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Rosalyn Chin-Ming Koo

Obituary for Rosalyn Chin-Ming Koo

November 11, 1926 - January 30, 2021
San Mateo, California | Age 94


On January 30, 2021, Rosalyn C. Koo passed away peacefully in her sleep, knowing that all of her family had been there with her that day. She was 94 years old. Known to many as Roz, she was a passionate volunteer, a fierce fundraiser, an inspirational mentor and role model, and a cherished matriarch.

Born on November 11 in Shanghai, Roz was the middle child and only daughter in an affluent family. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Roz observed horrors and levels of destitution that embedded themselves into her young mind. She vowed that she would one day "help the poor." She eventually graduated boarding school from McTyeire High School where she often got into mischief, even bribing her friends to eat up her poorly baked cake so that there would be none left for her mother to taste.

At only 18 years old, Roz arrived in Oakland, California to attend Mills College. She soon met her future husband, Karlson Koo, on Market Street in San Francisco. During their courtship, she would often test his devotion by doing things like making him wait downstairs for their date while she finished her book upstairs. Needless to say, Karlson passed all the tests, doting on her and their two daughters, Debbie and Jackie, for their nearly 50-year-long marriage until his passing in 2000.

As the Cultural Revolution made communication with relatives in mainland China sparse and travel back unthinkable, Roz's stay in the United States became indefinite. She eventually transferred from Mills (because she couldn't pass her swimming test), and finished her bachelor's degree in Economics at UC Berkeley. Shortly after the birth of her children, she joined the workforce in the 1950's when few women were working. Roz eventually became the Chief Financial Officer for MBT Associates, an award-winning architectural firm in San Francisco. She was the only non-architect partner. Every day of her professional career, Roz wore a beautiful traditional Chinese dress, to remind those around her of her Chinese heritage. She retired in 1989.

Yet, Roz's commitment to community organizing and fundraising began years before her retirement. In the early 1970's, as diplomacy between China and the US improved, Roz returned to Shanghai and to her beloved high school, McTyeire. Much to her dismay, the school was in utter ruin and had converted to a co-ed school. Always the leader, Roz began strategizing how she could raise the funds to restore McTyeire to its original glory. Her plan included rallying her fellow alumni around their former principal, whom she brought to visit the US, and negotiating that McTyeire return to an all girls institution.

Providing girls with quality education remained one of Roz's foremost missions. In 1990, Roz co-founded The 1990 Institute. Under the auspices of the Institute, Roz secured key support from the All China Women's Federation in 2001 to initiate the Spring Bud Project. This diaspora-funded project sponsored 1000 girls in one of China's poorest rural provinces, Shaanxi province, to continue their education, hired the teachers, built the schools and housed and fed the children. The girls chosen would have otherwise been unable to continue school beyond second or third grade. Through the Spring Bud Project, all 1000 girls completed both elementary and middle schools, 275 girls completed high school and approximately 200 went on to university, with a majority attending 1st and 2nd tier colleges in China. Many of these now young women returned home to enrich their villages through the skills and knowledge gained through Spring Bud.

After the 2008 earthquake devastated neighboring Sichuan province, Roz and the 1990 Institute secured the funding to design and construct a new school in Qian Yang County. Led by the U.S. architectural firm EHDD, the new school was both green and seismically safe. Today, the school serves around 350 local students in Shaanxi province.

Just prior to the founding of the 1990 Institute, in 1984, Roz joined Self-Help For The Elderly's Board of Directors. The organization served over 40,000 seniors in the San Francisco Bay Area, 90% of which were low-income and from minority communities. While with Self-Help, Roz spearheaded hugely impactful projects, including the construction of the 70-unit Lady Shaw Senior Housing, the 15-bed Autumn Glow Alzheimer's Care Home, and the 82-unit Lincoln Court Senior Apartments in Oakland. Additionally, Roz founded the San Mateo Senior Center in 1991 and the Millbrae Senior Center in 2018, providing meals, services, and multilingual activities for local seniors. On the day of her passing, Roz received the happy news from long time friend and Self-Help For The Elderly's President, Anni Chung, that the San Mateo Senior Center had a promising chance of a permanent home.

The 1990 Institute/Spring Bud and Self Help for the Elderly were two of Roz's greatest legacy passions. Roz also contributed to many other shorter term endeavors that ranged from assuming the role of political campaign manager in a SF supervisor race, fundraising and organizing to support the reopening of the SF Chinatown branch public library and securing funding for the San Mateo Public Library's complete remodel. She also worked on and with the Sustainable San Mateo initiative, and, more recently, the Burlingame Music Club.

In addition to her extraordinary community-focused life, Roz could be easily persuaded to enjoy a rootbeer float at the local diner or a movie theater hot dog. She loved the Metropolitan Opera and was an avid reader. She could name every movie star in any Turner Classic Movie and had a wicked sense of humor with a wonderfully raspy laugh. She would often clip newspaper articles that reminded her of her loved ones, to save for them when they next visited. Her more recent indulgence was sitting outside in the shade with a latte in hand. In later years, Roz became easily recognizable by the sight of her walker, cheekily referred to as the "Cadillac of Walkers," which was fully complete with fire breathing dragons on the sides—a tribute to the beloved "dragon lady" that she was.

In one of her many award acceptance speeches, after all the applause and praise, Roz demurred and said that all she wanted was to be remembered as just "a little old volunteer" - that's "L.O.V." for short. But those who knew her will remember Roz as a fearless, tireless, and dedicated leader committed to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.

Roz is survived by her two daughters, Debbie and Jackie, her grandchild, Sam, and her two sons-in-law, Dennis and Pete. In lieu of flowers or a service, her family is asking that any donations be made to Self-Help For The Elderly San Mateo.

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Suggested Memorial Donations

  • In lieu of flowers or a service, Roz's family is asking that any donations be made to Self-Help For The Elderly San Mateo.
  • Self-Help For The Elderly
    731 Sansome Street, Suite 100
    San Francisco, CA 94111

Message from the Family

Per Roz's wishes, there will not be a service. However, the family requests that in lieu of flowers, please consider donating to Self-Help for the Elderly.

Arrangements By

Sneider & Sullivan & O'Connell's Funeral Home - FD-230

977 S. El Camino Real
San Mateo, CA 94402
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