Elizabeth Louise Gambrill Bunn, a musician and former Maryland Blue Cross/Blue Shield analyst, died of post-polio and stroke complications Oct. 13 at St. Agnes Hospital. She was 79 and lived in Catonsville.
Born in Baltimore and raised on North Carey Street, she was the daughter of Nathaniel Gambrill, who worked in the painting industry, and Helen Louise Waters, who worked for the Social Security Administration.
Known as Betty, she attended the Henry H. Garnett School and was a 1955 graduate of St. Frances Academy, where she was a soloist in the school choir.
“My mother was a person of exceptional tenacity and perseverance,” said her daughter, Gabrielle Bunn-Goodman. “She was afflicted with polio at the tender age of 2, and she survived the treatment of the disease. She matured and developed a rich life despite her infirmity.”
An elementary school friend, Anne Taylor, said, “She had a beautiful voice and high spirits. Never did you hear any sadness from her.”
In her early years, she sang at community events. Her daughter said Mrs. Bunn studied piano and vocal music with Peabody Conservatory faculty members.
“Friends encouraged my mother to go on the stage,” said Ms. Bunn-Goodman, a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “She walked with a pronounced limp and was afraid of falling before an audience. My mother would inspire audiences with her rich contralto voice. She had the tone colors of Marian Anderson and Sarah Vaughn,. She would sing the ‘Ave Maria’ but she also loved singing ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ from ‘Show Boat.’ ”
For several years, Mrs. Bunn was a substitute teacher in Baltimore City’s public schools.
At age 19, she married jazz trombonist Robert Archie Bunn and raised three children, all of whom she endowed with a love of music.
“She had a musical talent that was unfulfilled because of her polio,” said her daughter, who lives in West Roxbury, Mass. “But she inspired her children to be musical and pursue their careers. She imbued them with a with a love of music and a spirit of achievement.”
Once her children were in school, Mrs. Bunn returned to college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University. While working as a social analyst at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Towson, she earned a master’s degree in sociology from Coppin State University.
“I think of Mrs. Bunn and her family as the first family of African-American musicians in Baltimore today,” said a friend, Milton A. Dugger Jr. “Her husband played trombone, she sang, and her children went on to great things.”
More than 40 years ago her health began to decline with progressive complications from post-polio syndrome.
Though Mrs. Bunn was confined to a bed from about the age of 50, she continued to encourage her own children and others in their musical pursuits.
“My mother would go through great pains to be present on occasions that recognized milestones in her children’s careers,” her daughter said.
She said her mother watched as her children went on to work with the Miracles, Sun Ra, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, the Black Men of Broadway at Carnegie Hall, and Michael Buble.
“With a great effort, she made it to the opening of a gala for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum while she was in a wheelchair,” her daughter said. “She listened to her son David Alan Bunn’s composition, ‘Live the Dream: A Soulful Fanfare’ performed by the Baltimore Symphony.”
”She was a woman of uncommon Christian faith,” her daughter said. “Throughout her many trials, she was never heard to curse. Instead, she said, ‘God is good!’ ”
A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at New All Saints Roman Catholic Church, 4408 Liberty Heights Ave. A musical tribute to Mrs. Bunn performed by family members begins at 10 a.m.
In addition to her daughter and her son, who lives in Randallstown, survivors include another son, Robert A. “Tony” Bunn of Crofton, who is a bassist; a stepson, Jeffrey Bunn of Richmond, Va.; a brother, Michael Gambrill of Catonsville; and a granddaughter. Her husband of 49 years died in 2007.