Retired ESL teacher dies, opts for luncheon instead of funeral


Denis Perez / The Advocate

Retired College of Notre Dame staffer Kris Zavoli writes in a journal where friends and family could express their memories of late English as second language professor Lee Brelie during a luncheon at Skates on the Bay in Berkeley, California on Saturday.

By Michael Santone, Editor-in-Chief

BERKELEY — The Saturday morning fog began to drift off the San Pablo Bay as family and friends gathered at Skates on the Bay to celebrate the life of retired Contra Costa College English as a second language professor Lee Brelie.

Sunday would have been her 72nd birthday.

And according to many friends and family members at the celebration on Saturday, Brelie, who died in her Hercules home on June 16 after months of battling cancer, etched memories of compassion and uniqueness into the minds of everyone she encountered.

“She would be tickled pink to have all these people here to honor her. I wish we could have done this before she passed,” Brelie’s niece Desiree Miranda Kopecky said as tears began to form in her eyes.

“Lee was special. She was quirky and witty. Even in her last moments when she was in hospice she perked right up and sang to me, told me stories and was just full of life.”

Rather than a traditional funeral or memorial service, Brelie requested that she pay for a party for all of her friends at one of her favorite restaurants, Skates on the Bay.

This selfless act of remembrance, provided by Brelie and hosted by longtime friend and former CCC English professor Walter Masuda, was on par with Brelie’s vibrant personality.

The act, however, was minuscule when compared to the dedication she had given those around her with laughter and a helping hand.

Brelie is survived by her sister Carol Miranda, niece Desiree Miranda Kopecky and nephews Jeff, Bert and Joe Miranda.

Kopecky said, “When I was 23 she took me to my first opera in downtown San Francisco. We went to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and on our way she stopped and gave money to every homeless person she saw. I thought she was crazy, but she insisted that if you have a little extra you give a little extra. She really wanted to make sure people were taken care of at all times.”

Lee Marjorie Brelie was born Sept. 23, 1946 in Marion, Indiana.

Shortly after her birth, her family packed up and moved to Michigan, where she spent her childhood.

In 1968, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in social science from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Brelie devoted two years of her life to the Peace Corps. While volunteering, she lived abroad for a year in a small village on the Fiji islands, absorbing the customs and traditions of a new culture.

Brelie then made her way to New Zealand and to Australia, where she taught fifth grade before hitchhiking, backpacking and camping across Southeast Asia.

In 1975, after taking up residence in England for a year, Brelie found her home in the Bay Area.

Brelie, who oftentimes offered money to those in need, also brought an eagerness and empathy into the classroom after earning a master’s degree in ESL while teaching at San Francisco State.

It was her knowledge of foreign cultures and her willingness to sit and listen to students and administrators that made spending time with her a refuge for many in the hustle and bustle of Bay Area life.

Brelie taught at colleges throughout the Bay Area including San Jose State University and College of San Mateo before finding her new home at CCC. After teaching part-time classes at CCC, Brelie was hired as a full-time, tenure-track faculty member in the ESL department in 1989.

Current ESL professor and department Chairperson Liz Xiezopolski said Brelie was on her hiring committee and a subsequent office mate when she was hired to teach full time in the early 1990s.

“She was a real inspiration to me as a teacher,” Xiezopolski said during a break during the celebration. “Her dedication to her students was amazing. She would help students, not just with their academics but with their personal problems.”

Xiezopolski said during her 15 years as Brelie’s office mate they shared many conversations that ranged from serious to silly, but each one always ended in laughter.

“We laughed so much in the office. We would sing together, laugh together and be frustrated together about administrative issues,” Xiezopolski said. “There are just so many wonderful memories — she’s truly going to be missed.”

Those who knew Brelie, knew her not only for her warm spirit, but for her love of smoking cigarettes. During the early 2000s, before the college had division deans and after she had been selected the Liberal Art Division chairperson, the stigma of smoking never dampened her mood. It only elevated the intimate conversations she would have over a pack of Virginia Slims on the patio outside her basement office in the Liberal Arts Building.

Current adjunct humanities professor David “Dajarah” Houston, who served as philosophy and humanities department chairperson at CCC, said he knew Brelie for more than 20 years and it was her level of grounding and openness that could be felt every time he was in her presence.

“She was the type of person you could slip outside her office with and sit and talk to,” Houston said Saturday, holding back tears. “I’ve gone through my struggles. There was a divorce in the midst of life and I remember her being someone I could trust.”

During her more than 20 years at CCC, Brelie created the ESL writing lab, fought for the rights of immigrant students and created a loving atmosphere in every hallway, classroom and office she visited.

Although Brelie retired in 2009, she returned part-time for a few semesters to continue her work in the ESL department.

While off campus, especially after her retirement, she enjoyed her solitude.

“I met Lee 14 years ago and realized how kind of a human being she was,” former CCC student Lula Gallardo said on Saturday at the celebration. “She had a heart that everyone could feel in their hearts.”

Gallardo said over the years she and her family became extremely close to Brelie, so much so that she would take Brelie to her doctors’ appointments.

“She had a lot of faith. She was very strong and so independent,” Gallardo said. “She’s my friend — she will always be my friend.”

In honor of Brelie’s memory, an ESL department scholarship has been created by the college Foundation to help students with personal or financial needs.