Irona Pope

East Baltimore Community Activist Fought To Improve Schools And Help Low-income Residents Buy Houses

July 12, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Irona Pope, a street-savvy community activist who defended East Baltimore schoolchildren, died of a blood infection Tuesday at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Lakeside resident was 69.

Born Irona Elizabeth Lee in Baltimore, she was raised in the old Fort Holabird and Lafayette Court public housing developments and was a 1958 Dunbar High School graduate. She earned an associate's degree from Baltimore City Community College and a bachelor's degree from Sojourner-Douglass College.

When her children were attending public school in the 1960s, she volunteered as a cafeteria aide.

"My mother didn't fear anyone," said her daughter, Irona "Candy" Thompson of Baltimore. "If something was wrong, she was going to speak up against it."

At that time, she was a resident of Perkins Homes, an East Baltimore public housing development. She soon began speaking up for its residents and worked to have asbestos removed from it, as well as other buildings.

"She was one of the most courageous people I have ever known," said Dick Cook, a University of Maryland School of Social Work faculty member and Charles Village resident. "She would face down a community drug dealer, an abusive parent or an insensitive public official with equal intensity. She got the responses she was looking for."

He recalled her "audacity, her crusty demeanor, her passion for her community and her love of children."

In the 1980s, she helped organize Community Share, a community fundraising effort. She later ran a food co-op on Eden Street that was the subject of news articles in 1999 when a city housing crew mistakenly tore down the building where she distributed food.

She also became the parent liaison officer at East Baltimore's City Springs Elementary School. Many of its students lived in neighboring housing developments.

"Pope is one of the essential personnel in a continuing battle against educational blight," said a 1998 Baltimore Sun profile. "Her never-ending efforts to knit together a frayed community are as important to learning as what happens in the classrooms."

The article detailed her meetings with parents.

"Once you've met me, you'll never forget me," she said. "If you want to make a change in your life and move in the right direction, I'm your very best friend."

The Baltimore Sun's account said that when parents failed to turn in a free-lunch application for a child, she would find them in church or track them down at the nightclub. She took to court those parents who couldn't get up in time to deliver a child to school.

"Don't go plucking her nerves. She's not playing," the article said.

Mr. Cook, who also directs the Social Work Community Outreach Service at Maryland, said that Mrs. Pope helped more than 40 low-income families become homeowners, helped others to get good jobs and assisted more to stop taking illegal drugs.

"She saved the lives of many children by giving them the shelter of her own home when their parents were unfit or unable to do so," Mr. Cook said.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Huber Memorial Church, 5701 York Road, where she was a member.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include three sons, Alexander Pope, Thomas Pope and Brian Pope, all of Baltimore; two brothers, Sherman Lee of Baltimore and Ronald Nance of North Carolina; three sisters, Patricia Lee, Rosalind Hargrove and Jacqueline Hargrove, all of Baltimore; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. A son, Roland Lee, died in 1991. Her husband of 30 years, Alexander Pope Sr., died in 1987.

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