Ernestine R. 'Ernie' Uncles

Social worker spent her four-decade career working with those who had fallen through the cracks of the system

May 07, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Ernestine R. "Ernie" Uncles, who as social services liaison for the mayor's office worked tirelessly for more than 40 years helping to improve the lives of the forgotten, homeless and impoverished, died Saturday of cancer at her Bolton Hill home. She was 69.

"She was a legend in Baltimore. When anyone had been evicted, had no food, was in poverty or had some other emergency, you called Ernestine," Tom Saunders, who retired from the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, said Thursday.

"She was the contact and she had a big heart, but you couldn't run a game on her — because she knew every story," he said. "People couldn't work her over with a phony story."

The daughter of a construction worker and a housekeeper, the former Ernestine Rose Wilson was born in Baltimore and raised on Eden Street. She was a 1958 graduate of Dunbar High School and attended what is now Coppin State University.

Mrs. Uncles began her career with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services in 1969 and held positions in the special investment unit, income maintenance division, information and referral office and the director's office.

For the last 30 years of her career until retiring in March because of failing health, she was "on loan" from the department to City Hall, where she worked in constituent services for Mayors William Donald Schaefer, Clarence H. "Du" Burns, Kurt L. Schmoke and Sheila Dixon.

"The thing I most remember were all of the troubled individuals who would come into City Hall looking for someone to talk to and when they had made the rounds, they finally found solace in Ernestine," said Mr. Schmoke. "She was willing to talk to anyone and she had a very calming effect on them."

Mrs. Uncles' work earned her the sobriquet of "The Saint of Social Services."

"I've known her for 23 years, going back to my days in the City Council," said former Mayor Sheila Dixon. "The number of people she touched over the years was just incredible. She touched thousands. You could go to any corner of Baltimore City, mention her name, and people knew who she was."

Ms. Dixon said, "Anytime you needed to help a constituent or a distressed person who needed housing, food stamps, you called Ernestine."

She added: "Her spirit was never broken. She was always cheerful and supportive and had just a phenomenal spirit. It really is very unusual to find someone like her in government."

Mrs. Uncles came "face-to-face daily with the homeless, the poor, the street people — those who have 'fallen through the cracks' of the social system," said a 1982 profile in the old Sunday Sun Magazine.

"She has a talent for cutting through red tape that frustrates many of the needy when dealing with government agencies, making sure that the homeless have a meal and a place to stay, the soon-to-be evicted a place to go, and the angry a sympathetic ear," said the article.

Lauretta Brown is deputy director of the mayor's Office for Constituent Services and a longtime colleague and friend.

"I remember Ernie from the Schmoke days, when she was an expert in dealing with social service issues and problems in housing. Once you met her, you never forgot her," said Miss Brown.

"I can't tell you how many people she got housing for. She also told them how to manage their money. She always wanted to give them a leg up and there wasn't anything that she wouldn't do to help them," she said.

"Ernie went well beyond the call of duty. She worked and worked until she got the assistance that an individual needed. She had a lot of resources and her knowledge was amazing," said Miss Brown. "She had a gift. There will never be another Ernestine Uncles."

Miss Brown also recalled her friend's modesty.

"She absolutely wouldn't let you do anything for her," she said.

During the 1970s, Mrs. Uncles hosted "A Child Is Waiting," which aired on WJZ-Channel 13.

"It was a show that encouraged people to become foster parents or adopt children," said a daughter, Lisa Betina Uncles, who lives in Fells Point.

Mrs. Uncles also had a second career as a real estate agent and focused on helping low-income people purchase affordable homes, family members said.

In addition to her work, Mrs. Uncles had two passions: parades and hats.

"They called her 'The Hat Lady,' " her daughter said, because she was seldom without her fashionable millinery.

"During the 1960s and '70s, she loved wearing turbans and in recent years wore broad-brimmed hats. She had eight different cowboy hats which she enjoyed wearing in her collection," Ms. Uncles said.

Mrs. Uncles also enjoyed attending parades both local and out of town.

"She'd go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York and when I was living in St. Thomas, she'd come for the carnival parade," her daughter said. "When there were parades in the city, she often marched with the mayor."

Mrs. Uncles' husband of 16 years, Norman W. Uncles, a postal worker, died in 1977.

Private services were held May 2.

Also surviving are two other daughters, Sherri Lynn Uncles of Bolton Hill and Dawn Maria Uncles of Fells Point; six sisters, Phyllis Moody and Ann Blair, both of Baltimore, Betty Bell and Anita Beasley, both of Randallstown, Evelyn Marshall of Owings Mills and Aleese Wilson of Texas; and two grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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