Honoring a man steeped in the city's past

Many gather to celebrate Hopkins' 90th birthday and his decades of service

December 08, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Descended from Maryland Quakers and Massachusetts Puritans, Samuel Hopkins grew up on a Howard County farm in the Roaring '20s, walked to a one-room schoolhouse and rode a buggy to Ellicott City. The Baltimorean says his devotion to history and civic service stems from something simple he loved as a child: "Listening to the older people talk."

Tales were told of the cousin who was a nurse in the Union Army and, on the other side of the family, a dashing spy fighting for the Confederates in the Civil War. Much talk centered on the family-owned Ellicott's Mills -- the forerunner of Ellicott City -- as a hotbed of the industrial revolution and early anti-slavery ferment in Maryland.

But yesterday Hopkins listened to younger people talk --including Mayor Martin O'Malley -- at his 90th birthday party, held at the Maryland Historical Society. The mayor, along with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, welcomed 200 guests gathered to honor the retired financier's lifework as a guardian of city parks, a stalwart in Republican politics and a preserver of collective memories.

"Sam has quietly stood as one of Baltimore's greatest pioneers, sharing his talents and love for Baltimore and its history," O'Malley said.

Mention was made of Hopkins' run for mayor during the Eisenhower era -- he lost to Democrat Thomas D'Alesandro Sr. -- as proof of his optimism because Republican mayors in Baltimore are rare. Since then, he served as president of the city's recreation and parks board and as a planning commission member.

As a birthday surprise, O'Malley told the well-wishers, the city will work with state officials to find the funds to repair the battered roof of Clifton Mansion, a summerhouse that was a legacy of Hopkins' great-great-uncle, Johns Hopkins. "A new roof on Clifton means that generations for a long time to come can enjoy the mansion," O'Malley said.

Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century Quaker merchant, railroad and real estate investor, and philanthropist, endowed at his death a new university bearing his name.

Decades later, his great-great-grandnephew, known as Sam, graduated from the Johns Hopkins University during the Depression. Sam Hopkins served as a Navy ensign in the Pacific during World War II. He worked as an investment banker, retiring from Alex. Brown & Sons, where he was a partner.

Now, the father of four sons projects easy warmth in a self-appointed role as keeper of the family deeds. It's an extended family tree with roots that go back to Puritan John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

He spends most days in his portrait-filled Guilford home with his wife, Anne, reading American history in his favorite armchair as the grandfather clock announces the hours. Of the 17th-century Puritans, Hopkins said, "They hated anybody who didn't agree with them. There was no middle ground."

Closer in time, place and philosophy are his 19th-century Baltimore Quaker relatives -- whom Hopkins speaks of as if he knew them personally.

Martha Ellicott Tyson, his great-great-grandmother, was a founder of Swarthmore College and the biographer of Benjamin Banneker, the African-American astronomer close to the Ellicott family. Maj. Andrew Ellicott surveyed the District of Columbia land, with Banneker as an aide, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson. And Elisha Tyson (Martha's father-in-law) was widely seen as Baltimore's fiercest foe of slavery. When he died in 1824, his funeral procession, joined by black and white people, was the largest Baltimore had yet seen.

Hopkins, an Episcopalian, says the Ellicotts and Tysons are alive in his mind. "They were very much part of my life," Hopkins said. "These people were not ostentatious, but much more egalitarian than others. They were ahead of their time."

He characterizes his background as classically American, with its competing strands: "It's a little bit of everything."

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