Peggy Ewing Waxter, 102, advocates restoring center she helped create

Another birthday, a push for change


Peggy Ewing Waxter dispensed some wisdom as she celebrated her 102nd birthday yesterday:

"People are scared at becoming old. But they shouldn't," she said. "It's the most irresponsible time in your life. You can do anything you want and get away with it."

She spoke at the city's Waxter Center for Senior Citizens, the Cathedral Street building named for her late husband and whose creation she so ardently advocated nearly four decades ago. Now, she finds herself campaigning for its renewal.

Precisely at noon, she emerged from a black VW sedan driven by her son, Circuit Judge Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr. Shortly after he extracted a wheelchair from the trunk, his mother had another observation ready about being the oldest person at the party:

"You arrive in a wheelchair and you'll do much better," she said.

The sentiment was true. Within minutes, she was being applauded, handed a bouquet of dark red roses and toasted in song.

"I think it's terrible to get so much attention," she said in a tone that showed she meant it.

The occasion, attended by several hundred well-wishers, also marked the birthday of the Waxter Center. Opened in May 1974, it was then the city's first public senior center and a state-of-the art building that drew national and international visitors.

Peggy Waxter stumped for the center when it was only a concept in the 1960s. Now, years later, she's at it again. The building needs a $5.8 million upgrade, and she appeared twice in the past two years before the Maryland General Assembly to coax money out of state legislators.

For her birthday, she wore a black dress, a red blazer and a summery straw hat encircled with artificial flowers.

"Men liked this hat," she said. "They stopped you on the street and told you how pretty it was. They don't stop any more."

At this point, she said she doesn't believe in buying new hats or anything else.

"I believe in selling or giving away," she said.

She also said it was a time when the young should help the old and the old should help the young.

"They have the energy. We have more sense," she said.

Yesterday's birthday party was held in the Dr. Mason F. Lord Auditorium, named for the physician credited as "one of the fathers of geriatric medicine" in a biography published on a Johns Hopkins University Web site.

Lord, a physician at what was then Baltimore City Hospitals (and now is Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center), became an advocate for the elderly in the 1960s.

Lord believed that older people should not be institutionalized. He advocated independence and socialization for the elderly, as well as the prevention of illness. Dr. Lord, who died at age 39 in 1965, did not live to see his dream.

The center opened May 12, 1974, and was named for Thomas J.S. Waxter Sr., a humanitarian who headed what was then the city's Department of Public Welfare.

"At a time when there was not much public support for senior centers - the concept was so new that voters did not know what they were - my parents backed the city loan referendum," Judge Waxter said yesterday.

The building has been well used over the past three decades, said John P. Stewart, director of the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education. When constructed, he recalled, the center was the largest in the country. It is now wearing out, with leaking plumbing - a first-floor men's room was flooding yesterday - and erratic air-conditioning.

"The seniors are not complaining," Stewart said yesterday at the event. "They have always loved the place and remain enthusiastic."

But its 1970s interior is dark and gloomy, he said.

Baltimore architects Murphy & Dittenhafer have suggested building an entrance on Eager Street and adding more natural light, in addition to upgrading the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire-protection systems. Also on the improvement to-do list are a fitness center, a library, a cafe and a garden at Park Avenue and Eager Street.

About 175 people use the center each day; some 3,200 people are registered on its books. They take classes in computers, sewing, dance, art, music and other subjects.

Sarah Tatum, 84, was one of the first people to greet Peggy Waxter. Tatum lives on Edgewood Street and takes an MTA mobility bus to the center five days a week.

"It's all about my friends here and the good relations we have," she said of her time spent at Waxter. "And it beats sitting home, looking out windows."

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