Barbara Proctor has a mighty set of lungs. In one long breath, the 83-year-old rattles off the past few days of her calendar.
“On Tuesday, I read to children in Walnut Creek. Wednesday, I went to the Byron Youth Camp. I just talk to the kids — boys who have fallen through the cracks. Then on Thursday, I went to Pleasanton. The teachers beg me to read. [This month] I’ll be reading to four different classes there.”
She finally exhales, as if putting a period at the end of her week.
Not to be outdone, Barbara’s daughter, Sue Proctor, chimes in, “I did three marriage ceremonies this morning.”
That occurred in her decade-long role as an Alameda County deputy marriage commissioner — just one of her many volunteer roles.
As these volunteer superheroes sit in Barbara’s Rossmoor home, her carbon-copy daughter barely manages to keep a straight face as her mother fires off quips and one-liners. “I’m a typical Jewish mother, telling people what to do and looking out for everybody,” she says.
Everything this mother-daughter duo utters is laced with humor. Humor aside, however, they know in their hearts about the needs of everyday people in the community.
“I learned from my mom to treat people as human beings,” Sue says. “I think being Jewish has something to do with it. I do what I do because I’m a Jew.”
And what they do is jump feet-first into many societal ills and injustices: the needs of veterans, illiteracy, domestic violence, juvenile offenders, poverty and homelessness, among them.
It all started in the 1930s, when a barely 16-year-old Barbara lied about her age so she could volunteer at a veteran’s hospital in her native Boston. Initially she was following in the footsteps of her now 106-year-old mother, Henrietta Daytz, but her volunteerism continued throughout her adult years and has come to define her.
Quantifying the number of lives she has touched is impossible, but the total number doesn’t really matter to the Tufts University graduate. “To me,” she says, “volunteering is a gift you give yourself.”
Many beneficiaries of her goodwill call her call her “GG,” short for Gorgeous Granny, a nickname that originated after the first of her eight grandchildren was born. GG said “no thank you” to the being called “Nana” or “Bubbe,” mainly because she is so young at heart.
GG has watched wide-eyed children hang on every word she has read to them. When she was honored as a Pleasanton Tri-Valley Hero in 2017, a “fan club” of second-graders flocked to her side.
Often she has altered the lives of troubled youth. When she told one young man who had been in the juvenile justice system since he was 12, “I really believe in you,” the now 18-year-old responded, “GG, nobody ever said that to me before. Thank you for letting me know there’s another way to make money besides stealing.”
In her role as a court-appointed special advocate, she helped change the course of one young woman’s life so significantly that she was invited to that woman’s wedding many years later.
This story could go on and on (and on) with examples of her impact over the years, but there’s only so much space.
Sue, meanwhile, readily acknowledges that she has had great role models in her mother (GG) and grandmother (Henrietta).
Her volunteer resume includes 20 years with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and a predominance of lifecycle events, from birth to marriage to end-of-life. For example, she is doula at Highland Hospital, a public hospital in Oakland where she helps welcome babies into families that might not have the insurance or financial means to hire a private doula.
Her interest in being a marriage commissioner was sparked in 2008, when, after California’s Supreme Court struck down laws denying same-sex marriages, she took her then-10-year-old daughter, Ariel (now a 21-year-old studying in Israel), to the Oakland courthouse so they could witness the dramatic moment in history when any “people who love each other could marry each other.”
Since then, she estimates she has married at least 100 couples of all stripes, but it’s the same-sex marriages that remain especially touching for her. “When I perform a marriage ceremony,” she says, “I try to look at the couple, how they look at each other. I see the love they have and I am so happy that love can finally be recognized.”
One of her most memorable volunteer experiences was with Zollie, an elderly Holocaust survivor whom Sue visited often at his home in Oakland, sometimes with Ariel and her son, Adam. “I was the last person to see him [Zollie] at Kaiser the day he passed away,” Sue recalls.
She continues to visit Chaya, another local survivor who has been in hospice care for 1½ years. She is sometimes accompanied by Adam, a 17-year-old senior at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco who wrote about the influence Chaya has had on him for a college-entrance essay.
Professionally, Barbara used to teach first and second grade, including children with cerebral palsy. In between her volunteer gigs, she is a real estate agent, but her real love is being a real estate “matchmaker,” helping buyers find the perfect agent. “It’s very Jewish,” she says.
At this point, GG turns to Sue with a suggestion: “I think you should open a new business. Tell people, ‘I can marry you, I can birth your baby and I can help you purchase a home.’”
Sue chuckles before sharing a more poignant response.
“If I can bring some happiness and light and goodness to people, it gives me a lot of joy. Both mom and I feel if we can make someone laugh or smile, or if we can make someone’s life better, that’s our job as human beings and Jews. To help each other.”