Born to Help Others, Betty Karplus Passed Away at the Age of 96

(Courtesy of the Karplus Family)
Betty Karplus stained a picnic table at Sequoia National Park in July 2021. Her son David, a retired park employee, had arranged for the family to refurbish a deteriorated campground to honor their mom on her 95th birthday. Originally scheduled for 2020, it was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

    Elizabeth “Betty” (Frazier) Karplus, long-time resident of Orinda, passed away at home Sept. 22, at the age of 96.
    Born in Burlington, Vermont, the family moved to Connecticut where Betty worked as a “Winnie the Welder” in the Yale and Towne factory during WWII while earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from Oberlin College. She later contributed her story to the “Rosie the Riveter” National Historic Park in Richmond, CA.
    Betty continued into graduate studies in physics at Wellesley College where she met Robert “Bob” Karplus, a Harvard graduate student. They married in 1948, and she completed her master’s in physics the following spring. The young couple spent the next year and a half at Princeton University, where Bob worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Betty worked in the radiochemistry lab. In the evenings, she also helped John von Neumann develop the ENIAC computer. Betty, Bob, and family moved to California in 1954 when Bob accepted a physics faculty position at UC Berkeley.
    The mother of seven children, Betty was always ready for adventure and shared her love of the outdoors with her family as well as her passion for education.
    She helped Bob with his work in physics, was a valued collaborator on his research in science curriculum and reasoning development, and collaborated with others to improve math education. Betty was also a pioneer in rights for students with disabilities. When her youngest child, Peter, was born with cerebral palsy, she provided him with challenges and support that greatly aided his development. In the mid-1960s, Betty began to substitute teach physics and chemistry at Campolindo High School and got a teaching credential so she could do more. When the state started to fund classes for students with learning disabilities at the high school level, the district hired Betty full time to work in the new resource classes.
    While teaching at Campolindo, Betty was elected to the Orinda School Board, where she served two terms. For her many contributions to the community, she was honored as the 1982 Orinda Citizen of the Year. Also in 1982, Bob had a debilitating heart attack and Betty lovingly cared for him until he passed away in 1990.
    Retiring from Campolindo in 1986, she worked at Mills College leading the Midcareer Math and Science (MCMS) program to train scientists, engineers and mathematicians who wanted to become teachers. For her exceptional contributions to science education, Betty was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2019.
    Motivated by her passion for justice, Betty filled her retirement with activities that fulfilled her need to serve. In 1991, she joined the Peace Corps, working for two years at a home for handicapped children in a village outside Montego Bay, Jamaica. In the mid-1990s, the newly formed AmeriCorps program was blessed with Betty’s leadership in developing curriculum and training materials. She later spent a year teaching English in China. In between these activities, she volunteered in local classrooms and colleges.
    During her 66 years in Orinda, Betty developed many long-term friendships. She was an active member of the Orinda Community Church, where she served as a volunteer in many capacities and was instrumental in arranging for Holden High School to use the lower classrooms, where it has thrived for over 50 years. She also provided leadership in community organizations such as the Orinda Historical Society, the AAUW and the League of Women Voters.
    Betty is survived by her seven children – Beverly Hartline (Fred), Peggy Hellweg (Horst Rademacher), Richard Karplus (Michelle Delore), Barbara Karplus (Rod Womer), Andy Karplus (Karen), David Karplus (Catie), and Peter Karplus – as well as by 16 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, brother-in-law Martin Karplus (Marci), 10 nieces and nephews and many dear friends.
    A memorial service is pending. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Robert and Elizabeth Karplus Outdoor Nature Lab under construction at the Lawrence Hall of Science ( or to the Orinda Community Church.

    – The Karplus Family

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