Activist Helen Rosenberg Kahn Geballe dies at 107

After barely escaping a hotel fire in Norway in the middle of the night, Helen Rosenberg Kahn Geballe found shelter in a nearby schoolhouse. Stumbling upon the school's coffee maker, she quickly brewed up a pot before wandering back into the darkness and serving it to other escapees.

That typifies her "indomitable, generous" spirit, said her daughter Shirley Rosenberg. "Whenever there was something needing to be done, she was always willing to do it."

Geballe, who died Wednesday in her San Mateo home at the age of 107, was a founder of the Montefiore Senior Center in San Francisco and a member of the National Council of Jewish Women. She was a rock for her two daughters, seven grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

"It was wonderful to be 55 and still have Grandma there," said granddaughter Nancy Bott, a San Mateo resident. "To be honest, we all just thought that she would live forever."

Though diminutive in stature, with childlike feet and hands, Geballe had an enormous heart.

During World War II, when she helped the Council of Jewish Women greet and resettle European refugees, for instance, she would carry the luggage of Orthodox Jews if they arrived on Shabbat.

"They wouldn't get off the ship because they wouldn't carry their luggage," said Bott. "So here's my grandmother, who couldn't be but 5 feet tall, shlepping their luggage for them."

When she helped start the Montefiore center more than 50 years ago, the concept of a Jewish social and recreational hub for seniors "was way ahead of its time," said Rosenberg.

Geballe, a member of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, moved to the city from Woodland in high school because her mother wanted her to live closer to a Jewish community.

Her mother's plan worked. Geballe later married a Jewish man named Sidney Kahn, who died in 1956.

She then married the late Oscar Geballe, a longtime family friend.

"I remember them both telling me that they felt, when they got married, if they had five years together they'd be lucky," said Bott. "They ended up having 20."

Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses perhaps contributed to Geballe's longevity. That and the fact that, unlike many of her contemporaries, she never ate fast food.

"We were driving home from Tahoe one time in 1987 and we stopped at a McDonald's," said Bott. "That was the first time she'd ever been to a fast-food restaurant."

As a child, Bott remembers visiting Geballe at her weekend home in Tiburon. There she'd watch her grandmother pick flowers from the garden, which she'd later use in her flower arrangements. She also remembers watching her grandmother, an accomplished pianist, sit down and play.

Rosenberg, too, cherishes childhood memories of her mother playing the piano. It was the sound of her mother's practicing that lulled her and her sister Phyllis Fisher to sleep every night.

"She'd practice at night after my sister and I went to bed," said Rosenberg. "It gave us a real great love and enduring feeling for music."

For several years when she was in her 90s, Geballe volunteered as a model for studies on "creative aging" at the UCSF medical center.

She strongly desired an education herself, but was only allowed to spend one year studying at U.C. Berkeley.

"Her parents felt that a young woman, at that time, didn't really need to go for any longer," explained Bott. "She told me she took as many units as she could because she knew it was all she would get."

Education was so important to Geballe that in June, as her health was declining and she'd succumbed to silence, she spoke again upon learning her grandson would be going to college. She asked him about his intended major and said, "Call me some time, we'll have lunch," said Rosenberg.

Geballe was an avid traveler, visiting Belgium, Austria, Greece, Switzerland and Sweden, to name just a few. In her 90s she went to China and walked along the Great Wall.

"After she stopped traveling in her 100s, if any of us were going on a trip, she'd ask if she could sneak into our luggage," recalled Bott. "Of course, she was so tiny, she probably would have fit."

Contributions in Geballe's honor can be made to Jewish Family and Children's Services, 2150 Post St., S.F., CA, 94115 or to the National Council of Jewish Women, P.O. Box 2525, Edison, NJ 08818-2525.