For two decades after World War II, Myrtle Kennerly ran what was undoubtedly the loudest, noisiest, most cacophonous and best-loved boardinghouse in Baltimore.
Mrs. Kennerly rented 42 rooms to music students from the Peabody Conservatory, who played trumpets, trombones, pianos, clarinets and sang arias and operettas all at once 12 hours a day every day of the week. Her boarders remember her as the stern but motherly proprietor of 707 St. Paul St., a handsome, brick Mount Vernon townhouse that became the most-favored domicile for Peabody students from 1945 until 1969.
Mrs. Kennerly is 93 now and a bit more frail than she was when she ran 707 with a cast-iron hand and a butter-soft heart. But she has hardly forgotten one of her Peabody boarders and few have forgotten her.
She came north from her home in Port Charlotte, Fla., for a reunion at the Ramada Inn in Towson yesterday with about 50 of her "boys" and "girls, many of whom have lots of gray hair and grandchildren of their own. No one, of course, can top Mrs. Kennerly, who has two children, nine grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
She signed copies of a memoir she's written with one of her "boys," Lionel Petrelli, a tenor who now lives in California. Their collaboration has produced a charming, chatty book that sounds like conversation you might have heard at the dining room table in Mrs. Kennerly's boardinghouse.
"I used to lay in bed at night and think about what I'd put in my book," she says. "And I finally did it. And I did it my way."
Don Doughty, now 56, stayed at with Mrs. Kennerly from 1956 to 1960. He came to Peabody from a military school and was flabbergasted when Mrs. Kennerly gave him his own key and said he could come and go as he pleased -- within her strict limits.
You couldn't practice your music after 10 o'clock at night, let alone kiss anyone on the doorstep.
"She had her rules and she was just as tough as a drill sergeant," says Mr. Doughty, who taught music for 30 years in Montgomery County and at Hood College in Frederick, where he lives. "But on the other hand, she was just as lovely and caring as anybody could imagine. If you ran short of money, you could always go to her for a couple of bucks to see you through. But you better pay her back on time."
Her boarders called her Mrs. Kennerly, Mrs. K. or Ma Kennerly, depending on whether they'd just been caught with a girl or boy, wanted a bigger breakfast, or needed a loan.
She thinks perhaps her most famous boarder was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, a professor of theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. In a telephone conversation, he remembers her as very firm, but not tyrannical.
"You didn't get away with much," says Mr. Argento, the composer of "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf," which won the Pulitzer in 1975. "She wasn't a tyrant but she had an eagle eye."
He lived at 707 for about three years after he entered the conservatory in 1947, part of that remarkable wave of students ++ who went to college on the GI Bill.
"We were really a bunch of rowdies," says Mr. Argento, who is widely regarded as one of America's lead
ing composters of opera. "She really couldn't give anyone of us an inch."
He remembers Mrs. Kennerly's standing on her famous polished cherry staircase, her arms folded on her ample bosom, confronting potential transgressors.
"She stood up there like a general addressing a bunch of privates," he says. "I don't remember a sentimental word."
Mrs. Kennerly comes by her toughness naturally. She says her father, William Horn, met her mother on a wagon train rolling into the Oklahoma Territory.
"Both of them were Gypsies," Mrs. Kennerly says. She was born in the Territory in 1902. In 1907, Bill Horn took his family to the Panama Canal Zone, where he worked on the construction of the canal.
During her years there, Mrs. Kennerly met President Teddy Roosevelt and told him jokes, stumbled over boa constrictors on the way to school, and sailed aboard the first official ship through the canal.
She and her mother came to Baltimore after her father died in 1919. She met handsome, blond Ben Kennerly at the Tunnel of Love in Carlin's amusement park in Northwest Baltimore . They did a little bootlegging during Prohibition, running alcohol to Washington with their son, Charles, asleep in the back seat for ballast.
"I was a bootlegger by proxy," Charles Kennerly says.
Mrs. Kennerly was relieved when her husband became a butter-and-egg man. In 1939, they bought 707 St. Paul and went into the boardinghouse business. A few Peabody students stayed with them during World War II, but mostly they housed war workers.