggling with it in the mid-seventies.

And even before that, Dolores was a foundress pioneer. At a time when CU Boulder did not admit female law students at their law school, she got accepted at DU and graduated with top honors in 1954. But then, like the more-renowned Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, her gender prevented her from getting hired by a law firm. No problem for Dolores. She just went into practice for herself.

….

So to end this tribute, I simply want to say thank you, Dolores, thank you for your pioneering on behalf of women, your example in a true partnership marriage, your community activism on behalf of the dispossessed and the disadvantaged, your dedication to civil rights, and your friendship to me.

Rep. Diana DeGette

[Now the longest-serving congressperson in Colorado history, Diana DeGette served as Jerry Kopel’s campaign treasurer for his final two runs, in 1988 and 1990. When he retired from the state legislature in 1992, she was elected to fill his vacant seat, before winning her first U.S. House term in 1996.]

I’m already so emotional I can barely speak.

Our families, as you have heard, have been intertwined for many, many years. When Dottie was talking about going door to door with Jerry, I remembered going door to door with Jerry as a young attorney, and knowing the whole family. I just want to say David to you and Deirdre and to all of these wonderful grandchildren, Kathleen, Margaret, Andrew, and the whole Kopel family, Leno and I really give our deepest condolences. What an extraordinary mother and grandmother and what an extraordinary family! You’ve suffered a great, great loss, but this whole community has suffered a great, great loss. We’re part of your family forever so consider us that way.

You’ve heard many words about Dolores today, but I want to just take a few minutes and talk about those from my own lens and perspective, as somebody who grew up in Denver, and who knew the Kopels for so many years, because Dolores was more than just a friend to all of us.

She really was a trailblazer. Dolores grew up on a farm right next to a cornfield in Iowa. Then she moved to Colorado in 1946, where she attended high school in Colorado Springs before she enrolled at the University of Colorado. That’s where she was a reporter for the college newspaper, and she met the man she would eventually marry [city editor] Jerry Kopel.

[When she was a junior at CU, CU Law discouraged her from applying] because she was a woman. And so she went to the University of Denver, where she graduated top of her class. She was the very first woman at DU law school ever be recognized for having the highest grade point average of her class. Not once, because it was Dolores, but twice. Yet even though she had that tremendous academic success, she graduated cum laude, she passed the bar exam in 1954, before I was even born, there wasn’t a firm in Colorado that would hire her because she was a woman. I think about this a lot with people like Dolores and others.

How was it? What was that burning desire for justice that they must have had as a young child to go through that, to grow up on a farm in Iowa, to come to Colorado, to decide she wanted to be a lawyer with virtually no role models at all. That’s how extraordinary Dolores Kopel was.

After no law firm would hire her, what did she do? She hung out a shingle, and she started her own law practice. Then, a few years later, her husband, Jerry, did what any good man would do for his wife, that is, follow her lead and go to law school himself. So Jerry then went to DU Law School, and then he, of course, graduated at the top of this class as well. Upon graduation, Jerry joined forces with Dolores at her law firm. They formed Kopel & Kopel, which became one of the leading bankruptcy firms in the country.

Clearly Jerry and Dolores were one of the top power couples before it ever became, not just fashionable, but even a thing to be a power couple.

In 1979, she was appointed by President Carter to serve as U.S Bankruptcy Trustee from the districts of Colorado and Kansas, where she led efforts to reform our nation’s trustee system. By the way, she presided over the StorageTek bankruptcy, which was the largest bankruptcy proceeding at that point.

She was a member of the Colorado Bar Association’s Board of Governors, the Colorado Real Estate Commission, and the Collection Agency Board.

At the same time that Dolores was rising in her profession and raising a family, she and Jerry became active. She lived in Park Hill [neighborhood in NE Denver]. They saw the housing discrimination that was going on there, and so she and he became active in the Park Hill Action Committee, which was formed to combat housing discrimination in the neighborhood.

She remained a force in her own right in the Democratic Party, in Colorado, in Denver for her entire life. At a time when women were so often excluded, Dolores prevailed.

I want to say, from my own personal perspective, she paved a path for so many other women to follow. I became first aware of the Dolores’s leadership in the Bar Association when I became a lawyer in 1982. Even in those years there were very few women in high leadership positions in the Colorado bar, for young women lawyers like me to look up to. Dolores was joined just by a few others, people like [U.S. District] Judge Zita Weinshienk and [attorney] Brooke Wunnicke.

