Helen Kupski Leppla, who cherished her Polish heritage, was still doing the polka at her grandson’s wedding last August, just seven months before she passed away at 93 on March 6.
“She was so happy that my oldest son married a Polish girl that she came out with a long, traditional Polish toast,” said Gary Leppla of German Twp.
Helen’s parents had emigrated from Poland in 1904, and she was born and raised in the Polish community of Wheeling, W.V. The youngest of seven children, Helen was taught by Polish speaking nuns, and Polish was spoken at home.
Her brother, Matt, who had been “a second dad” to her, had joined the Army Infantry, and was killed in Italy in 1944 during World War II. Gary said, “Mom still had the flag from his funeral.”
Although she’d promised her father that she’d never join a branch of the service, shortly after she graduated from high school, during WWII, Helen moved to Washington, D.C., with a friend and got a job at the Pentagon working for a colonel.
“She and Dad went to the 50th anniversary of the building of the Pentagon, and they dined with Colin Powell,” said Gary. “Later, when she saw the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, she said ‘That’s where I worked!’ ”
It was in D.C., at a USO dance, where she met her future husband, Ralph Leppla, a sailor from Lima.
“Dad was an electrical engineer, and after the war they moved to his family farm in Lima, then to Cleveland, where he worked in aviation development,” Gary said. “He came here to work for Leland Airborne in Vandalia, where he helped to develop B-52 planes. Then, he went to NCR, and was the head of engineering there in NCR’s heyday.”
Helen worked as office manager for a doctor in Vandalia. The couple had two sons, Gary and his older brother, David, who now lives in Indiana.
When the Lepplas retired, they moved to Indian Lake, then returned to the Miami Valley, where they settled in German Twp. Ralph died in 2011.
“She was always proud of her Polish heritage, and loved to polka,” said Gary. “She’d dance at the Polish-American Democratic Club and the Czech-Slovak Club — both groups were represented at her funeral Mass.
“She was a real celebrity in the polka community. I remember when I was in college she taught us to polka, and we’d go to the Polish Club dances. As soon as she heard the band, she’d be dancing. She loved it, and the bands knew her and serenaded her.”
And, somewhere along the way, she made her husband an enthusiastic dancer. “Dad was a polka man for sure,” said Gary, “although not a member of the Polish clubs. The day I introduced my girlfriend who became my wife to my parents, Dad had her polkaing in the basement, a pretty good sign of acceptance.”
Karen Brooks, a friend who cared for the elderly Lepplas for more than seven years, says, “She would get up in the mornings and dance around the kitchen island – we’d put music on, and she’d dance. Even in her seat, her feet would be moving to the music.
“She was small, but tough, feisty and always a lady. She had to be dressed just so, with matching jewelry and hair combed, every day. Toward the end, when she was supposed to be using a walker, she refused because it wasn’t ‘ladylike’ and it messed up her outfit.”
“Even at my son’s wedding in August, she had to get out and polka,” said Gary. At 5-feet-1-inch tall, Helen only weighed in at 67 pounds by then. “I felt like I was carrying her — but she just had to polka.”
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