Gail B. O'Donovan, 64, preservation activist

May 12, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Gail B. O'Donovan, a community activist whose efforts resulted in the preservation of a historic African-American church in Ruxton, died of a heart attack Friday at her Towson home. She was 64.

"She was Ruxton's answer to Anne St. Clair Wright, the lady who saved Annapolis. She had a very high energy level and was a community activist in a community where such activism is a fairly new phenomenon," said Joseph M. Coale III, a Ruxton resident, preservationist and writer.

Mrs. O'Donovan exhibited a fearlessness and determination when it came to dealing with public officials or developers over issues ranging from zoning to covenants to historic preservation.

Mrs. O'Donovan had been vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations and for many years had served on the board of the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Improvement Association.

"She was tenacious when it came to historic preservation, and was extremely visible in these matters," Mr. Coale said.

"Gail was a self-starter who was a tireless worker on issues involving protecting the community. She didn't wait for things to happen. If she saw a problem, she got involved and organized neighbors right away. If it weren't for her, our West Towson neighborhood wouldn't have the open space that we now enjoy," said Herbert B. Mittenthal, a Chestnut Avenue resident and former Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Improvement Association board member.

"Because Gail was a prime mover and shaker, things wouldn't have gotten done had she not been involved. She also had played an instrumental role in the negotiations with the Blakehurst retirement community," said Nancy Horst, former head of the Towson Partnership and currently executive director of Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Improvement Association.

In the early 1980s, it was Mrs. O'Donovan who galvanized her community to come to the rescue of the historic Colored Methodist Protestant St. John's Chapel of Baltimore County on Bellona Avenue in Ruxton. She had established the Friends of St. John's to raise funds and restore the long-neglected chapel with its overgrown churchyard and fire-damaged stone parsonage.

The church was founded by free blacks and former slaves in 1833. The current "carpenter Gothic" structure standing in the woods was erected in 1886 on the foundation of a log church that had occupied the site.

Mrs. O'Donovan was successful in raising $108,000 while then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes turned over to the committee $8,000 in federal planning funds acquired by the state from the U.S. Department of the Interior. A $30,000 preservation grant from the Maryland Historic Trust helped complete the work.

In addition to fund raising, Mrs. O'Donovan organized a cadre of adults and young people who enthusiastically wielded paint brushes, cut back brush from the weed-choked graveyard and volunteered endless hours on the restoration project.

Her efforts resulted in the church being placed on the Baltimore County Landmarks List and the National Register of Historic Places.

"When there was a preservation issue in the community, like St. John's, that grabbed her attention, she did not let go," said Judith S. Kremen, who was the first executive director of the Baltimore County Historic Trust and a preservation consultant. "And by standing up for St. John's, she helped people see that the little church was a valuable property not only for African-Americans but the whole community."

She was born Gail Brewington in Baltimore and raised in Homeland. She was a 1956 graduate of Roland Park Country School and earned a bachelor's degree in history from Goucher College in 1961.

She was married in 1960 to Dr. Charles O'Donovan III, a Baltimore internist who is now retired.

While her husband was serving with the Army Medical Corps at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in the early 1960s, Mrs. O'Donovan served as director of volunteers for the local Red Cross blood bank. She also was an active volunteer with Planned Parenthood.

She was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. O'Donovan is survived by two sons, Charles O'Donovan V and E. Patrick O'Donovan, both of Towson; two sisters, Lynn Brewington Havard of Lutherville and Sue Brewington Schier of Westbrook, Maine; and two grandchildren.

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