All of them not only handled the very serious duties of their jobs, but they made themselves mentors for the next generation of women leaders like me, who would otherwise have had no role models, as they didn’t. When I first met Dolores, I was really struck by her dignity, her intelligence, but also her public humility.

Then I got to know her better after I became involved in the first of Jerry’s many reelections for the Colorado House. I will say, yes, she was tough, and yes, she was no nonsense, but as you heard so poignantly from her grandchildren, she had deep personal warmth, a sense of humor, and general caring for others.

She was always there for you as a friend. Dolores was truly a model for professional women like me, successful in her career, but always present for her family and for her community.

She used her platform to break down barriers and to advocate for change. She was determined to make Denver a place that everybody could call home.

She was our neighbor. She was our friend, and she was one of the most remarkable people you could ever hope to meet.

I’m proud to have known her as a friend and mentor. Her quiet but undeniable influence will live on, not just in the lives of her son, her grandchildren, and her many friends, but truly in the fabric of this community.

David Kopel

As at law school, I will presume that you have all completed the reading, so we will move on to advanced topics. However, unlike my mother, I will not be shocked if you aren’t up to date with everything in the news and business sections of the Denver Post.

The first time Dolores was quoted in the newspaper was March 28, 1952, about a national controversy. What Dolores had to say turned out to a pretty good summary of her approach to life.

For months, Americans had been arguing about whether the comic strip hillbilly L’il Abner should marry Daisy Mae. Many people, including L’il Abner himself, were hoping there would be some way he could avoid the impending nuptials.

On the day that the marriage did take place, a Rocky Mountain News reporter went downtown and asked people their reactions. He ran into a first-year law student.

“There’s no use saying he should or shouldn’t have gotten married,” argued Miss Dolores Blanke of 1350 Hudson St. “It’s a fait accompli. Personally, I’m glad he did—marriage is a pretty good old institution.”

I recently found her high school notebook for a class on home and life management. It was one of only two academic items she saved from high school.

“Rules for Mental Health

  1. Look forward.

  2. Be satisfied with simple things.

  3. Face facts.

  4. Know the true value of things.

  5. Be tolerant.

  6. Practice the golden rule.

  7. Have a sense of humor.”

Face facts and look forward proved to be good advice to herself.

She did not start out with ambition to lead a notable life. She just wanted to get married, have kids . . .  and be a lawyer. Which meant that she was 2/3 normal by the standards of her time.

Somewhat less so in other ways. She was a Methodist and Jerry was Jewish, and interfaith marriage was rare at the time. She couldn’t have cared less.

She got married when she was 21. But she didn’t have her first child until she was 28 years and 364 days, also quite unusual at the time.

I didn’t realize my family was abnormal until the first day of Kindergarten, at Graland. We sat in a circle and the teachers asked each of us to tell the class what their fathers did. For the girls, many said that their fathers were doctors or businessmen, which was true. For the boys, the vast majority said their fathers were firemen or policemen. It took a long time before I realized the extent of the deception.

On that first day of school, I started off from a position of weakness; I admitted that my parents were lawyers who worked in the Security Life Building. At least the building had some prestige.

Over the course of that first year, I eventually understood that it was perfectly normal to have a father who is a lawyer, but not to have a mother who is.

While Dolores Kopel worked hard as a lawyer and in civic affairs, she kept her work schedule under control so she could be at home before school, evenings, and weekends.

When I was growing up, one of the things I most appreciated about her was that we could have interesting and serious conversations. I could ask her about all sorts of things—from world affairs to family events—and she’d give me a straightforward answer or explanation. Then I’d have some follow-up questions.

Dolores was definitely not a helicopter mother. As a teenager, I roamed all over Downtown Denver on my own. And I did the same on vacation, around Atlanta or Montreal, while my parents put in their hours at the American Bar Association meetings.

Not everybody enjoys mixing a vacation with a bar association conference. But the Kopels sure did.

Dolores Kopel in her retirement years took mini-vacations to Vail for the philharmonic, to cultural events elsewhere, and to a variety of cities to attend stockholders’ annual meetings. As with the American Bar Association trips, some of the shareholder meeting expenses were partially tax deductible.

In the words of the Cat in the Hat, one of our favorite books, “It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.”

Dolores Blanke, Dolores Koplowitz, and Dolores Kopel were not lacking in self-confidence. If even one of them hadn’t been confident, none of them would have made it.

