Irene Butterbaugh

[ Age 85 ] World War II cryptographer, who established and ran the gift shop at the Walters Art Museum

November 10, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Irene M. Butterbaugh, who had been a World War II cryptographer and later established and operated the Walters Art Museum's gift shop, died of Parkinson's disease Tuesday at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville. She was 85.

She was born Irene Martha Hussey in Baltimore and raised in Irvington. She was a 1939 graduate of Western High School and earned a bachelor's degree in Latin and Greek from Goucher College in 1943.

After graduation from college, she took a job in Washington as a civilian employee of the Navy doing top-secret code work. Her assignment was to try to break U.S. weather codes in an effort to make them stronger and less vulnerable to being broken by the enemy.

So sensitive was the nature of her work that she was unable to tell her father where she commuted each day.

"She did break a weather code but only once," said her husband of 59 years, Thomas E. Butterbaugh, a retired Baltimore public school educator. "She never talked much about her work because they had been sworn to secrecy, and if they had talked during the war years, they would have been punished by death."

After the war, Mrs. Butterbaugh went to work at what is now the Walters Art Museum as an assistant to the librarian and worked handling rare manuscripts and assisting researchers.

She later established a mail-order department for the museum's Gallery Publications, where she oversaw orders for holiday cards and Henry Walters' 10-volume portfolio of his collection, The Oriental Ceramic Art.

"Irene is credited with making a very successful mail-order business with our Walters' Christmas cards, which were very famous. She'd take the orders and made sure they were mailed," said William R. Johnston, associate director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the museum.

He described her as a "very hard-working, diligent and devoted employee, who had a wonderful sweet sense of humor. When we opened the new building in 1978, she opened the gift shop and while it was small, it was very good."

Mrs. Butterbaugh was a member and former treasurer of the Museum Store Association, a national organization.

After retiring in 1978, Mrs. Butterbaugh was able to volunteer full time with her husband.

"Throughout our lives, we did everything together, because we had the same interests," Mr. Butterbaugh said.

The couple volunteered with Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland and, from 1976 until 1996, at the B & O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City.

With their friends, Herbert Groh, a veteran Baltimore tugboat captain, and his wife, Doris, the Butterbaughs began volunteering on the steam tug Baltimore, which was built in 1906 and was undergoing restoration at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

"Irene and I scraped plenty of paint. We worked on the wheelhouse windows and restored the tug's wheel," Mrs. Groh said yesterday.

In 1988, the Butterbaughs and the Grohs heard about the SS John W. Brown, a Baltimore-built, World War II Liberty ship, that was due to arrive in port for restoration by Project Liberty Ship, an all-volunteer organization, and they joined up.

Mrs. Butterbaugh was on Pier One the day the ship arrived in Baltimore in August 1988, busily selling hats, shirts and other memorabilia to maritime fans and the curious who had gathered to welcome the vessel.

"She brought all of her talents she had used at the Walters to the ship's store onboard the Brown," said Mrs. Groh, who worked alongside her longtime friend in the shop.

In addition to her work in the ship's store, Mrs. Butterbaugh helped with clerical work and keeping the membership roster current until her health began to fail.

She and her husband enjoyed traveling by ship and had taken more than 40 cruises, including three trips around the world aboard Holland America Line and Cunard Line ships.

She was a fancier of cats and dogs, and an avid gardener.

Mrs. Butterbaugh, a former longtime Ellicott City resident who had lived at the retirement community since 1992, was a lifetime member of Memorial United Methodist Church in Irvington.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow in Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at Charlestown, 719 Maiden Choice Lane.

Also surviving is a niece.

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