John F. Ehlers, 98, founded rescue mission open to all in 1950s

November 30, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

John F. Ehlers, a businessman who founded an open-to-all gospel mission in the era of racial segregation, died Monday of heart failure at Ginger Cove Health Center in Annapolis, where he had lived for 12 years. He was 98 and had lived previously in Baltimore's Windsor Hills neighborhood.

When he learned in the mid-1950s that Baltimore had no shelter for homeless black people, Mr. Ehlers established the Baltimore Rescue Mission, which today houses more than 200 people a night and is one of the largest gospel missions on the East Coast.

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Eh- lers was raised on the grounds of Loudon Park Cemetery in Southwest Baltimore, where his uncle worked and the family lived. He had little formal schooling.

As a 17-year-old, he joined the Western Maryland Railway and operated an industrial crane used to clear tracks after accidents.

When a strike ended that job, he moved north and installed telephone wires at the Philadelphia Bourse, the city's financial center, then returned to Baltimore as a machinist for Pennsylvania Water & Power Co.

He made an unsuccessful attempt to start an aluminum utensil business in the Norfolk, Va., area, then learned basic sales working at Baltimore Gas Light Co. on West Redwood Street, where he sold floor lamps.

In 1935, he merged two interests - selling and electricity - by taking a job with Ohio Carbon Co., which supplied brushes for electric generators and motors. That led to the founding of his successful business, Electric Motor Supply Co. in the 300 block of Gay St., in 1949. He renamed the business TEMSCO in 1971 and retired about 12 years ago.

Mr. Ehlers was an active layman in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and traveled widely distributing Gideon Bibles.

"He was a dedicated man who had a vision," said Charles E. Buettner, director of the mission. "He saw the needs of the African-American community and never forgot it. He returned to the mission on a weekly basis until six or seven years ago."

Harry Kauffman, a friend and former business associate from Reisterstown, said, "Sometimes in the evening, if a fellow didn't show up - a down-and-outer - John would go out and look for him. He would know where to go and he would bring him to the mission."

He established the rescue mission in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Ave. in 1956, after a Baltimore woman was killed by a homeless man. It provided hot meals, warm showers, clean beds, health care and detoxification to men and women, regardless of age, creed or race.

For nearly 40 years, he preached there every week. The mission is now on the east side of downtown, at Baltimore Street and Central Avenue, and has accommodations for 236 people in men's and women's shelters.

"He cared for homeless men, alcoholics, men in trouble, men on the street," said Ed Scoggins, who in the 1940s and 1950s directed Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street, another of Mr. Ehler's charities. "He gave of his time and his money. He was loyal to what he believed in."

Mr. Ehlers helped found Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Annapolis, Belcroft Bible Church in Bowie and the Maryland Camp of Gideons International.

He is survived by his wife of 69 years, the former Ruth Garber, and a sister, Judith E. Kline of Hagerstown.

Graveside services were held yesterday at Lorraine Park Cemetery.

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