Mary J. Gaines, 85, worked to keep Reservoir Hill safe

October 03, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Mary Julia Gaines, who for years led the effort to keep her Reservoir Hill neighborhood free from trash and drug dealers, while making it clean and safe for residents, died of heart failure Wednesday at ManorCare Health Services in Roland Park. She was 85.

Born and raised in Essex County, Va., the daughter of farmers, she came to Baltimore in 1940.

For more than 60 years, until suffering a stroke this year, Miss Gaines worked as a housekeeper for several North Baltimore families and since the early 1950s had lived on Newington Avenue, where she was known as "Miss Mary."

"In the early 1970s, she was instrumental in getting the neighborhood in the 700 block of Newington Ave. involved with the clean block program sponsored by the Afro-American newspaper," said a son, Tyrone M. Gaines, a neighborhood activist who was a founder and is current president of the Reservoir Hill Coalition.

"She got flower boxes for the windows and made sure that stoops and gutters were swept and clean and trash was picked up. It became a year-round program, and the Reservoir Hill Trashbusters was a spin-off from what Mom was trying to do," said Mr. Gaines, who also founded the Reservoir Hill Rivalry Community Basketball League.

Miss Gaines also kept an eye on neighborhood children.

"If they were out of order, she'd told them - it made no difference to her - what was right was right, and what was wrong was wrong," Mr. Gaines said.

Miss Gaines wasn't afraid to take on the drug dealers who attempted to ply their trade in her block of Newington Avenue.

"The drug guys respected her. They called her `Mom' or `Miss Mary,' and if she saw them sitting on her stoop, she'd tap on the window, and they'd say, "Sorry, Miss Mary,' and then would move along," her son said. "If she heard loud cursing, she'd tell them to pipe down, because children lived in this neighborhood."

Miss Gaines was also known for the cane she carried and used to underscore her verbal suggestions.

"She wasn't abusive with it, but she'd give you a gentle tap and that's all she needed to do to make a point," Mr. Gaines said.

"She just wanted things to be decent and the way they're supposed to be. She wanted children to be able to be outside and safe and play in a clean place," said Dorothea E. Knox, a neighbor and friend of 50 years. "She was always up and out early in the morning, and if she saw someone drop trash or a coffee container, she'd strongly say, `Pick up that trash. You know where it belongs.'"

She added: "She was always trying to make things easier for children. She wanted them to do better and get an education. She believed in that."

Miss Gaines worked for many years for Lynn McLain, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

"She was the first lady of Reservoir Hill. She may have been slight of stature but she had such an inner strength and didn't take any guff. One time she even fought off a mugger," said Ms. McLain. "She was very wise and intelligent and let nothing beat her down."

"So many people make a big deal of themselves, but she didn't. She was a strong person with a strong personality who always gave this advice: `Trust God. Always do the right thing. And keep on moving,'" said Joan H. Erwin, a longtime friend. "She was a proud person and when she went to work, she went in the front door, not the back."

Miss Gaines was an active member of Greater Hope Church of God and Christ.

"She was a member of the Mother's Board and loved to cook at church. When she was in the kitchen, we had to stay out of her way because she was always ripping and running," said Mrs. Knox, who also attends the church. "There wasn't anything that Mother Gaines wouldn't do to help someone. We're both country folks, and we believe in people not going without."

"She'd take food off her table to feed the needy. She gave money to kids so they could get school supplies and clothes. She didn't have a lot, but what she had, she shared," her son said.

Miss Gaines enjoyed collecting ceramic and wooden elephants, which she displayed in her home.

Services for Miss Gaines will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at her church, 413 N. Gilmor St., Baltimore.

Also surviving are another son, Ray L. Gaines of Randallstown; two sisters, Carey Marshall of Baltimore and Hattie Holmes of Philadelphia; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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