Rebecca A. Orenstein, the first woman elected to the Westminster City Council, who was also a Carroll County political and environmental activist, died Aug. 31 of pancreatic cancer at Carroll Hospice Center's Dove House. She was 71.
"Rebecca brought a strong feeling for those who might be shut out of the government process or were disenfranchised. She was an advocate for them," said Donna R. Engle, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who covered Ms. Orenstein.
"And she would not hesitate to challenge authority or those in power," said Ms. Engle, who is now a retired Carroll County lawyer. "She had good instincts. When she believed in something, it was a 100 percent, not 50 percent. The various things she believed in, she was passionate about."
The daughter of a movie theater owner and a registered nurse, the former Rebecca Alexis Watkins was born in Atlanta and raised in Greenville, S.C., where she graduated in 1960 from Taylors High School.
Ms. Orenstein was a medical technologist at Greenville General Hospital before moving to Westminster in 1971, when she enrolled at what was then Western Maryland College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1974.
A longtime resident of Westminster's Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood, she owned Rebecca Orenstein Photography, a commercial photography business that she operated from her home during the 1980s and 1990s. She later worked for ARC of Carroll County.
What catapulted Ms. Orenstein into politics was a State Highway Administration plan in 1991 that would have denuded the northern section of Pennsylvania Avenue and East Main Street of 43 mature trees as part of a street-widening project.
She was the founder of TreeAction, a citizen watchdog group whose mission was preserving and enhancing neighborhood environments.
When the City of Westminster decided to re-evaluate the plan in the face of persistent opposition from residents, Ms. Orenstein told The Baltimore Sun in a 1991 interview, "This comes as very good news, but we're still watching and waiting."
In a subsequent letter to the editor of The Sun, she wrote, "I strongly believe the citizens of Westminster are pleading with our elected officials to give us a people-focus downtown, plenty of sidewalk width with majestic trees," which she compared to "pedestrian-oriented towns like Frederick and Annapolis."
After Ms. Orenstein invited then-Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer to Westminster to see how important the trees were to the charm of the city's downtown, he halted the project and appointed her to a task force that designed an alternative that spared the trees.
In 1991, she became the first woman elected to the Westminster City Council in its 225-year history. During her tenure, she focused on recycling, historic preservation and making government more responsive to citizens' needs.
"People should not have to lament for the past," she told The Sun in a 1993 interview. "Hold your politicians accountable. Encourage them to support preservation of historic districts."
Ms. Orenstein also created a successful Saturday farmers' market downtown, encouraged the police to adopt innovative bicycle patrols and worked to preserve the town's environment.
"As an elected official, I feel responsible to know what's going on locally and in the county," Ms. Orenstein told The Sun in 1991. "I love to talk. I have wonderful conversations with friends. We talk a lot and debate political events on all levels."
In 1994, she decided to run for Carroll County commissioner and was defeated that year when voters elected an all-Republican commissioner board for the first time in 24 years.
Defeated for re-election in 1995, Ms. Orenstein moved to Merida, Mexico, where she taught English for five years, before returning to her Pennsylvania Avenue home in 2000.
Finding that her neighborhood had declined into an area frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes, she formed DrugAction in 2002, a citizens group that took down names and license plate numbers of those engaged in criminal activity.
In response, the city formed the Lower Pennsylvania Avenue Advisory Task Force, that later became the Tri-Street Association, where as a member of the task force, she made recommendations on crime, zoning and code enforcement issues that impacted the neighborhood.
Nearly a decade ago, she played an instrumental role in forming Pennsylvania Avenue block parties that fostered a sense of community.
"She believed in livable neighborhoods with reduced crime. These were places where people could feel a sense of community," said Ms. Engle. "She was a very strong advocate for that."
In May 2013, Ms. Orenstein was defeated in an attempt to be elected mayor of Westminster when the incumbent Kevin Utz was returned to office by voters.
"We were at the movie and arts center when she was running for mayor this spring, and there was Rebecca working the crowd and busy buttonholing people while saying, 'I'm Rebecca Orenstein and I'm running for mayor,'" recalled Ms. Engle.
"Rebecca was like that as long as I've know her," she said. "She was always interested in people and was never shy. She was always willing to sit down and listen to their stories."
Patricia A. "Patty" McDonald, a Westminster lawyer, has been a close friend for more than 35 years.
"Rebecca was running for mayor when she was terminally ill. She was still trying to make a difference, and I thought that took a lot of courage. She was a true force of nature," said Ms. McDonald.
"Her activism was her central passion and she wanted to make her community a better place to live, and in doing so, she was fearless," said Ms. McDonald.
"She was also very sensitive to those in our community who were struggling for a better life. She used her many contacts to help them and sometimes it was even financial," she said. "And she never talked about it and I knew that."
Ms. Orenstein was a founder in 1979 of Beth Shalom, Carroll County's first synagogue, and she was also a founder of the county's Montessori School.
In a 1991 Sun interview, Ms. Orenstein summed up her life.
"My philosophy is that life is for the living and not for the watching," she said. "Living is where the magic and the passion are for me."
Ms. Orenstein left her body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
Surviving are her son, Adam Orenstein of Westminster; two brothers, Mike Watkins and Tony Watkins, both of Darlington, S.C.; and three grandchildren. Her marriage to Howard Orenstein ended in divorce.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun