By Loni Ingraham
5:16 PM EDT, July 15, 2013
Jon E. Stephens is an institution within an institution.
For more than 50 years, the Towson woman has worked as a floral designer for Radebaugh Florist & Greenhouses, a fourth-generation family business, which has been serving Towson and the Baltimore metro area since 1924.
Just don't ask her how old of an institution she is.
One of her five children — the oldest is 60 now — looked at her closely the other day and said, "Mother, you don't have any wrinkles."
"I told her I didn't have time to get any wrinkles," Stephens said.
She's a self-described, Baltimore-bred "nice Catholic girl," who for 60 years has lived in the same house in the Greenbrier section of Towson, in which she raised her children.
It's within walking distance of Radebaugh's, which is a good thing since she didn't get her driver's license until she was in her 60s.
Her husband left her when their youngest was 5 months old. While at the grocery store she'd say the rosary, praying the $20 bill she held was enough to pay for the order. It's a good thing her mother taught her to pinch pennies, she said.
The fifth of five girls, she was named Jon Edmonds when she was born in Mercy Hospital more years ago than she'd like to admit.
"I guess they wanted a boy," she said.
The nuns wouldn't allow her the name Jon because it wasn't the name of a saint, so they recorded her name as Joan. But she's pretty sure it's Jon on her birth certificate — if it ever shows up.
According to her friends and colleagues, Stephens herself is as nice to have around as the floral arrangements she has created.
"Everybody loves her," said Radebaugh floral designer and close friend Kathy Serio, who has worked with her for 13 years. "She'd do anything for you."
Steve Radebaugh, now the corporation treasurer, has been her boss since 1975. He was 12 when they first met. Now he's a grandfather several times over.
He didn't know anything about the shop when he took it over after his Uncle George retired, he said.
"But I decided to give it a shot. Jon E. was part of that nucleus of very talented and loyal people who gave me on the job training," Radebaugh said.
She only works part time at Radebaugh's now. They call her in when things get really busy.
Radebaugh said when she worked full time she had a huge following.
"People would call in, and they'd all ask for Jon E. She was just a natural. She could take anything and make it look beautiful," Radebaugh said.
Pat Cahill, a chum from Stephens' college days who considers her a second sister, recalls Stephens decorating the Cahill's new home in Fox Chapel for Christmas more than 50 years ago.
"Jon E. did the mantel and all the wreathes," said the Mercy Ridge resident. "And later she did the wedding bouquets for my three daughters. She's extraordinarily talented. They were gorgeous. I wouldn't have had anybody else do them."
Former Hampton resident Mary Helen Dennis, who now lives in Blakehurst, is also a longtime customer.
"I've had her do my flower arrangement for years," she said. "Her work is beautiful, artistic and imaginative. She's wonderful. I can't say enough about her or her talent."
Stephens has always enjoyed her work, she said, because, "I just love flowers. If you love flowers, you'll do good stuff."
She had fun helping people and if they didn't know what they liked, guiding them toward something that she liked.
"I especially liked working with the difficult ones," she said.
'It's happy stuff to do'
Stephens is creative at more than floral designing. At one time, she was a decoupage fiend, she said.
"In the 1990s, if you weren't moving around (inside my house) you'd get painted on."
Over the years she has built a following as an artist, too, painting and creating handmade items.
She has parlayed her talent and, love of flowers and Baltimore into a family business of her own.
It's called Baltimore Classics, and it offers for sale, many with Baltimore scenes and themes, handcrafted notepaper, clay row house ornaments, hand-painted bookmarks, bird plaques and whimsical greeting cards.
Co-owned by her daughter, Marie Betz, it's the reason Stephens is rolling out clay instead of pastry dough in her kitchen and her dining room table usually has brushes and paints on it instead of silverware. (Go to Baltimoreclassics.etsy.com)
"I never have time to be lonely," she said. "All my little paints and my clay talk to me. It's happy stuff to do."
Meanwhile, looking back on her years at Radebaugh, her biggest challenge "was getting home in time to fix dinner for the kids when they were young," she said.
Now that Steve Radebaugh has a family of his own, he understands how difficult it must have been for her, considering the crazy hours in the floral business on holidays. But she never complained, he said.
"The secret is I enjoy life," Jon E. said. "I really do. You either enjoy life or you don't. I try to have fun."
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