Ray Duckler: Angie Kopka, at 97, won’t stop looking ahead
Rep. Angeline Kopka of Nashua, second from right, in purple, stacks the House Calendar on her lap while listening to debate on the floor during the session on April 24, 2013. Kopka turned 97 recently.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
At 97 years old, Rep. Angeline Kopka of Nashua is the oldest member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Rep. Angeline Kopka of Nashua, second from right, in purple, stacks the House Calendar on her lap while listening to debate on the floor during the session on April 24, 2013. Kopka turned 98 recently.
(Concord Monitor - Andrea Morales)
The emphasis on the third syllable of her first name usually meant Angie Kopka had done something wrong.
“Angie-LEEN!,” her mother would say, sternly. Maybe little Angie had climbed another wood pile with her brothers, or slid down that snowy mountain, again with her brothers, or passed notes in the back of her Nashua grade school, forcing the teacher to march Angie up front, to a new seat.
Young ladies didn’t act like that, Kopka was told, especially in the 1920s. Heck, women were allowed to vote nationally just four years after Kopka’s birth, in 1916.
Do the math and that’s 97 years old, yet Kopka is at it again, all these years later, bucking the system, raising eyebrows, causing people who know her to whisper behind her back.
That’s because you don’t run for the state’s House of Representatives under these
circumstances. Not at this age. Not when you’ve fallen recently and broken your neck in two places, requiring three weeks of rehabilitation. Not when you lost your House seat two years ago, at age 95, convincing most that the writing was on the wall, or at least on the ballots, telling you it’s time to play Bingo and relax.
‘A little mischievous’
“But what would I do if I retired?” asks Kopka, a Democrat, surprised the topic had even surfaced. “Oh, I’d find something, I can tell you that. I couldn’t sit and do nothing. If I’m sitting, I’m thinking, so that’s part of my life.”
She sat this week, during the latest House session, the oldest member of a state legislature in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, based in Denver. She’s also a national trailblazer in the world of real estate, but more on that later.
At the State House, she sat far to the left of the front semicircle, not visible from the media area in the back unless you kept looking for her. Then you might catch a glimpse of this tiny woman, her face coming into view only if the other representatives’ heads, far above Kopka’s, moved just so.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t notice you, a good 50 yards away, and smile that smile and giggle that giggle, probably the same smile and giggle her friends in the old neighborhood saw and heard after Kopka had been caught, yet again, with her hand in the cookie jar.
“I think I was a little mischievous,” she tells you, the day before the House session, at her Nashua condo. “My teachers liked me but they always caught me when I was doing anything. I’d give them my little sad face and they’d tell me not to give them my little sad face.”
All these years later, with expressive pale blue eyes the color of a backyard pool, she describes a scene right out of To Kill a Mockingbird, when her brothers convinced her it was a good idea to get inside that tire so they could roll her down that steep, busy street.
You could almost hear her mother.
“I was that kid from the commercial, ‘Let Mikey do it; he’ll try anything,’ ” Kopka said. “Take your chances. But I didn’t get hurt.”
She’s been taking chances since Charlie Chaplin ruled the silent screen, defying her mother’s orders not to sit with her dad in that old Dodge truck as he delivered milk in the wee hours of the morning.
So it’s not surprising that Kopka was a pioneer in the real estate business, decades before she won her first election in 2002. She began Kopka Real Estate in 1953, opening an office on Main Street in Nashua with a plate-glass window and a tight parking lot.
She’s since served as president of both the National Women’s Council of Relators, in 1974, and the state’s Association of Realtors the following year. She also earned the National Association of Realtors Distinguished Service Award in ’91, one of 71 winners in the country.
She also went parasailing at a national Realtors convention, at age 80.
More important, though, Kopka opened doors, to new houses for families and opportunities for women.
“She was a pioneer and has the admiration of so many across the nation,” said Kopka’s daughter, Janice Geno of Brookline, who now runs the real estate business. “She paved the way for many women to get recognition in the industry.”
Next, in 2002, came Kopka’s election to the House, at the spry age of 86.
Why, at that age, you might ask?
A friend told her to run, so she did. Kopka doesn’t need much prodding to try new things.
She served through 2010, lost her seat, then won it back last year. Some voters told her she’d sold them their first house, years ago.
“When she decided to run again, some people were aghast,” said Rep. Sylvia Gale of Nashua, one of three House members who carpools to bring Kopka to Concord. “They would ask if we’ve checked with a doctor. I told people that, ‘She’s probably healthier than you are, and her mind is probably brighter and tighter, so stop it. Stop it now.’ ”
As Rep. June Frazer of Concord says, “She’s got a lot of guts, I’ll tell you that.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates Kopka’s determination more than her reaction following a fall at her home, an independent-living senior residence, where she’s lived alone since the recent death of her husband.
Kopka lost her balance and hit the floor hard. With her face swelling and her instincts telling her to keep things quiet, she called a neighbor and asked for some ice.
“What do you want ice for?” Kopka says her neighbor wondered. “You don’t drink.”
It wasn’t until two days later, once she’d attended the next House session, that Kopka agreed to see a doctor, after applying extra makeup and wearing a scarf to hide the bruises.
She’d broken her neck, vertebra C-1 and 2.
“I thought I hadn’t done much,” Kopka says, “so why should I go to the doctor?”
“I never realized she had gone full-blown down, and she made it sound like I was ridiculous when I seemed worried,” Geno said. “The doctor did a CAT scan and was like, ‘Oh my God, she fractured her neck in two places.’ ”
Kopka needed three weeks of rehab exercises to regain strength and balance. She lived with Geno for a while, but left to get back home for the big St. Patrick’s Day party her condo complex was hosting.
She wears a neck brace and uses a walker, both of which bother her a lot. But there she was this week, up front, listening to debates about prescription drug monitoring and declaring slaves from the 18th century free.
She says she’ll run for office again next year.
“Oh, sure,” Kopka said. “I’m going to be all better by then.”