Peggy Ewing Waxter at 100

The grand dame thought she'd have a few friends over, and 200 of them showed up, from high society to Hampden

May 03, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Sometime after her 99th birthday, Peggy Ewing Waxter began thinking about what to do for the next one.

She decided on something intimate, with just the immediate family and all the other people who have helped her reach the 100-year mark while continuing to live on her own, in the same Roland Park house she moved into 70 years ago.

"You don't get to be 100 without a lot of help," she says.

So, when the invitations started going out, chief among the planned guests were: her pharmacist, her newspaper carrier, the operator of her neighborhood hardware store and the hairdresser who, when getting to her Hampden salon became too much of a chore for Waxter, began bringing the salon to her.

Of course, despite such plans, one cannot necessarily expect a 100th birthday to remain a quiet and staid affair, especially when one is Peggy Ewing Waxter.

Between relatives, admirers and longtime friends; those who have helped her and those she has helped; representatives of both high society and hardware store and, yes, the hairdresser, hundreds streamed through Waxter's home Saturday to say happy birthday to a woman they say - as activist, volunteer, friend and benefactor - has made the world a better place.

Wearing a blue dress, sitting in a chair with her walker at her side, in a house festooned with cakes and flowers - "I said no gifts, but flowers keep arriving" - Waxter greeted and chatted with them all.

As a ragtime band played in the background, friends paid tribute to Waxter - or "Ga Ga," as she's known to some of her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren - in song, ode and edict.

A proclamation by Mayor Martin O'Malley praised her "tireless energy" and "relentless persistence" in fighting, since the 1920s, for causes ranging from integration to the rights of children, women and the elderly, and decreed May 1, 2004, "Peggy Ewing Waxter Day."

Waxter's response: "What do you do with a day?"

The proclamation was read by John P. Stewart, executive director of the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education, who also told the crowd that the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens - named after Peggy and her late husband Thomas J.S. Waxter - has begun raising funds for a $5 million renovation. Praised as a model facility for seniors, the Mount Vernon center, which the Waxters endowed, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Thomas Waxter came, like his wife, from wealth. Like her, he devoted his life to helping the less fortunate.

After attending Princeton and Yale, he went to work for a Baltimore law firm. In 1929, he became the first president of Baltimore's Legal Aid Bureau, which was formed, at his urging, to help those unable to afford lawyers. He served as a chief magistrate to the juvenile court and, in 1935, became the first head of the city Department of Welfare, which he also helped form. He later became director of the state Department of Public Welfare. He died in 1962.

"He was the most important man in Maryland," Peggy Waxter said in an interview Saturday. "He loved the poor people, and he went to Annapolis and fought for them."

As for her own contributions, Waxter is too humble to talk about them, her friends say.

"She comes from a very moneyed class of people, but she's lived a very modest life, and her heart has always been with the underdog," said longtime friend Normie Harris.

"Every time you wanted to start something in Baltimore, and you needed somebody who was a creative thinker, she was the person to go to. It was, `We'll have a party and we'll raise some money.'

"She was part of starting so many things - the University of Maryland Center for Infant Study, the Children's Guild of Baltimore, the Maryland Committee for Children. She is a catalyst. She has lots of vision," Harris said.

"And she looks absolutely great," she added. "There's nothing shriveled about her. She does use a walker to get around now, but you'd never believe she was 100."

Typical of a Waxter party, there was a hat to throw donations in at Saturday's party. The recipient was the Maryland Food Bank, run by Waxter's nephew, William G. Ewing.

"Her party is so in the spirit of who she is," said Harris. "She's invited the man from Schneider's Hardware, the man from Tuxedo Pharmacy, her doctors. I think she's invited half of Roland Park."

`It started out small'

"It started out small, but it's gotten beyond me," Waxter said before the party. "I think people think it's something to be 100. I don't think it is, but I guess they do."

Originally, she was planning to invite just the people who help her survive day-to-day: "Doctors, secretaries, the drug store, the hardware store, my live-in help, my family - they've really been a very good family - all the people who take good care of me so I don't have to go to a retirement home."

But then, she said, the invitation list "went out of control."

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