Thursday, September 18, 2008

One "H" of a teacher

A few years ago at the San Simeon Chamber of Commerce office, a tourist gestured toward the chamber’s manager and said to me, “She’s such a lady! And she’s so smart. She should have been a teacher.”

Bingo! That manager is Helen Leopold, a beloved, legendary Cambria first-grade instructor.
Her 90th birthday is Sept. 30. This column is a happy-birthday surprise for her.

Helen is every inch a lady. For decades, she taught by inspiring her students, not bullying them. Even her gently pealing, oh-so-contagious laugh is ladylike, but it’s seasoned with a bell-toned twist of sparkly-eyed mischief.

That’s Helen, called “H” by her friends and family.

As a teacher, she used ground-breaking techniques, training youngsters how to learn, how to study and how to enjoy doing both. In her classroom, she required proper deportment, penmanship, study habits … and fun.

Carol Stoner, now the grammar school’s principal, said, “Her passion was reading, and teaching her students how to read.”

And Helen kept coming back, retiring two or three times before it stuck. Even then, she continued working as a substitute teacher, and tutored students through 2007.

Stoner said, “She’s such a vibrant person, and so physically active. She played tennis forever … She’s an inspiration and role model to so many people of the importance of staying active and continuing to contribute to your community.”

Helen has managed the San Simeon chamber office for 15 years.

She also taught other teachers. Christine, one adult student of some 40 years ago, wrote an essay about her master teacher and mentor.

School recesses would find Helen “exuberantly racing to kick a ball or gleefully jumping rope,” Christine wrote. “As long as Helen was surrounded by children and nature, she was happy. Pleasurable walks on the beach or through the pines ended in a collection of delicate kelp, unusually patterned bark or colorful leaves to be carefully displayed on the counter like a sacred gift from earth. She eagerly shared this endless enthusiasm and respect for the wonders of life with her fortunate pupils.”

Teacher Christine Leopold knows her subject well. She married one of Helen’s sons, Mark Leopold, now a San Luis Obispo dentist.

According to family historian Laurel Leopold of Cambria, Helen was born in Santa Maria, and “knew what she wanted to do … be a teacher … at the age of 6.”

Helen attended junior college in Fullerton while working as a waitress at the old Knott’s Berry Farm. At a big-band dance in 1939, she met future husband Warren Leopold.

In 1941, Warren enlisted in the Army. Helen, an English major, graduated from U.C. Berkeley. The couple married and moved to Carmel. Helen worked at Fort Ord. And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that December, Warren’s regiment transferred to Alaska.

In 1948, home designer Warren built his first Cambria project, the “Crazy House.” Eventually, the footloose family landed in Big Sur, where Helen began teaching.

Laurel said, “From the beginning, she had an instinct about how to teach.”

Helen taught first through eighth grades at Pacific Valley from about 1957 to 1963. Laurel recalled the fun. “She’d put on dances and potlucks, and she got old reel movies from Hollywood, and we’d play them on an old- fashioned projector.”

The family included four children — Mark, Laurel, Eric and David, now a Cambria sculptor/carpenter. When Eric was diagnosed with cancer, the family moved to Cambria to be closer to hospitals and medical care.

A year or so after Eric’s death in 1963, Helen started teaching Cambria students. She created a first grade phenomenon, playing classical music in the classroom and customizing her curriculum to match her students’ needs using Cal Poly math techniques and the Fairchild Phonics Reading Program.

“That was her secret weapon, like a jet-propelled, perfect reading program,” Laurel said. “She couldn’t believe she was being paid to do what she loved so much. She was so rewarded by working with those children.”

Decades later, many of those young students describe their Mrs. Leopold with glowing testimonials. That includes our youngest son Sean. “She was my favorite teacher ever,” he said, “a really nice person who taught us a lot.”

Now that’s a testimonial. Happy birthday H!

Editor’s note: In June, Helen Leopold’s family honored her with a bench placed outside the Cambria Grammar School’s library. A plaque on the bench created by artist Terry Konczak reads, “Helen Leopold: She loved teaching and sharing the joy of learning with children.”

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