Ruth W. Rehfeld, an activist who spent four decades championing city neighborhoods, died of cancer yesterday at Roland Park Place. The former Mount Vernon resident was 75.
Director of Northwest Baltimore Corp. in the 1970s, Mrs. Rehfeld was recalled for her vigorous promotion of citywide racial understanding and neighborhood preservation through enforcement of zoning laws.
Born Ruth Wolf in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, she left her home in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. She lived briefly in Sweden with a foster family before moving to Baltimore and the Mount Washington residence of Bea and Sam Strouse, who sponsored her through a Jewish welfare organization. Two siblings also moved with the help of other families.
She was a 1947 graduate of Western High School and earned a degree in history from Goucher College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
She began her long association with liberal causes and social issues as a worker with Americans for Democratic Action in the 1950s, and was a researcher for the Baltimore Metropolitan Area Study Commission, which recommended a form of regional government 40 years ago. She was education director of the Citizens' Planning and Housing Association from 1963 to 1967 and remained active in its committees until her death.
In the late 1960s, she became a community organizer for the old Provident Hospital on Division Street, and during the next decade was a community organizer and later executive director of Northwest Baltimore Corp., representing neighborhoods along the Park Heights Avenue corridor.
"Ruth knew the zoning code better than most zoning attorneys," said Alfred W. Barry III, CPHA board president. "She mastered the city's ground rules. She always came prepared. She was a formidable community activist who saw neighborhood revitalization as the backbone of the city."
In 1975, she became director of the women's division of what was then the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund. She was the AJC communications director in 1985, then assistant campaign director until 1988. She then directed the Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore, a group whose members worked to strengthen relationships in the African-American and Jewish communities.
She and her husband of 33 years, R. Rex Rehfeld, a stockbroker, made their home on Park Avenue in Mount Vernon until recently, and Mrs. Rehfeld was one of the downtown neighborhood's strongest advocates.
"I celebrate every time when a house gets bought by somebody who's going to live in it," she said in a 2000 Sun article about Mount Vernon.
"She was the eternal optimist about Baltimore," said Gilbert Sandler, a retired public relations executive and friend whose late wife was a member of the Strouse family. "There was never a time when she was down about the city."
"She was a phenomenal human being," said Charles L. Smith, acting director of the Midtown Community Benefits District. "She cared about everything in Mount Vernon, from the way the tree wells looked to the zoning here. She was the only person I knew outside of City Hall who could quote accurately from memory, line for line, the zoning ordinances. She was the backbone of the Mount Vernon community."
"She was the quintessential volunteer," said Christopher C. Hartman, former CPHA director. "And when she joined, she actually did something. She argued her case extraordinarily eloquently. She believed in people and, boy, she was a tough fighter."
Mrs. Rehfeld served on numerous civic boards and committees, including the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, New Democratic Coalition, Park West Medical Center, Women's Housing Coalition and Neighborhood Design Center.
She was a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and its social action committee for four decades.
Mrs. Rehfeld received numerous honors, including the Frances Morton Froelicher Civic Statesmanship Award from CPHA in 2000, and the Sidney Hollander Award of Distinction in 1992 from the American Jewish Congress. She was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame by the Baltimore City Commission for Women in 1999.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.
In addition to her husband, survivors include her two daughters, Dr. Carla Wolf Rosenthal of Baltimore and Lore Lyon Rosenthal of Savage; a brother, Dr. Ernest Wolf of Chicago; a sister, Lore Wolf Levi of Baltimore; two stepsons, Edward B. Rehfeld of Washington and Andrew Rehfeld of St. Louis; and four grandchildren. Her marriage to Walter Rosenthal ended in divorce.