Clementine Peterson has many years of doing good for city

November 14, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"Baltimore's a good size," says Clementine Peterson. "It's big enough to need you and small enough to be convenient."

That's 100 talking. Or to be more accurate, 99.99.

Clementine Peterson, also known as Mrs. Duane L. Peterson, and to her many friends as Clemmie, will turn 100 years old on Thursday, and the Baltimore that has needed her this past half-century is singing her praises.

A week ago the Baltimore Choral Arts Society gave a concert in her honor.

Thursday afternoon she will be given a party by 23 organizations and institutions that owe her a debt of gratitude -- from the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and the Baltimore Community Foundation to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Villa Julie College. The list could be twice 23 and still not exhaust the recipients of her philanthropy, her time and her efforts on behalf of her adopted city.

The same evening the Peabody Opera will dedicate to her its production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring," which Mrs. Peterson has underwritten, as she does one of Peabody's operas every year. And on Saturday friends and relatives from across the country will gather at her home for another party.

She's looking forward to it all in the same spirit she's brought to all her activities here. "I owe a thank-you to Baltimoreans for making this possible," she says. "I appreciate their friendship and their interest, which I hope will continue. And I appreciate the attention they've given me when I'm interested in any project."

Over the past 20 years, since the Duane and Clementine Peterson Charitable Fund was established, it has given about $12 million away, according to its longtime manager, John Lalley, including a recent $1 million to Johns Hopkins University to establish a chair in ethics and another $1 million to Western Maryland College to fund the restoration and renovation of its Fine Arts Building.

Mrs. Peterson is mostly bedridden with arthritis now, but "She is the youngest century-old person I've ever met," says Robert H. Chambers, president of Western Maryland, where she has been a board member since 1969. "She's quite sharp, has all of her business acuity and a great sense of humor." She has not only taken an interest in the redesign of the Fine Arts Building, Mr. Chambers says; "She wants to come out and see it, before and after."

First loves

Her first loves have always been education and the arts, especially music and, above all, opera. Over the years, Mr. Lalley says, she has given about $500,000 to the Baltimore Opera Company. At the Peabody Conservatory she established a vocal prize, a piano prize, and an endowment that will continue to underwrite an opera a year. The Walters Art Gallery received $100,000 in 1986 toward the renovation of its 1904 building. At Center Stage, her donations are in the five figures, and at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, her benefactions range from funding a scholarship to giving books to the library.

"When she had her 85th birthday party," says Center Stage managing director Peter W. Culman, "she said, 'Today is my birthday and traditionally on one's birthday one gets presents. But I'm going to do something a little bit different. I'm going to give a present. I'm going to make a contribution to Center Stage. And,' she added, 'I'm certain they can use it.' "

Her educational interests include St. John's College, Boys' Latin School, St. Paul's School for Girls, the Medical College of Pennsylvania and the Independent College Fund of Maryland, in which her husband was a major force.

The Peterson fund's beneficiaries run to four pages double-spaced, according to Mr. Lalley. But the interests of Mrs. Peterson and her late husband, after they came to Baltimore from the Midwest in the 1940s, were even wider, ranging across the civic landscape. She was president of the Women's Civic League, the first woman member of the Baltimore Planning Commission, the only woman member of the Governor's Transit Committee, leader of the community division of United Appeal ++ (now the United Way), president of the Baltimore Area Girl Scout Council and first woman on the executive board of the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, a member of the Committee for Streamlining State Government, and much more.

Despite the number of her associations, she has never been one simply to give money or to lend her name and let others do the work. "It's more important to give of yourself," she says. "That's the most important thing of all."

"Clemmie picks things and sticks with them," says Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, of which Mrs. Peterson has been a board member since it was founded 28 years ago. "She's intensely loyal. And she has always viewed her participation in terms of how to get other people involved. We have board members who have joined because Clemmie put the arm on them. And when she gave to our endowment fund, she put up money to match money, as an incentive and motivator."

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