As one grand passion ends, another lies ahead Lobbyist: Sue Hess has spent the last two decades working for Maryland arts. The next two decades are for her.

June 08, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Sue Hess has been heard to say that when she falls in love, she falls in love forever.

This explains much about her life, including her long love affair with the arts -- a romance she has shared with Maryland for two decades.

As president of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts (MCA), Hess has spent the years coaxing, cautioning, and convincing politicians that the arts should be an integral part of every life and should receive government support. By just about anyone's reckoning, her tenure has been a terrific success.

Under her leadership, state funding for the arts rose from $463,584 in 1977 to $8.5 million in 1999. And in 1994, MCA lobbied successfully for a law that requires the governor to propose at least the same amount of money for the arts as the previous year. Arts supporters now consider the Maryland law a national model.

"Sue is driven by her passion for the arts. It's a religious fervor: Her belief that it is so important to have arts throughout life, and her deep affection for people," says Mary Ann Mears, a trustee for MCA.

"Legislators and artists sense that those are the things that drive her, and they respect it enormously."

But even grand romances may end, and this month, Hess is retiring as the state's leading arts lobbyist. To mark the occasion, she will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor's Arts Awards at ArtSalute on Wednesday. The festivities will include a musical tribute to Hess sung by museum directors, symphony presidents, state legislators, a congressman and at least one former governor.

"My first 20 years of life I spent being a daughter. The next 40 years were for family, as wife and mother, and later, for Maryland Citizens. I was lucky: It was like having it all," Hess says.

"But the next 20 years are for me."

Event organizers have asked Hess to provide them with photographs and memorabilia from her life, and she is embracing the task with the same zeal with which she approaches everything else. Which explains why, on a recent, brilliantly sunny day, she is in her north Baltimore home sifting through heaps of awards, newspaper clippings and old letters.

It is a long process.

The house, like her life, is filled to the brim, but is not cluttered. Its front hall is lined with duck decoys from the Eastern Shore. The living room, with its white rug and white sofas, is dotted with paintings or signed prints by Grace Hartigan, Marc Chagall and Joan Miro. Bookcases hold wooden carvings from Japan, porcelains from China, a decorated egg by Mitzi Purdue. Nearby is a crystal bowl filled with beautiful rocks and an antique inlaid box from Bangkok that holds a collection of plastic view-finder key chains purchased in Ocean City and filled with tiny family photos.

There's a letter of thanks from former National Endowment for the Arts chairwoman Jane Alexander. And a photo of Hess standing arm and arm with Richard Thomas -- John Boy of "The Waltons."

Here, above the stair landing, are the enormous wooden masks that Hess secretly bought while traveling in Australia with her late husband, John, and hid from him, mailing them home in giant boxes. There, flung over the banister, are the camel bags the couple purchased in the Mideast.

Every photo, every antique, every curio, every hanging tapestry here -- from the beaded Masai chokers to the snapshot of the Hess family, kids and all, hurtling down the Snake River in a raft -- comes with a story.

Not a sedate story. A passionate story. A warm story. One that involves many, many people and includes guffaws, digressions, explanations, sighs and occasional bursts of song. And each story, of course, leads to another.

How about the time she broke her wrist while sightseeing in Turkey? Or that night she met at a party the man who would be her husband for 40 years. Or how she feels about Indian food. Or those summers when she invited politicians, including then Gov. Harry Hughes, to her house for crabs ... and a little lobbying. Or that time last year when she performed scenes from Macbeth for her granddaughter's class.

"Do you see these?" Hess asks, pointing at throw pillows scattered on the sofas. Each is needlepointed with scenes from musicals: "Hello Dolly," "Gypsy," "The Sound of Music."

"I used to needlepoint a pillow every time I was in a show."

Her love of theater was sparked in eighth grade. Blame Mrs. Harris, the English teacher at Baltimore school No. 49 who made her students recite Shakespeare. "We did 'Hamlet,' " Hess says. "I was hooked from that moment on."

Perhaps it was inevitable: After all, this was a child who took elocution lessons as a 4-year-old growing up on Park Avenue in Reservoir Hill. And piano lessons (which she hated) and ballet lessons (which she loved).

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