Remembering Jean H. Hepner, beloved grandmother and Fells Point community activist

I’m still processing the death of my grandmother this weekend, on Saturday night. I haven’t shared any updates anywhere about it online. I’ve gone through several stages of grief, from disbelief to numbness to acceptance and deep sadness. You never know how long you’ll have with some one. Some times, they’re gone in an instant.

News of her death was in the Associated Press yesterday, along with local news yesterday.

The circumstances of her passing feel at once banal and extraordinary. My grandmother and her longtime partner, Ben, were driving back home from visiting his son and grandchild, just outside of DC. According to state police, around 6:30 PM he hit another vehicle on the Beltway and lost control of their car, hitting the jersey barriers on the right before veering across the road to hit another on the median and come to a stop.

Passersby pulled over and quietly committed an act of heroism, pulling them both from the car before it caught fire. I’m grateful to these good Samaritans, who may well have saved Ben’s life and tried to save my grandmother.

After the Maryland state police arrived and saw the extent of her injuries, and called in a helicopter to medevac her to the Maryland Trauma Center. Sadly, she passed in flight, despite the efforts of the paramedics and the doctors and nurses in the ER. [Virgil Ruben Carlson passed away from his injuries one week later.]

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My sister, thinking of “Mom Mom” this morning, shared an item from the “Fells Pointer,” a publication from the neighborhood that she and my grandfather, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., moved to in September 1968.

My grandmother not only renovated the 18th century townhouse that she, my grandfather, uncles and a troop of Boy Scouts rescued from ruin, in other words, but became a pillar of the early community of preservationists who moved into the then-decayed houses of Fells Point and then fought to protect the entire historic neighborhood when government officials sought to run an expressway through the area.

As my sister Susanna Brennan Buchta noted in her remembrance of her, our grandmother was both “an indomitable spirit and community activist”:

“…she and her fellow members of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point probably saved Baltimore. Without their efforts to stop the expansion of I-95 straight through our historic Inner Harbor, Baltimore could well have become another Detroit. Instead, we got our ‘second wind’ and a beautiful waterfront attracting millions of visitors and capital to invigorate vibrant neighborhoods.”

These neighborhoods are now the jewels of the Baltimore of today. While the city still has immense challenges, from poverty to crime to urban blight, the revival that began in the late 1960s and fiercely defended by men and women like my grandmother in the “expressway revolt” will endure for decades to come.

Jean Harvey Hepner had just turned 90 as 2014 rolled over. She lived a long, full life, raising 4 children, including my mother, her eldest. She leaves behind dozens of grieving family members and friends, including this eldest grandchild who is grateful for last Christmas, when Mom Mom was able to meet and connect with Allegra, her first great-grandchild, and the six weeks in the summer of 2005 when I stayed with her in Fells Point, finishing renovations that my grandfather had begun in the 1980s.

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Today, I’m remembering nearly 4 decades of my life with her, from the wonders of Boxing Day to the fun of egg hunts on Easter to halcyon summer days on the coast of Maine. I’m glad that we had the time to visit the Robert Long House in Fells Point and walk around the beautiful garden that she had painstakingly, methodically researched and planted with the flowering plants and herbs that would have been present in colonial Baltimore, when the house was originally built. My grandmother knew an enormous amount about plants, a passion and knowledge base that she passed on to her children over the decades, along with any number of other things.

One of the most precious gifts she ever gave me was a perfect Meyer lemon from the tree that resided in her sunny drawing room on Fell Street. I made one of the best lemon-butter sauces of my life with that fruit, and reserved the zest from the skin for many deserts and dishes to come to boot. My grandmother would have approved of that thorough use. As a child who came to age during the Depression, she reserved, preserved and even hoarded all kinds of things, from string to hardware to any number of baskets, button and doodads that I found fascinating as a child.

I still have an index card, somewhere, inscribed with her simple, spectacular recipe for Maryland crab cakes, although I stopped needing to consult it long ago: some skills, once your grandmother teaches you to do them, become engraved in your memory for lifetime.

I miss you so much already, Mom Mom.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Remembering Jean H. Hepner, beloved grandmother and Fells Point community activist

  1. Melvin Bey

    I pulled her out of the car. I’m sad she did not make it, but she knew people were helping her, and may she now rest in peace.

  2. K. Wilding

    Jean would be proud. Thank you Alex.

  3. Alex, my condolences for your loss. Thank you for this remembrance; when we lose someone we love at least they can live on in us. You should post her crabcake recipe.

  4. Joel Gurin

    So sorry to hear. A beautiful tribute to someone who was clearly a wonderful woman.

  5. Jim Hepner

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece on Jean.

    Jim

  6. The passing motorist was myself and a guy named Brian Rose, who works for AAA. I would like to pay my respect and at her viewing. I did not know who Jean was and it did not matter after reading your blog, I see she spent a lot of time helping, so it was only right she got help that night. There was another crew of people who helped as well although the news is saying one guy helped them both. The other folks helped Ben out of the car. I don’t know you or your family but out of respect for Mrs. Hepner, I thought I’d let you know.

  7. What a wonderful tribute. Peace to all.

    Ruth

  8. William J Earley

    A very fine woman who will be missed. Anne & myself live across from the Robert Long House and remember Jean working long hours in the garden….allways sporting her sun hat. She will be indeed missed.

  9. Denise Whitman

    I met Jean in 1979 in the Robert Long House Garden. We talked about gardens and historic preservation and the neighborhood. She was a long time friend and mentor. May God rest her soul and ease the burden of her loss to family and friends.

  10. Very sad, she will be missed.

  11. Katy Greene Davis

    Jean and Ben were my nieghbors for 20 years, 20 years of House Tours, Fun Festivals and heated Neighborhood meetings followed by refreshments at the bar at Bertha’s. I cut Jean’s hair one day and she gave me her Boy Scouts camping cowboy coffee pot!!, which I water my plants with to this day. Hazzzaaaaa to Jean Hepner , one hell of a Fell’s Point Gal Extroidinaire!!!!!
    Katy Greene Davis

  12. Alex: That’s a very moving tribute. Jean sounds like a tremendous lady. My condolences to you and your family.
    Melvin: What you and Brian did is admirable. I know that was a rough experience.
    May God bless you and give your peace.
    Ed

  13. A lovely tribute to your Grandmother . . . so sorry for your loss

  14. Peggy Smith Savchik (Ben's son's wife's sister)

    A lovely tribute to Jean! As a part of Ben Carlson’s family, I had the pleasure of getting to know Jean just in the past few years. Her spark for life was such a joy even as she was in her late 80′s! A role model for all of us.

  15. Kathleen Dragovich

    Jean cared deeply about her community, and we all loved knowing her. I will remember her lovely, warm smile and seeing her working in the Robert Long House garden.

  16. Mothers and grandmothers are such a blessing to us. May she rest in peace..

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