Mark Ropers, who lived gently on the bay

Courtesy of the family
Mark Ropers appreciated the elegance of a sailboat and the beauty of the bay.  
07/01/2020

Mark Ropers, an attorney, a sailor and a watercolorist known for his dry humor and gentle demeanor, died at home in Inverness on April 19. He was 81 years old. 

Mark grew up in Menlo Park and spent his early years sailing with his father up and down the West Coast. He never lived far from the ocean and frequented Tomales Bay on his wooden sailboat after settling in the area 30 years ago. When he retired from his private law practice, he dedicated his life to developing his talent with watercolors, producing a portfolio of West Marin landscapes that persist in the homes of many friends and family members. 

“He had a way of controlling the brush strokes, and at the same time, allowing the water to do what it needed to do, to travel where it needed to travel on the paper—a balance of control and looseness,” said Wendy Schwartz, an Inverness painter and friend. “I don’t know what the transition was, the journey inside, but clearly he seemed like a far more sensitive person than practicing law allowed him to be. People will say he was a very sweet man.”

Mark was born on Aug. 8, 1938 to Michael Ropers, a San Francisco lawyer, and Rolyne Ropers, a first-generation Italian who stayed at home with Mark and his brother, Michael. The family owned a wooden sailboat, named Water Witch, and took trips along the coast down to Mexico and as far north as Seattle. 

At age 18, Mark joined the Marine Corps, and after three years, attended Menlo Junior College and then Stanford University, where he graduated with a political science degree. 

Duvall Hecht, Mark’s rowing coach while he attended junior college, said that after nearly three decades of coaching, one race stands out in his memory. A team of freshmen with Mark in the eighth seat, which sets the pace, ended up competing in a varsity race at a regatta in Philadelphia by a twist of logistic error and bravado—and they nearly won. 

“In the last 200 meters, there’s a mutual pact, and the challenging crew—the one that hasn’t been able to get by—becomes content with what it has and no longer challenges,” Duvall said. “But Mark never, never gave up: my heart went out for him. He was an inspiration. His character shone through in that event and I’ve never forgotten it.”

After Stanford, Mark moved to New York City, where he worked for several years as a copywriter for a large law firm. One of his main projects was to introduce and promote the Ford Mustang. In the early ‘70s, he returned to the West to attend medical school at the University of California, Irvine, but he quickly dropped out and switched his course to law. He earned his degree from the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. 

The choice never fully added up for Phil Phythian, a friend from Stanford who remained a close friend until the last years of Mark’s life. “His father was an attorney, and [Mark] never really understood it. He didn’t want to necessarily follow in his father’s footsteps. Mark really had an artistic side: he was a writer first, and later on, after he retired, he started doing really beautiful watercolors.”

Mark was a partner at Gordon & Ropers in San Francisco, where he worked as a plaintiff attorney and specialized in personal injury cases for construction workers. 

“He was the good guy, and I was the bad guy,” said Keith Hastings, a defense attorney who later became a close friend. Keith described Mark as a “very energetic, capable attorney,” and as “quite frankly, a very, very bright guy who really enjoyed other people. He would be funny without trying to be funny: he found humor in things you might not find.”

Mark married twice. He met his first wife, Mary Galbraith, during his stint at Irvine and the two had one son, Clarc. At around age 10, Clarc was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle in Mill Valley with Phil’s son. Mark and Mary split up in the late 1970s. 

The death of his son changed his life, and Mark left his intensive practice in the city. Keith described an encounter with Mark on Mount Tamalpais. “I almost didn’t recognize him when I met him up on the mountain running because his whole demeanor had changed so much,” he said. “He looked at life in a totally different way. As awful as that was, it made him into the person that people knew: he was one of the loveliest guys.”

In 1984, Mark married Claudia McKenzie, and the two were together—inseparable, according to friends—until her death three years ago. 

Claudia, who had three children when she met Mark, was a voracious reader, a runner and a good cook who had several careers, including teaching grade school. 

“A lot of my memories are simply sitting with them and laughing a lot,” said Barbara Jay, a friend from Inverness. “At the end of the day—I wouldn’t even announce my arrival, often—I would surprise them, and there would always be a warm welcome and a glass of wine for me. I don’t even know what we talked about, but we laughed a lot. People enjoyed having Mark and Claudia over because they were always cheerful. They just had a kind of treasure they brought with them.”

According to another friend and sailor, Mark Darley, a longstanding daily ritual for the couple was to return to bed after making coffee in the morning, and complete the New York Times crossword. 

After Mark retired, the two launched a small greeting card business. “Those cards were just dry, and witty and amusing,” Barbara said. “Mark drew these animals. In one, there’s a pale blue river, trees in the background, and a hippo with his mouth wide open. ‘I don’t want to get any older,’ he says. And then you open up the card, and it says, ‘Ah, but you have, and we love you for it. Happy Birthday.’”

The greeting card business never got off the ground but Claudia’s daughter, Sarah Borgeson, said the two often collaborated on projects. They traveled together to Italy several times, exploring Mark’s heritage, and lived in Maine for several years, drawn by the wooden boating tradition.

Besides painting, Mark’s other great passion was boats. He was a longtime member of the yacht club, where he served as commodore in 1983, and he left behind two custom wooden boats designed particularly for day trips on Tomales Bay: Sweet Dreams and Sparkler. 

“He wasn’t that interested in racing or going fast the way a lot of people are,” said Mark Darley. “He was more interested in the beauty and elegance of the boat, and of spending time on the water. He had a strong aesthetic bone in his body. He loved a good glass of wine, and the watercolors. Very often, with boats, the thing that looks the most beautiful works the best, and I think there was just an aesthetic pleasure there as well as being on the water.”

The perfect day for Mark, his friend said, was to get up early and pack a lunch, sail down the bay in the morning breeze, find a beach with no one on it, take a nap and maybe a swim, and sail home. 

Once while sailing in San Francisco Bay, Mark said, “This big, fast schooner went past me, and I was on a fast schooner myself, but she was faster. Water Witch. I had found Mark’s father’s boat.”

Mark had lost track of his father’s boat for many decades, but after his friend’s discovery, he was able to connect with the new owner, who had restored it. The 51-foot-long Water Witch was designed and built in Oakland in 1930 for the then-commodore of the Saint Francis Yacht Club, Leon de Fremery. 

Mark’s final years were difficult. He had previously survived throat cancer but was re-diagnosed shortly before Claudia passed away. Unable to speak, he took up reading with a passion, even though Claudia had always been the reader in their earlier years. 

Sarah came up to West Marin regularly from her home in Santa Cruz to care for him. 

The threat of Covid-19 affected who could see Mark in the last month of his life, which he spent at home with hospice care. “[Covid-19] really did affect the process, the social aspect of his dying,” Sarah said. “People brought cards and flowers, wore masks and gloves and stood on the deck. There was a question about the hospital, but we decided no: I wouldn’t have been able to go with him.”

Yet, she said, “He was an internal optimist. He always thought he was going to get better, drink wine and eat pasta and sail again. But he also thought, ‘Whatever happens, I’m ready to go,’ in a matter-of-fact type of way.”