Several dozen admirers of Johns Hopkins gathered in a cold rain at Green Mount Cemetery Saturday to honor the Baltimore philanthropist who died on Christmas Eve 143 years ago.
It was the 18th straight year that officials of the university and hospital that bear his name got together to commemorate the founder of two internationally renowned institutions.
Hopkins, who died at 78 in 1873 without marrying or having children, lies under a simple slab in the city's premier Victorian era graveyard. He is flanked by three sisters and a brother-in-law who rest under similarly modest stones in a cemetery known for its ornate, sometimes grandiose statuary.
"It's where Baltimore's best were laid to rest," said Wayne Schaumburg, a history buff and retired schoolteacher who conducts tours of the sprawling burial ground.
Schaumburg looked on Saturday as the two adult children of longtime Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea reprised for the 18th time the role they first undertook when they were 13 and 9 years old in 1998 — mounting a wreath before Hopkins' grave.
Caroline O'Shea, 31, and Aidan O'Shea, 27, also observed the tradition of placing pennies on each of the O's on the civic benefactor's stone — supposedly a harbinger of good luck in fundraising for the university and hospital.
Both came from Washington to join their father and others in honoring Hopkins. They said they didn't have to be cajoled into the role — even as teenagers.
"It's like a weird part of our Christmas tradition," Aidan O'Shea said.
The annual gathering is one of several quirky but sincere graveyard events observed only in Baltimore. One is the yearly commemoration of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday at his grave in the downtown Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Another is the Four Frenchmen ceremony held each November at St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery in Homeland to honor French sailors who died when their ship called on Baltimore during World War I.
But Christmas Eve belongs to Hopkins, the Quaker banker and businessman who parlayed a shrewd investment in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad into one of the greatest fortunes of his era in the United States.
When he died, Hopkins left an estate of $8 million. Of that, $7 million was divided between the university and hospital. It was a staggering sum at the time.
Ross Jones, vice president emeritus at the university, said the two institutions employ about 48,000 people in Maryland and have a payroll of about $3 billion.
"It's a heck of a legacy and we need to remember that," said Jones, who helped establish the annual ceremony.
Each year, the gathering includes a speaker on a topic related to early Baltimore or the Hopkins legacy. This year, the task went to Phoebe Evans Letocha, an archivist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. She recounted the philanthropist's role in establishing a nursing school as part of the hospital.
About nine months before his death, Hopkins instructed the trustees of his estate to establish a school of nursing, Letocha told listeners as they huddled under umbrellas. It opened in 1889 as part of an effort pioneered by England's Florence Nightingale to bring professionalism to nursing.
"The Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing carries on that legacy as a globally recognized leader in nursing education, with advanced degree programs for both women and men," Letocha said. "The influence of Hopkins nurses has been profound and continues to prove the vision of Mr. Johns Hopkins' legacy."
After the brief ceremony ended, guests adjourned to the Clifton Mansion — Hopkins' estate at a time when Clifton Park was in the country, not urban — for cider and cookies. The city-owned property is now undergoing renovations by the nonprofit Civic Works.
For all his fame, Hopkins the man remains elusive to historians. One reason is that he burned his papers before his death. Another is that he had no descendants to leave memoirs describing whether he was a grouch or a jolly old gent.
"So he's a mystery to some degree," Schaumburg said. "We know very little about the guy himself."
What historians do know is that Hopkins had a gift for making money but the modesty not to flaunt it.
"If you met him on the street, you wouldn't know he had money," Schaumburg said.
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