Jean R. Worthley, host of popular MPT nature show in the 1970s

Jean R. Worthley, a Maryland naturalist who with her orange-winged Amazon parrot Aurora hosted Maryland Public Television's popular children's show "Hodgepodge Lodge" during the 1970s, died April 9 in her sleep at her Finksburg home.

She was 92.

"Miss Jean's series was instrumental in bringing the wonders of nature to children who didn't usually have the opportunity to explore it," according to a statement announcing Mrs. Worthley's death from MPT President and CEO Larry D. Unge. "It is said she taught with a gentle outlook and inquisitive spirit."

"Jean had an unqualified love of the outdoors, and she had an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of plants, flora and fauna and knew their Latin names," said Lynell Tobler, vice president of Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc.

"As a person, she was absolutely effervescent and bubbly and was so enthusiastic about life and science," Ms. Tobler said. "And she wanted to share her knowledge with everyone."

The daughter of Francis Sydney Reese, a U.S. Department of Agriculture lawyer, and Waiva Dean Reese, a homemaker, Jean Reese was born in Pasadena, Calif.

In 1927, she moved with her family to Glide, Ore., where they homesteaded for seven months on 160 acres of land. They then moved to Owings Mills and in the early 1930s, because of her father's work, to Mississippi.

They returned to Maryland in 1934 when they settled at Lone Hickory, a 111-acre family farm on Bonita Avenue in Owings Mills, where as a child she rode horses, milked cows, tended chickens and searched the fields and forests each spring for bloodroot, hepatica and wild huckleberries.

A 1940 graduate of Franklin High School, she was 15 years old when she entered Goucher College, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1944.

She became a Navy WAVE— Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — in 1944 and served as a communications officer until being discharged in 1946.

From 1946 to 1948, she attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on the GI Bill of Rights, where she earned a master's degree in entomology and zoology.

While there, she met and fell in love with Elmer George Worthley, whom she married in 1948.

She returned to Lone Hickory in 1949 and began graduate studies in human development and child study at the University of Maryland, College Park, where her husband was also a student.

From 1957 to 1969, she founded and directed two Episcopal preschools, one at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Reisterstown, and the second at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Garrison.

After 13 years of teaching preschool and inspired by the building of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting studios next door to her farm, Mrs. Worthley walked over one day and applied for a job. She was named executive producer for children's programming.

She produced and starred in "Hodgepodge Lodge," a children's nature show that aired weekday afternoons from 1970 to 1977 on MPT's Channel 67, and was syndicated on educational stations from Maine to the District of Columbia.

Mrs. Worthley, who was known as "Miss Jean," hosted the show, whose opening theme song was a jaunty tune with lyrics that included "We're off to the forest to see Miss Jean."

The show used two Hodgepodge Lodge sets, an interior studio one, and an 8-by-10- foot lodge built behind the MPT building that had a stone chimney.

"As deliberate and placid as Mister Rogers, Miss Jean would welcome her young audience each day to her lodge and to the 'Discovery Table,' where a snake, turtle, rabbit or mole would be freed from her gunnysack. Almost every animal would appear," reported The Baltimore Sun in a 2007 profile.

Her constant companion on the show was her female parrot, Aurora, who would be by Mrs. Worthley's side or perched on her shoulder, and lived to be 38.

"Her show wasn't just a televised petting zoo. There were field trips, tips on starting 4-H clubs and gentle reminders on caring for the environment. The show wasn't live; it just felt like it," reported the newspaper.

At the close of the show, Miss Jean gave what was called her signature "Queen Victoria" wave and asked viewers to "come back soon."

By the time the show ended in 1977, she had appeared in more than 1,000 half-hour broadcasts.

"It was a wonderful chapter in my life," she told The Sun in 2007. "I felt like I was Cinderella — jumping from a kindergarten teacher to TV."

In 2008, the outdoor Hodgepodge Lodge, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored and donated to the Howard County Conservancy, where it became an interactive nature exhibit geared toward children.

From 1977 to 1978, Mrs. Worthley was a co-host with her husband, a noted botanist, of "On Nature's Trail," a 26-episode show produced by MPT that focused on plants indigenous to Baltimore County.

After her husband's death on their 43rd wedding anniversary in 1991, she continued teaching a weekly botany class that he had started in 1971 and conducted in their home.

Together with friends William and Frances Fastie, the couple worked to keep Soldiers Delight, a 2,000-acre tract, out of the hands of developers who were looking in the 1950s to develop the Owings Mills site.

The Citizens' Committee for Soldiers Delight Park, which was founded in 1959, is now Soldiers Delight Conservation Inc.; Mrs. Worthley was a longtime member of its board.

"She had a love of life and a deep curiosity and was always stretching the boundaries until the end of her life," said Tina N. Beneman, who hosted and wrote MPT's "Good Earth Garden," an organic gardening show, during the 1980s.

"Jean had an enormous impact on my life. I was an ardent home gardener, and she urged me to do 'Good Earth Garden.' She recognized capabilities in me," recalled Ms. Beneman.

In the 1980s, Mrs. Worthley and her husband moved to a 14-acre farm in Finksburg that they named Two Below because there were two ponds below the house.

She was the author of "The Complete Family Nature Guide," which was published in 1976 by Doubleday. She also supported the Oregon Ridge Nature Center, Cylburn Arboretum and the Irvine Nature Center.

She was a member for many years of the Maryland Ornithological Society, the Brooks Bird Club, Maryland Horticultural Society and the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine.

In 2013, a plaque was unveiled on MPT's Walk of Fame that commemorated her numerous contributions to the station.

Mrs. Worthley donated her body to the Maryland Anatomy Board, and plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

She is survived by three sons, Kimball Worthley of Hanover, Pa,, Asa Worthley of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and George Worthley of Corpus Christi, Texas; two daughters, Waiva Worthley of Liberty, Mo., and Heather Worthley of Seattle; a brother, Andrews Reese of Salisbury; and four grandchildren. Another son, William Worthley, died in 2014.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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