Kathryn W. Burch

The oldest alumna of Goucher and Johns Hopkins, who served as a social worker, dies at the age of 109.

October 23, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Kathryn W. Burch, a former social worker and the oldest alumna of Goucher College and the Johns Hopkins University, died of heart failure Oct. 16 at College Manor, the Lutherville nursing home. She was 109.

"She missed the 110 mark by 58 days, but what a ride," said son H. Whistler Burch of Mays Chapel.

Kathryn Whistler was born at Maplewood, her family's 40-acre farm at Fountain Green on the Bel Air Pike in Harford County, during the first administration of President William McKinley and the Spanish-American War.

"I was born at home across the road from where my father was born," Mrs. Burch said in an extensive recorded interview for Goucher College some years ago.

She was the daughter of Henry Whistler, a farmer, cattleman and owner of a fertilizer company. He was related to the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler.

"I'm Whistler's cousin and not his mother," she told a Sun reporter in a 2006 interview. "I'm related but not close enough to talk about him."

Mrs. Burch received her primary and high school education in the same one-room schoolhouse near Bel Air.

"She and her sister either walked the three miles to school or were taken in a horse-drawn carriage," her son said.

Her father later purchased an automobile and was one of the first Harford County residents to own one.

After earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Goucher College in 1921, which was then located in Charles Village, and a master's degree in the discipline from Hopkins in 1923, Mrs. Burch worked as a social worker for several years with the Henry Watson Children's Aid Society.

After her father's death in 1928, her family settled into a spacious rowhouse at Calvert and 28th streets.

She stopped working in 1933 when she married Charles Combs Burch, who later established The Burch Co., manufacturers of storm doors and windows. The company is still in business.

"He lived next door and used to bring other girls to his home and it made me mad. So I played my piano real loud so he knew that I knew what he was up to," Mrs. Burch told a reporter in 2006.

Mr. Burch died in 1960.

Mrs. Burch liked to recall going to the window of her Harford County home on Feb. 7, 1904, and seeing the red glare in the sky that was cast from the Great Baltimore Fire.

"She talked about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the advent of electricity, and World War I and II," her son said.

In The Sun interview, Mrs. Burch remembered the old-fashioned Harford County Christmases of her girlhood.

"Christmases back then were ... country affairs, with everyone busy getting ready, and there was always lots of snow in those years. It was so pretty and made it feel and look like the way Christmas should," she said.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, Mrs. Burch and her three siblings would go to the railroad station with their father to pick up arriving relatives.

"Father would hitch up the horse and sleigh, and we'd go through the snow over to Belcamp and pick up Mavie, Euretta and Maggie, who were arriving from Philadelphia on the B&O. We did this every year," she recalled.

The Christmas morning breakfast menu never changed, she said, and always featured pigs' feet served with hominy and sauerkraut.

Because there were never fewer than 10 guests, Christmas Day dinner always featured a 22-pound turkey from her father's flock.

Mrs. Burch, a lifelong Republican, cast her first vote in the presidential election of 1920, when women were able to vote for the first time because of the passage of the 19th Amendment earlier that year.

"Her first vote was for Warren G. Harding, and her last for George W. Bush," Mr. Burch said. "She voted in person until she was 102 and then thereafter by absentee ballot."

Mrs. Burch followed no particular health regimen, and ate and drank what she liked.

"She loved to eat good food. She grew up in the country, where things cooked in lard were what you ate," Mr. Burch said.

Her son said that Mrs. Burch enjoyed attending parties and liked to sip an occasional bourbon and water.

Mrs. Burch had lived on Wendover Road in Guilford from 1933 to 1986, when she moved to Southerly Court, a Towson condominium. She lived with her son from 1998 until 2004, when she moved to College Manor.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Andrew's Christian Community Church, 5802 Roland Ave.

Also surviving are a grandson and a great-granddaughter. Another son, Charles C. Burch Jr., died in 2001.

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