Lifetime of blazing trails: Judge Kopriva recognized as retirement looms

She didn’t let them see her cry.

One month after passing the bar exam, Jolene Grubb Kopriva was humiliated by another attorney who was seated with three other lawyers when she tried to deliver official documents to him in a coffee shop.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘If I wanted to see a woman, I’d go home and see my wife,'” Kopriva recalled of the incident from nearly four decades ago. “I held it together, gave him the papers and walked out. I then broke into a sob at how he had humiliated me. That was one that cut me.”

Kopriva survived that insult and several others as she went on to a successful legal career including the last 30 years on the Court of Common Pleas, the first woman in Blair County on the bench. She will be recognized for that and other groundbreaking efforts with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from WISE Women of Blair County.

WISE, which stands for Women Involved in Scholarship and Empowerment, will honor Kopriva, along with six other women, at its annual tribute dinner at 6 p.m. on April 19 at The Casino at Lakemont Park. Reservations, at $50 per person, are required and are available at www.WiseWomenOfBlairCounty.org/tribute through Tuesday.

Besides Kopriva, others to be honored are: Valerie Stratton for Arts & Letters; Barbara Kooman for Business & Professional; Joyce Knowles for Community Service Volunteer; Donna Messner for Education; Antoinette Bilik-Bennetti for Non-profit/Government; and Makenzie Wilkinson as Rising Star (See story below).

Kopriva was selected by the WISE board, and other community leaders were quick to point out why the president judge deserved the honor.

Kopriva “has been a trailblazer for justice since she was elected Blair County’s first female judge in 1987,” wrote fellow Judge Elizabeth Doyle.

Creative courts

Doyle said Kopriva was among the first judges in Pennsylvania to realize that specialty courts were needed to deal with crime resulting from drug and alcohol abuse and other social issues. As a result of Kopriva’s efforts, local courts were established for family drug, DUI and juvenile drug cases, according to Doyle.

“These problems affect people of all races and from all walks of life,” Doyle wrote. “Judge Kopriva’s desire to understand and learn about the human condition adds to her drive and success in leading her recently accredited Drug Court.”

Donald Witherspoon, president of the Blair County NAACP, had similar praise.

“I have known Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva for decades and I find her integrity, dedication and justice for all God’s children second to none,” Witherspoon wrote. “Judge Kopriva has an open-door policy and she has never failed to listen to our concerns.”

The local NAACP’s Humanitarian Award in 2015 is one of many accolades bestowed upon Kopriva in recent years.

Noting that WISE’s own creed is dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism, Kopriva wrote that she is glad that she came of age during the Civil Rights Movement that advanced the rights of women as well as African Americans.

“The fear, prejudice, bias and injustice toward race and gender sound so very similar,” she wrote. “It seems society has a constant need to oppress some portion of our society and when you have felt the pain of that discrimination, it gives you a greater sensitivity to the pain of discrimination toward others.”

Home

Born in Michigan, Kopriva moved with her family to Hollidaysburg when she was 3.

“This is home,” she told the Mirror.

She grew up on Garber Street, two doors down from where she lives today, between two widows for whom her mother often cooked and had the young girl deliver meals. That helped stoke her sense of community service that she still has, she said.

Kopriva went to Penn State with an idea to get a degree and do social work. But after a year of individual and family studies, she realized that wasn’t for her and was thumbing through a course catalog with a boyfriend at the time. He suggested political science as a major and that she ought to go to law school.

“I remember saying, ‘Women aren’t lawyers,'” Kopriva said. “He was from Erie and he, ‘Yes, women ARE lawyers.'”

She decided to major in law enforcement and corrections “in case I couldn’t get into law school.”

Kopriva was accepted into the Duquesne School of Law in Pittsburgh. She found out later that the school had initiated a quota system for women; a third of that class of 100 were female.

“I was like ‘Wow. It was the right time,'” she said. “I don’t think women would have gotten into law schools without quotas.”

Kopriva said she felt no discrimination in law school, and after graduating in 1978 and taking the bar, she was hired by a local firm of men who were “very welcoming.” She briefly wore men’s ties and bow ties, but gave those up quickly, and she never wore pantsuits, partly because a local judge had thrown a female attorney out of his courtroom for wearing pants. Local shops didn’t carry business attire for women at the time, she said.

One time, in the courtroom, an opposing attorney said to her: “Now you listen here, girlie,” rather than making a legitimate objection to a question she raise.

“It was a different time and everyone was learning their way,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I found my way.”

Rewarding but demanding

In 1987, Kopriva was elected to her first 10-year term as judge, and was retained two more times. With her third term ending this year and her 64th birthday this September, she has chosen to retire.

“It has been very rewarding, very demanding. I’m looking forward to not having as much responsibility,” she said.

She said she wants to spend more time with her husband, Tom Kopriva, who also is retiring as director of the Hollidaysburg YMCA this year, and their three grandchildren. And, she wants to volunteer more with Habitat for Humanity, the YMCA and a prayer partner program at UPMC-Altoona, among other endeavors from traveling to knitting.

Kopriva was asked to look at her career in retrospect: Is it simply a matter of fairness or do women bring something different to the courtroom?

“It’s always dangerous to speak in terms of sweeping generalizations,” Kopriva was quick to say. ” But women are expressive, tend to be multi-taskers.

“People who can have sympathy or empathy very easily, that is an added value. Not to say men don’t have those characteristics. Women have had to balance career and their personal life, and trailblazers say, ‘Yea, you can do that.'”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.