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Grace Coogan, 103; stayed lively as a retiree in Georgia

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2011

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Friends and family called her “Amazing Grace.’’ Retired Avon schoolteacher Grace V. Coogan wore high heels well into her 90s, still smoked a cigarette every day with her cup of coffee, and lived to be 103.

A former resident of Milton and Hull, she retired to Chamblee, Ga., to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren, and she cut quite a figure in a city where the median age is 28. She wore her favorite leopard prints, spoke with a Boston accent, and was still driving her white Cadillac until an accident at age 95 left her with no insurer.

Deep in the heart of Atlanta Braves territory, Mrs. Coogan kept up with the Boston Red Sox, drank rum and Coke, and once danced on the bar at a local club, according to her daughter, Barbara Mae of Alpharetta, Ga.

“She packed a lot of living in 103 years,’’ said her grandson Peter A. Foley of Marietta, Ga. “She was so conversant and fluent in the language of sports. She loved the Red Sox and hated the Yankees, just like every Bostonian is willed to do.’’

Mrs. Coogan died at her home on July 28, a month after breaking her ankle in a fall and becoming bed-ridden.

Born Grace V. Kopple on Jan. 17, 1908, in Boston, Mrs. Coogan was the eldest daughter of Frederick, a police officer, and Mae. Her mother died at age 23 from tuberculosis, when Grace was 4 years old and her sister 2. They were raised mostly by their grandmother, according to the family.

She earned her undergraduate degree in education in 1929 from Teachers College in Boston. Her first marriage, to George Campbell, ended soon after the birth of their daughter, Barbara.

When World War II broke out, the divorced mother longed to join the Navy but did not want to leave her daughter, she told her family. She went to work in the offices of shipbuilders at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy instead.

“I was a teenager when she worked there, and she really enjoyed it,’’ said Barbara. “It was doing something for her country, she felt.’’

After the war, she worked for more than a decade as a lab technician for the Carter Ink Co. in Cambridge and also earned her master’s degree in teaching.

She taught elementary school in Avon for 20 years, teaching mostly third-graders. She retired from the Robert F. Crowley Elementary School in Avon in 1975.

She remarried in 1961, after friends introduced her to John R. “Jack’’ Coogan, a draftsman for Stone & Webster of Boston. He died of cancer in 1970 at age 53.

“Theirs was a love affair,’’ said grandson Peter, recalling many Thanksgiving dinners when Jack donned a white apron and carved the turkey. “I know Nana thought of him every day in the 41 years since he passed. Bringing up his name always brought a smile to Nana’s face.’’

Mrs. Coogan made friends easily and maintained a wide social circle, playing bridge regularly into her 90s, according to her family.

“Her social life was very important to her. She had lots of friends, and she loved to tell jokes,’’ her daughter said.

For several decades, Mrs. Coogan had a cottage in Hull, the locus of many family memories. Foley recalled how the adults played endless hands of cribbage there, while he and his siblings struggled to behave so that Nana would take them to Paragon Park, the amusement park on Nantasket Beach. The park was closed in 1984.

“The cottage to me was Nana Grace and she was the cottage. Even after she sold it, I have no doubt her spirit remained within those walls,’’ he said.

After her husband died, Mrs. Coogan found love again with a widower named Al Berkman, who was from the Boston area. He lived with her in Georgia until his health declined. He died in 1996.

In addition to her grandson and her daughter, Mrs. Coogan leaves two grandsons and two granddaughters; 12 great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. today in the chapel at Embry Hills United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where she was a member for 36 years and where mourners are expected to sing “Amazing Grace.’’

Burial will be private in the family plot in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.