James Richard Kopelke, entertainer, dies

Former educator mixed hymns, patriotic songs and popular music from the 1920s through the 1950s in performances for seniors

  • James Richard Kopelke
James Richard Kopelke
May 27, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

James Richard Kopelke, a retired educator whose Jim's Sentimental Journeys sing-alongs entertained senior citizens at retirement communities, died May 19 of a heart attack at his home in Webster, N.Y.

The longtime Timonium resident had celebrated his 78th birthday three days earlier.

Born in Aurora, Ill., Mr. Kopelke moved with his family to Catonsville in 1942, when his father took a job at the old Emerson Farm Dairy in Brooklandville.

He was a 1951 graduate of Catonsville High School and served in the Army until 1953. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1957 and a master's degree in 1961, both from what is now Towson University.

From 1957 to 1966, he taught elementary school students in Baltimore County public schools. He then left teaching to direct the education program at what is now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

After retiring in 1985, Mr. Kopelke was able to indulge his passion for music and entertaining when he established Jim's Sentimental Journeys, which was a lively mix of hymns, patriotic songs, commercial jingles and popular music from the 1920s through the 1950s.

"Jim developed a passion for leading sing-alongs with seniors who remembered old music," said his son, Paul Kopelke, who lives in Baltimore.

Dressed in his signature red-white-and-blue sequined vest, he performed with Ed Collins, a bass player, and Betty Miller, who played the washboard. The trio performed in area retirement communities, senior centers and group homes.

He was a staple at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, where he played in the Fireplace Lounge and where his sing-alongs brought much pleasure to residents, family members said.

"He was both a musician and a ham and was able to make a wonderful living at it," his son said.

"In addition to his regular music, he added old radio show theme songs and told stories," he said.

"He was an enchanting uplifting musician with the showman-like charisma of his distant relative, Buffalo Bill Cody," his son said. "He had a lot of Cody in him."

"He was an outstanding entertainer who could draw a crowd in minutes and without any advanced advertising. People loved to hear him play," recalled Mr. Collins.

"Everyone loved him and so many of those gals at Charlestown would come up and give him a big kiss," he said, laughing.

Even though he had later moved to Seattle and for the last five years lived near Rochester, N.Y., he was still entertaining seniors.

"He kept it up until two years ago when he could no longer carry his keyboard and other equipment because of emphysema," his son said.

"He played piano and later keyboard, which he took on the road when he performed," said his daughter, Kendra Kopelke of Pikesville.

"He really had a lot of personality and could really bring out the best in people through his music. He had an intuitive sense about people," said Ms. Kopelke. "And when he wasn't performing, he was actually quite a quiet man."

Mr. Kopelke's theme song was "Sentimental Journey."

"He adored the music from that period and he loved bringing it back to the memory of others. He wanted them to go along for the journey," said his wife of 23 years, Beth Helvig, a registered nurse.

"He got great satisfaction when he played at a dementia unit, for instance, when for the first half-hour a patient with a blank face began tapping their feet, and he'd say, 'I knew I was reaching them. I was taking them back to a warm place,'" said Ms. Helvig.

Mr. Kopelke was an avid collector of sheet music, which numbered in the thousands.

"His living room wall was filled with framed sheet music from the 19th and 20th centuries," his son said.

He was a member of Catonsville United Methodist Church.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Mr. Kopelke is survived by six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Phyllis Burke, a former assistant superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, ended in divorce.


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