As Dick Dowling enjoys lunch at Galway Bay restaurant in Annapolis on a recent weekday, hostess Ethelda Naomi Kimbo strolls by and quips, "That's my love - don't tell anybody."
Moments later, the 75-year-old Kimbo - known to generations of patrons as "Miss Peggy" - is doting on 4-year-old Katie Galway.
Back at her post by the door, Kimbo tells patrons walking out into the winter chill, "Wrap yourself up good."
"She treats everyone the same, whether she saw them last week or 10 years ago," says Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "She makes people feel like royalty."
Kimbo has been providing the royal treatment at the location, which housed the Little Campus tavern for nearly 50 years.
Whether the slight, neatly dressed Kimbo is greeting Ehrlich administration aides, Naval Academy alumni, lobbyists, lawmakers or the boy who lives a few doors away, the scenes belong to a certain place on the map. Kimbo helps make the state capital feel like a Southern town where time passes, but doesn't disappear.
"She presents something constant in a changing world," says Michael Galway, owner of the restaurant, noting that Annapolis has cycles of people returning to live and work there. And, he adds, Kimbo acts as a human bridge in a town with some scars of segregation: "She doesn't see color. She sees people."
A lifelong Annapolitan, Kimbo walks from her home on Clay Street, in a historically black section, to the restaurant on Maryland Avenue, in a posh neighborhood that is predominantly white. Four days a week, she serves as the hostess at Galway Bay, a popular Irish restaurant and pub near the State House.
The mother of three grown daughters, Kimbo also has four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter with her husband, Leonard, who's retired from the Army. She greets children cordially. She likes to treat them as her "little assistants," gives them menus and crayons and lets them choose their party's table.
She calls alumni of the Naval Academy Class of 1958 "my classmates" after they made her an honorary member, whom they expect to see at Navy football games. Women are frequently "honey" or "girlfriend." Boys might be "my boyfriend" while men are sometimes "my ex-boyfriend."
She says she treats young Irish waitresses as kin because they are, as she puts it, "lovely girls." If they don't behave, she tells them, "I'm writing to your mother."
"She's a universal landmark," says Pierre Pyle, 44, a police officer, while dining at the restaurant recently.
Kimbo greets guests from behind a small station between the bar and restaurant areas.
When Terry Cox, the governor's scheduler, arrives for a meal, she beams and hugs Kimbo, whom she says has a maternal presence. Cox says restaurant patrons count on seeing Kimbo. The next day, after a funeral for retired Navy Capt. William S. Busik at the Navy Chapel, Kimbo moves easily at a reception among high-ranking naval officers and spouses.
Pamela Rempt, wife of the academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, recalls meeting Kimbo in the 1960s.
"I remember when my husband and I were dating when he was a midshipman," she says. "We knew her at Little Campus.
"You never age," Rempt tells Kimbo.
Kimbo worked for 41 years at Little Campus -a restaurant etched in local lore that closed in 1998. When Galway Bay opened in its place, the new owners offered her a hostess position, thinking Kimbo, then nearing 70, would bring in the state capital's regulars, including members of the General Assembly, during the sessions that start in January and ends in spring.
Sure enough, state legislators showed up in force - and dozens attended a surprise 75th birthday party for Kimbo this year. A proclamation from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for her birthday is framed on a wall near the entrance. In 1997, President Clinton paid a visit to Kimbo, with a handshake arranged by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
However changed in time, Kimbo's girlhood world remains a short walk away - though daughter Tira, 42, says there is no such thing as a short walk with her sociable mother.
"That's where I was born and lived, on College Avenue," Kimbo says on a sidewalk by the shingled house where she grew up. "Right near the academy wall. I was delivered by a midwife named Miss Pink in my grandmother's house next door."
Her mother used to sing as she washed clothes at dawn in the 1930s. She worked in nearby houses as a maid, Kimbo says, and her father was employed at the academy laundry for 45 years. Her uncle, who earned a living making upholstery, lived across the street.
"This is where we used to play by the chestnut trees across from chapel," recalls the Bates High School graduate, walking through the academy's Gate 3 at the end of Maryland Avenue.
"I learned to ride a bike at St. John's College," she says. "There were nickel ice cream cones on hot summer days, and you could smell the fish on Friday. Mama could call us from all over."