Accentuating the positive for more than 31 years

Ever practical and ever upbeat, Floraine Applefeld wraps up decades of finding the city's and state's best

March 14, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

Floraine B. Applefeld has boxed up her last Maryland You Are Beautiful scarves, T-shirts, cups and tote bags and donated them to charity, one of her final official acts as a troubadour of good deeds and positive thinking.

After serving three mayors and three governors for 31 years, she has decided it's time to step down from what has been a full-time job at a dollar a year.

"Over the years, not too many people turned me down for donations," she said recently, relaxing in her Cross Keys home. "You have to be out in front, because that's how you sell a program."

And sell she has.

"I was raised in a depressed industrial city," she said of the Baltimore of her youth. "Its young people couldn't rush away fast enough. I wanted to make it better."

She has staged 19 annual Maryland's Most Beautiful People events and 12 Baltimore Is Best pageants, plus separate award ceremonies for neighborhoods, senior citizens and schools. She has long been a close ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who spotted her organizational and social strengths (she's still a powerhouse in numerous organizations) when he was in his second term as mayor and she was a Baltimore Museum of Art teacher.

"She is a dynamo," Schaefer said last week. "Floraine never once deviated from the focus of her program."

More than 30 years ago, Schaefer observed Applefeld selecting neighborhoods for award money raised from proceeds at his Mayor's Ball. He asked her to run an idea he had come up with called Baltimore Is Best, which was to select people as "Baltimore's Best."

"He [Schaefer] coined the name. I did the game. I love selling, whether it be ideas or merchandise or the city of Baltimore," she said, adding quickly, "I was the Colonel Sanders of the program."

Her office sought nominations for people who contributed to the city's good. While some well-known figures, such as the late sports columnist John Steadman and East Baltimore homeless advocate Bea Gaddy, were honored, most awards went to people such as Sam Glass, of the G.I. Veterans Cab Co., who helped cancer patients. She called her winners "the saints of the world."

"Floraine is Maryland's brightest star," said volunteer Frank A. Bittner, who lives in Dorchester County's Hurlock, and whose volunteer efforts were honored in November. "That night was one of the greatest in my life: to go to Annapolis, meet the governor, have the buffet and then hear the words `thank you' are the greatest words in any language."

Once, back in 1984, a Sun reporter asked Applefeld whether there was anything in Washington that Baltimore does not have. Her response was immediate:

"Do you know who you are talking to? You've got to be crazy!

"It used to be that you passed through Baltimore; now people pass through Washington on their way here. The only thing that they have over there is a big white house, the White House, with a president in it."

Renaissance woman

Born Floraine B. Rubin, she is a Forest Park High School graduate. She does not discuss her age.

"I am a renaissance woman," she said. "Your mind stays young when you don't put a number on your life."

While a student (and technically underage), she took a part-time job in the children's department at the old Julius Gutman department store in downtown Baltimore, where she learned to sell and was soon promoted to the jewelry counter.

She recalls her father, who was also in sales, dropping nickels in beggars' cups as they walked along Howard Street.

When she asked her father why, he replied, "Because they have less than we do."

The experience stayed with her, as did the strong spirituality her family imparted. Her grandfather was the longtime president of the B'nai Israel Congregation on Lloyd Street. She belongs to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and attends meetings of the Gathering, an interfaith group. In later years, she helped with the planning of the city's Holocaust Memorial. She counts the day it was dedicated as among the most moving in her life.

After leaving the department store, she worked for the Coast Guard at the Custom House and went on to study nights at the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Along the way she picked up proficiencies in shorthand and her self-described "methodical" recordkeeping.

After marrying attorney Leroy Applefeld, she raised two daughters, Lynn Carol and Laurie, and soon began her service with Baltimore Hebrew's sisterhood and the Jewish Community Center, Hadassah and Associated Jewish Charities. She worked in Girl Scouts and was president of the Fallstaff Elementary School PTA.

In reviewing her career, she said she has been impressed by the civic and religious groups and organizations that rarely make the news, but whose achievements contribute to the state's common good.

"She reached down to find the people who give the state its quality of life," said Mary Ann Saar, the state's secretary of public safety and correctional services, who is an old friend.

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