This didn’t mean that she was always sure about everything. Like every mother, wife, and lawyer, she had plenty of self-doubts along the way.

Like her mother, but less so, Dolores was a worrier, and sometimes too controlling or overprotective. This led to conflicts.

The good thing was that she was logical and willing to listen. Convincing her to move from strong opposition to grudging tolerance was not easy. It did build persuasive speaking skills, for children and grandchildren alike.

In high-stakes situations, she had wisdom about when to recede. The most important for me was letting me go to boarding school starting in 10th grade. As the greeting card says, if you love something let it go.

The word “Dolores” means “sorrows,” so I will mention three. First, in 1979, President Carter appointed Dolores to the job of her life, United States Trustee for the Districts of Colorado and Kansas. The Trustee’s job was to manage the administrative side of bankruptcy cases, so that bankruptcy judges could focus on deciding cases. It was a pilot program that worked so well it would eventually be adopted nationally.

The Department of Justice gave her a “Special Achievement Award for Sustained Superior Performance.” So far, so good.

But after Reagan won in 1980, the new administration was hostile to a recently-enacted Democratic program. Ultimately, the U.S. Trustee program survived, but the Main Justice building in DC was constantly trying to undermine it. Dolores stuck it out, in order to pay for her sons’ tuition.

A greater sorrow in her life was Jerry’s decline at the very end of his life. When the two were in college, she had admired him for his brains. “He was the smartest person I ever met,” she said, more than once.

In August 2008, just two months after a Jerry & Dolores party at the Botanic Gardens, Jerry forgot the word for “newspaper.” He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s dementia. Over the next two and half years things gradually went downhill, and by the end, far downhill.

Lastly, while the troubles of old age are to be expected, one way or another, the death of a child is not. Stephen’s suicide in 1987 tore a hole in her heart.

So she and Jerry were all the happier when the family started growing again. Three grandchildren was a dream come true. Thanks to all the new in-laws from Deirdre’s side of the family, she enjoyed becoming part of a large family.

For me, and for the rest of us, the best advice that she and Jerry gave was never expressed verbally. It was by example. Be yourself, think for yourself, and choose your own path forward based on your best judgment, and not on anyone else’s notions of what they think you are supposed to do.

So it was always surprising that some people professed to be shocked that I had my own ideas on some political issues, just as Dolores had different views on some issues from her parents, and just as her grandchildren have their own views, some of which differ from those of all three previous generations. Who could have ever imagined that a family founded by Dolores and Jerry would produce independent thinkers? As Hank Williams Junior put it, “It’s a family tradition.”

She and I agreed on many issues, including civil liberties and the importance of good character in political leaders. When we disagreed on other topics in vigorous discussions, she respected intellectual honesty and knowing the facts. Sometimes, one or the other of us would change our minds.

Although Dolores’s own views on some issues changed over the years, her principles were constant. She was active in politics and public affairs until the very end.

Dolores and Jerry together were so much more than the sum of their parts. This is one of the reasons to be glad that they are now reunited.

Everybody remembers Jerry as a brilliant lawyer. But before he met Dolores, he was high IQ, low achievement, the last guy you would predict to finish first in his law school class. In the middle of second  grade, he had been promoted into third grade, for which he was intellectually but not socially or emotionally ready. Thereafter, his grades were miserable, including at CU. The Dean of the Journalism School urged him to choose a different major.

Then he met Dolores. After their first date, they went out on a date six of the next seven nights. Although to be precise, a lot of their dates were laying out the morning edition of the campus newspaper, The Silver and Gold. Once he was working for team Jerry and Dolores, his work ethic and focus changed entirely.

Before Jerry, Dolores had already been a good student. No matter what, she would have been a fine lawyer. But she went much further because she was part of Kopel & Kopel. Among other things, it was Jerry who had the skills and vision for marketing and publicizing their legal practice.

“It was us against the world,” she fondly recalled about the early days. “Us” did pretty well.

At her burial a few weeks ago, Reverend Steven Aeschbacher said, “Where Dolores was, there was more justice.”

One of Jerry’s campaign brochures promised, “An honest, decent voice for you.” Both Jerry and Dolores kept that promise.

Her parents, Cornelius and Bess Blanke, loved her wholeheartedly. Cornelius told her she should be a lawyer. Bess told her and everyone else that Dolores was “one in a million.” Both of them were right.

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