“It was very Sandy Asper,” joked her son Bruce Asper, Jr. who wrote it. “At the end, she was making sly jokes at my dad’s expense and ordering us around. Like, literally — her involvement in the minutiae in the celebration of life ceremony and the service was hilarious. She told us what songs were going to be played, everything.”
She was also the kind of woman who — never one to care for bright colors — always wore black and white. She was the kind of woman who wrote stories about her grandchildren, said she once saw a ghost and earned trophies during family ping-pong tournaments. She was the kind of woman who asked to officiate at the wedding of one of her daughters a day after coming home from a hospital with a terminal diagnosis.
Asper, who was 83, died on April 20 at her Newport Beach home of complications related to her breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1996 and was in remission until late last year. She was released to hospice care in March, according to her three adult children Bruce Asper, Jr., Lara Sellers and Gabriela “Gaby” Asper.
Every decision they’ve made since she died has been with the thought that it might be something that she’d want, said Bruce. Though, Gaby joked, they did have to veto at least one of her requests to play a particular song at the celebration of life.
“She wanted us to play ‘Young, Wild and Free’ [by Snoop Dog and Wiz Khalifa], but it has drug references and there are going to be children there,” Gaby said, laughing during a phone interview Friday. “We were like, ‘We can’t play that at her celebration of life.’”
Planning things has helped with the grieving process, the siblings said, and it helps that they’d been given at least five weeks to spend with their mother before she passed away. But still, sometimes Bruce finds himself reaching for his phone to talk to her about recent news events like he used to. Lara caught herself by surprise when she saw a text from “Mom” on her phone, then realized it was simply the contacts from her mother’s phone that she had forwarded to herself.
“She was still getting texts and calls from people who hadn’t heard,” said Lara. “I have this bad habit of not wanting to talk to anyone on the phone. She used to give me a hard time about it. So in those five weeks, she would have me answer the phone because she had a hard time talking.”
“I just called her friend. I was thinking the whole time, ‘I could email her,’ but my mom would tell me to call them,” she added.
Sandy Dorothy Asper was born in Portland, Maine, on Sept. 8, 1937. She would eventually make her way to Pomona with her mother, Hazel MacMinn, when she was 12. She attended Mt. San Antonio College and transferred to LaVerne University, where she completed her degree in English literature in 1960.
She married her husband, Bruce Asper, on July 1, 1961.
Asper began teaching in Los Angeles County before she, her husband and Bruce Jr. relocated to Peninsula Point in Newport Beach, where she embarked on a 40-year-long career teaching in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District at Newport Elementary, TeWinkle Middle School and Ensign Middle School.
She would later adopt her second daughter, Gabriela, when she was in the eighth grade. Gaby said she’d lived in a group home at the time and used to make up stories for her writing assignments. The Aspers would eventually foster her before adopting her when she was about 15.
“I got to know her as a teacher, then as a mom,” said Gaby, choking up a little. “I would go back to her classroom and get to know her [students]. Her life was about service to others, and my sister and my brother and I have been talking about this a lot lately. We have big shoes to fill. We have a lot of good deeds to do in my mom’s honor.”
Asper stayed involved with the goings-on of the district after retiring and for many years wrote commentaries about the school district and other topics published in the Daily Pilot and Orange County Register.
Asper also self-published a few books that her grandchildren illustrated and a workbook to help prepare people for death.
“Sandy was a huge advocate for teachers,” said Tamara Fairbanks, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers. “She was a retiree union member as well as an active union member when she was a teacher. She was always a huge voice for teachers.”
“She was great at highlighting the wonderful things that teachers did and really having honest conversations regarding the good things and the bad things that are happening all over the place in regards to the profession … she was a friend of ours for the union and she will be sorely missed,” said Fairbanks.
“I consider her a pioneer and a trailblazer for NMFT,” she added.
The family will be holding a service at Christ Church by the Sea on April 29 and a celebration of life at the Harborside Restaurant.
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