Louise B. Wise, 99, Baltimore Opera Guild president

October 11, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Louise B. Wise, a founder and first president of the Baltimore Opera Guild, died Sunday of heart failure at her daughter's Lutherville home. She was 99 and had lived in Guilford for many years.

Recalled as an accomplished hostess, she is credited with building up a volunteer constituency which has contributed enthusiasm and money to the city's opera company for more than 30 years.

Born Louise Berry in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised in Oak Park, Ill., she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, where she was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

As a young woman, she played the piano and sang, developing a taste for 1920s and 1930s popular music that she kept for the rest of her life. She was also close to her brother, Raymond Berry, an engineer who designed the mechanical lifts and stage of Chicago's Lyric Opera.

In 1925 she married Gerald S. Wise, a Sears Roebuck executive who moved to Baltimore to inaugurate and then run the national retailer's first Baltimore department store at North Avenue and Harford Road. He died in 1991.

Mrs. Wise was present at a gala 1938 ribbon cutting at the store, an event that was covered live on local radio stations and accompanied by pages of newspaper advertising. Family members said that as part of the promotional ceremonies, thousands of women's handkerchiefs were sold for 25 cents apiece. Mrs. Wise was later presented with an embroidered pale blue-and-white Chinese handkerchief as a keepsake of the day.

A member of the Wine and Food Society, she was an accomplished cook. Friends recalled she often made two signature dishes - a date soufflM-i and candied grapefruit rind, which she put up in glass containers and sold at charity events.

In 1969, after years of attending local opera performances, she joined other patrons to found the Baltimore Opera Guild, a group that lent financial support to the musical ensemble. She regularly opened her Stratford Road home for fund-raising parties, including a 1980 luncheon associated with the Bal Renaissance Elegance, the opera's annual celebratory ball.

"She was a charming lady with a wonderful sense of humor," said Michael Harrison, director of the Baltimore Opera. "She loved opera and music. She remained a bright spot on the Baltimore cultural scene. She lived the old Baltimore tradition - gracious and thoughtful. She always made the best of a situation. She never dwelled on anything that was unpleasant and unhappy. She was very witty. She was good with a bon mot."

Family members said that one night she was entertaining Rosa Ponselle, the Metropolitan Opera diva who lived in Baltimore. After one of Mrs. Wise's meals, dinner guests asked the soprano to sing. She agreed, but asked to be compensated with a bottle of Chianti, a libation that the Wises kept on hand especially for each aria the diva performed.

"She made a significant contribution to her city," said Clarisse B. Mechanic, owner of the Charles Center theater. "She opened her home to gather people together who supported the opera. She left Baltimore a better place for all her work."

The Rev. Ernest Smart, Mrs. Wise's former pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, where she was a 60-year member, described his congregant as having an unforgettable personality.

"She was a welcoming person, wise, with a strong sense of humor," Mr. Smart said. "She was the matriarch of her family and had a marvelous memory. She could recall the smallest detail of people, sports and music."

Mrs. Wise is survived by two daughters, Mary Louise Franz of Baltimore and Elizabeth Wise of Lutherville; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. A son, Charles P. Wise, died in 2000.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at St. Stephen's Traditional Episcopal Church, Mays Chapel and Jennifer roads, Timonium.

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