Alfred Schoepko, former OPRF High School teacher and long-term resident of Oak Park, died recently. If you didn’t know him, perhaps Oak Parkers at least saw him for decades at Farmers Market, in bookstores, or just walking down the street. He was a man of action and enthusiasm, seemingly always in a hurry. He didn’t want to waste one minute of life. He was a rare person, not always understood by people around him, but always reaching out and always offering something to others.
As a German teacher, he spent a good portion of our class time with unforgettable wit and jokes. Whenever it would begin to snow, he rushed to the window of his fourth floor classroom and looked out with a dramatic expression and say, “Fall down you gentle flake! Cover forest field and lake! The earth white do make! Hey, it rhymes!” This was a ritual and we never tired of it.
He joked (in German) about students who rarely came to class who were “over there at the greasy spoon drinking Coca-Cola.” With this he covered verbs, prepositional phrases and word order grammar rules. Clever and hilarious.
Besides the obligatory grammar, he often made references to great works of art and poetry, and periodically prepared slide shows of breathtaking scenery in German-speaking countries. These slide shows were accompanied by equally breathtaking symphonic music. I will never forget how I felt watching the pictures and hearing the selections he carefully chose. It was transcendent for me and a glimpse into his heart.
He called our exams “festivities” and the test booklets “programs.” We all knew that teaching der, die, das was not fulfilling to him. Sharing his love of art, and most of all music, was what energized him.
I recently learned he was choir director at St. Alphonsus Church for 50 years. Eventually he was also the choir director for OPRF’s freshman and sophomore girls’ choir, which was a thrill he could not contain. I was too old to be in that choir but I attended the concerts. His musical knowledge and ability was likely world class. I saw a photo of him with a violin and he also played the piano. “Herr Schoepko,” as everyone called him, sometimes made music recommendations to Bob Fuller, director of the a cappella choir. Among the most beautiful pieces he brought to us was “Pueri concinite” by Johann von Herbeck. If you haven’t heard it, look it up and listen. Have tissues nearby. He cherished this music. He wanted everyone to have the joy he had while listening to it.
He had a deep knowledge of art history and taught courses and told many jokes about it. In my yearbook, next to his name he included a flower that was half traditional flower and half “modern art” (spoken with a certain tone and his intentionally exaggerated accent), which was one of his favorite punch lines. He kept his colored markers around for just that purpose.
Always on the run, he dashed through the hallways, the top half of his body bent over to increase his speed, urgently heading to his destination while his pocket change jingled with each step. He always offered a Ricola throat lozenge to anyone who wanted one. He was in every way a giver.
When I graduated and started my college days, I returned to OPRF to see old teachers and especially him. He informed me, “with all due respect,” that the a cappella choir in the class of 1986 was actually better than ours in 1985. “All due respect” was classic Schoepko and I can hear him saying it today. During that same visit I told him how I was studying music and also that my new boyfriend (now my husband) was from Yugoslavia. He immediately gave me instructions on how to get books to learn Serbo-Croatian, as it was called at the time. He insisted I listen to choral music called “Rukoveti” by Stevan Mokranjac. As the years went by, I marveled that he was so enthusiastic for me to learn that language. Later I found out why.
It was in 2012 when I next saw him at the OPRF A Cappella “Fuller Lives” reunion, organized by Bill Sullivan. It was a joy to sing under the direction of Bob Fuller again, and to see familiar faces. When I saw Herr Schoepko with his walker, I immediately went to him and began speaking to him in Serbian. He didn’t remember me, I realized, but I didn’t care, I was simply glad to be able to speak with him. And to my surprise, while he had an accent in English, an accent in German, he had no accent at all in Serbo-Croatian. We had a wonderful conversation. I found out he lived in Belgrade for many years and since I had lived there, too, we discussed beloved places, and of course, the choir music he could never forget, Rukoveti.
I wrote a few Christmas cards to him after that because, despite his failing memory, my memories of him were as keen as ever. I wanted him to know that out of sight was not out of mind.
Today I am writing in remembrance of him. I hope fellow classmates will remember and honor him in their hearts. By various accounts, I know he endured many deep sorrows early in life — trauma and turmoil back in Europe that is unimaginable to many of us. But he never let that be his theme or his message. His life was spent living, giving and sharing everything he loved, with anyone who would listen. He was busy because a lifetime wasn’t enough time to share all that was in his heart.
We were kids when we sat in his classroom, laughing more than we would in any other classroom in that building. We had our own sorrows and turmoil. He knew that. He tried to lift us up. He tried to lighten the load. He tried to open our eyes to beauty in every way he knew how.
In commemorating his life, I share one of his favorite poems by Heinrich Heine:
Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.
Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You are like a flower,
So lovely, fair and pure;
I gaze at you and wistful
Melancholy slips into my heart.
It’s as though I ought to place
My hands upon your head
And pray God to ever keep you
So pure, fair, and lovely.
Thank you, Alfred Schoepko.
And as it expressed in Serbian on this occasion, I say with all my heart, Vecnaja pamjat, dear brother. Eternal memory!
Winkie Ilic (Winkle Hirschfield) graduated from OPRF High School in 1985.