George Hopkins

George Hopkins (Baltimore Sun / December 12, 2011)

R. George Hopkins, a retired Anne Arundel County funeral director who filled his lawn each year at Christmas with handmade decorations he created and his basement with admirers of his model railroad empire, died Dec. 6 of cancer at Baltimore Washington Medical Center.

The Crownsville resident was 61.

The son of an Aberdeen Proving Ground firefighter and a homemaker, Ray George Hopkins, who was known as George Hopkins, was born in Elkton and raised in Betterton.

After graduating from Chestertown High School in 1970, he enrolled at McAllister Institute of Mortuary Science in New York City, from which he graduated in 1971.

He completed his apprenticeship at Singleton Funeral Home and began his career as a funeral director at the Glen Burnie funeral establishment.

In 1989, he and his partner, David Hovatter, purchased the business, where Mr. Hopkins worked until 2008, when he suffered a traumatic brain injury while taking down Christmas decorations, which left him disabled.

Last year, he sold his share of the business to Mr. Hovatter.

During his long career, Mr. Hopkins was an active member of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, where he had held chairmanships and served as president from 1997 to 1998. He was also a member of the National Funeral Directors Association.

"George was devoted to the community and his partner, David. He loved what he did and gave more than he took," said Pam A. Hovatter, who is also a funeral director at Singleton Funeral Home and the wife of David Hovatter.

"He always put our families first, and if he could possibly humanly do something for them, he did. He was always staying late and working well into the night," she said. "He also made sure the funeral home was decorated inside and out at Christmas."

"We started together in 1972 after he finished his apprenticeship. We were more like brothers than business partners," said Mr. Hovatter. "He had sincerity, dedication and was very low-key. And through the years, he took care of lots of people."

"I've known him for more than 35 years, and I think he was the best funeral director I've ever known. He was very good at helping families heal," said Tom Helfenbein, who is also a funeral director and an owner of Fellows, Helfenbein & Newnam Funeral Home.

"He was also very good as an artist and an embalmer, which made him a wonderful first-generation funeral director. Most often, funeral directors come from a family of funeral directors," he said. "But being Mr. Christmas was a big deal in his life."

"George loved Christmas and won numerous holiday decorating contests. He also won awards for the most decorated house in Anne Arundel County," said his wife of 38 years, the former Sandra May Lusby.

Mr. Hopkins created three scenes for his front yard, his wife said, which he began organizing right after Thanksgiving.

"He was a funeral director, and this was a great diversion. He'd come home from work and start working on it. The first thing he did at Thanksgiving was to start making bows," she said.

"He had the Nativity, a Santa Claus with 12 reindeer, and a horse-drawn sleigh with two horses and mannequins of a man and a woman. He would alternate the scenes from year to year," said Mrs. Hopkins.

In the backyard, Mr. Hopkins had recently created a skating scene with a Manhattan skyline.

"An expert carpenter, he made everything outside of the mannequins, which he purchased, from wood, wire and papier-mache. He made all of it, and it was … very artistic," his wife said.

"He'd be out there late at night with a flashlight pounding stakes into the ground and setting everything up. Some nights he only got three hours of sleep," she said.

Mr. Hopkins, who began collecting trains in his boyhood, was an avid model railroad fan and created a large operating layout in the basement of his home.

"When we lived in Glen Burnie, he couldn't set up the trains, but when we had this house built, he had a special room built. He got a train room, and I got a sewing room," said Mrs. Hopkins.

"He had Lionel trains. He had so many I can't even begin to tell you. The layout that took up the whole room had farms, cities including tunnels. There were trains pulled by steam and diesel engines," said Mrs. Hopkins.

Mr. Hopkins' trains were the centerpiece of an annual Christmas open house.

"He loved Christmas and that party. They'd be in the train room shoulder to shoulder looking at the trains operate," said Mrs. Hopkins, who said her husband enjoyed showing off his railroad to other interested groups.

Mr. Hopkins was also a member of the Glen Burnie Lions Club and assisted each year at the Glen Burnie Carnival. He was a member of the Glen Burnie Improvement Association.

He was a communicant of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Crownsville, where funeral services were held Friday.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Hopkins is survived by a daughter, Martha M. Sidlowski of Severn; a sister, Patricia Schuyler of Denton; and two granddaughters.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com