Elaine Halkopoulos, 81, inspirational East Boston High teacher
To her former students such as Robert Lewis Jr., Elaine Halkopoulos was Miss HP — the English teacher, drama director, and cheerleading coach who strode through the hallways at East Boston High School “always in high heels with her head held high,” someone with a reputation for pushing students beyond their expectations for themselves.
“She was loved and she was respected,” said Lewis, a former East Boston football player who now is head of the BASE, a nonprofit for the city’s youth. “HP was more than my favorite teacher. She was the best teacher I ever had. If she knew you wanted to work, she would push you to be more than you ever thought you could be.”
From freshman year on, he said, students looked forward to an annual music production, known as the Senior Class Day Show, directed by Dr. Halkopoulos and starring graduating seniors, many who had never been onstage before.
“All through school, you knew one day you were going to get to be a part of it, and it was the one thing that everyone most looked forward to,” said Lewis, who recalled performing numbers from the Broadway shows “Guys and Dolls” and “Annie.” “It was a really big deal.”
Dr. Halkopoulos, who was a single, working mother in an era when that was less common, died of ovarian cancer Nov. 25 in Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington. She was 81 and had lived in the Boston area all her life.
Lewis was Dr. Halkopoulos’s student during the court-ordered desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, when new students arrived at East Boston High by bus from other city neighborhoods.
“When busing happened, some of the teachers cringed and looked away” from the resulting tumult, he said. “But Miss HP worked all the harder to engage everybody — both the newcomers and the kids who were already there.”
He recalled her encouraging him to run for class officer, which was unusual for an African-American student at the time. He did, and was elected vice president.
“She could be stern and strict, but she was so great to me,” he said. “She made me be better than I thought I could be.”
Most of her students were unaware that Dr. Halkopoulos was raising a child on her own in Brookline, said her daughter, Andrea Hall of Beverly.
“In the 1960s, it was not so cool to be a single mother, she didn’t carry that banner around,” Andrea said. “She kept her private life separated from her professional life.”
Nevertheless, Andrea was often by her mother’s side at the football games, where the cheerleaders Dr. Halkopoulos coached performed routines, and Andrea attended the Senior Class Day Show each year.
“She wanted me to see what she was capable of and show me how to get things done,” Andrea said. “I was always very proud of her — she accomplished so much. She had a very strong work ethic and always just forged ahead.”
Helen Elaine Halkopoulos, who went by her middle name, was born in Boston in 1935, one of three daughters of Zaharias Halkopoulos and the former Sevasti Tatarides, who were Greek immigrants. She grew up in the South End and graduated from Girls’ High School in Roxbury in 1952. She studied English as an undergraduate at Boston University and received a master’s degree in theater there in 1960.
The following year, her daughter was born and she began teaching third grade in East Boston. A year later, she joined the East Boston High School faculty. She worked there for 3½ decades, becoming head of the English department and leading various programs for students.
“Elaine was without question the most loyal and energetic teacher I ever knew,” said Carmen Scarpa, a former teacher, headmaster, and coach at East Boston High School. “There are not enough words in my vocabulary to describe everything she did for the kids, her students were her life.”
Dr. Halkopoulos stayed friendly with many students after they graduated and “never missed a class reunion,” he said. “She was a real academic, she read books constantly. But she never let anything going on in her outside life interfere with her day job. She was just remarkable.”
In 1997, she graduated from University of Massachusetts Amherst with a doctorate in education. She wrote her dissertation on the Senior Class Day Show she had produced for so many years, with a focus on interviews with participants in three of those productions.
In an abstract of her dissertation that is available online, Dr. Halkopoulos wrote that the extra-curricular program “benefited many students who feel otherwise alienated from the mainstream.” It also helped to build confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of community for students, she wrote, and it boosted school attendance.
In 1998, she was hired as head of the English department at Charlestown High School, where she went on to work for five years.
She studied ballet as a child and performed with dance troupes into adulthood, said Andrea, who noted that her mother was taking tap dancing lessons at age 78.
Dr. Halkopoulos vacationed regularly on Cape Cod, where she took art classes and belonged to a number of organizations. She traveled often and enjoyed gardening, as well as spending time with family and friends, including her longtime companion Anthony Lori of Everett, who was her teaching colleague at East Boston High School.
A service has been held for Dr. Halkopoulos, who in addition to her daughter, Andrea, and her companion, Anthony, leaves two sisters, Bella Baker of Tenafly, N.J., and Patsy Pappas of Branford, Conn., and a grandson.
Lewis, who was an executive with the Boston Foundation before founding the BASE, a nonprofit that aims to engage Boston youth through sports, said Dr. Halkopoulos had a lasting impact on him.
“It was such a treat to be in her class,” he said. “I loved school — the truth is I never wanted to miss a day. You get a teacher like Miss HP who’s loving, caring, and committed, then you have a shot. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for her.”