Backstory: Readers recall Blaze Starr, Ann Didusch Schuler and Straw Hat Day

One of the most rewarding pleasures of this job is interacting with readers who contact me with colorful comments or additional insights and observations about someone or something I've written about.

Sometimes they also write letters and e-mails or call on the phone to correct me, and I'm most grateful for informed and correct criticism.

The death last month of noted Baltimore artist Ann Didusch Schuler, who co-founded the Schuler School of Fine Arts with her husband, Hans C. Schuler, brought calls and e-mails from several former students who are now professional artists or teachers.

"She was a ruthless instructor," Patricia Bennett, a Mount Washington artist who had been a full-time student at the school from 2000 to 2005, wrote in an e-mail.

Bennett had earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Reed College and attended the Art Institute of Chicago before enrolling in the Lafayette Avenue art school. When recalling her years there and rigorous training, she described them as "exhausting beyond anything I've ever experienced."

"My first year there, at the end of the year, I was finally allowed to do a portrait in oils. We were supposed to just draw the portrait for the first year," Bennett wrote. "I ran out of white paint and I was so involved in the portrait, that I decided to substitute red for white in the hair. The man had grey hair and a grey beard."

As Bennett recalled in her note, she was busily at work on her portrait, now covered in red, when Schuler suddenly entered the room.

"She appeared in the classroom and yelled at me to stop. She said that if I wanted to paint like that I should go to the Maryland Institute. I was ordered to wipe off the red paint. The model meekly said that he'd once had red hair, but Ann wasn't appeased. I was terrified," recalled Bennett.

Adding to what was fast becoming a stressful moment between teacher and student, Bennett said that Schuler had trouble remembering her name.

"She was strong, big-boned and had an inner fire. Anyway, after that, she learned my name, and cheerfully ripped my work to shreds," Bennett wrote.

It was Bennett's daily ritual to arrive early in the morning and prepare paints for class. Eventually, she was allowed to enter her teacher's inner sanctum, often sipping coffee with her while Schuler ate her breakfast of a single pastry.

"I really loved Ann. How many teachers and schools allow students to be part of their lives like that? We were surrounded by art. Sculptures made by her father-in-law, rescued from MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art], exquisite woodwork and paintings," Bennett recalled. "There were a couple of weird cats and a big dog."

She added: "The school is Ann's legacy and it was my whole life for five years."

Sara Morris Swetcharnik graduated from the Schuler School and is now the owner of Swetcharnik Art Studio in Mount Airy.

As a young art student, Swetcharnik, who had attended the Schuler School one day a week during her senior year of high school, had considered studying in New York City but decided to continue her art education with the Schulers.

"I decided to wait until later for New York artistic influences," she wrote in an e-mail. "I sold my car, found a Baltimore apartment and walked to the Schuler School daily until I became a graduate of their school as had been recommended."

Swetcharnik described her years there as a "blessed time" that was "dedicated to the practice of artistic techniques, depicting images of God's creations and seeking beauty and truth."

Speaking of beauty and truth, several vintage Baltimoreans chimed in on my Blaze Starr column.

"Fond memories," wrote Nelson E. Reichert, a transportation consultant who lives in West Towson.

"I was probably one of the last guys to go on stage with her at my bachelor's party," wrote Reichert in an e-mail.

"Going for the rose buried in her bosom was a treat reserved only for guys getting married. The embarrassing part was when a friend's father presented me with the rose about six months afterward at a party," he wrote.

In the late 1960s, Reichert and several college buddies put on a 72-hour charity marathon football game to benefit Toys for Tots. To draw a crowd, they invited local celebrities to join them.

"Blaze came to one game and drew a good crowd. Wanting her autograph, but having nothing to write on, she autographed my chest with a Magic Marker," Reichert wrote. "My father wouldn't let me show it to my mother."

Lee Rudolph, who was Starr's insurance agent for many years, recalled having many "fine dealings with her over many years."

"One point, if I may," he wrote in an e-mail. "Her attraction was not limited to men, for many couples enjoyed her performance, that was until The Block turned sleazy and she got out of it."

Jeri Delambo and her husband, who live in Roland Park, frequented Starr's Two O'Clock Club in the early 1970s. "She was beautiful and her personality was beautiful," wrote Delambo in an e-mail. "Those days are now long gone."

In response to my recent column on Straw Hat Day, Shale D. Stiller, who is a partner at DLA Piper and president of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, wrote to say that he is still an inveterate daily hat wearer.

"I often warn some of my colleagues in advance of every May 15 and September 15 of the onset of Straw Hat Day and Felt Hat Day," Stiller wrote in an e-mail.

"I often add the admonition that even if it snows on May 15, one is morally obliged to wear a straw hat on that day, and correspondingly, even if the temperature on September 15 is 98 degrees, one is morally obligated to wear a felt hat on that day," he wrote.

Stiller added that he had a "slight quibble" with Eddie Jacobs, the legendary Light Street haberdasher, who said that seersucker suits are worn only between June 1 and Sept. 1.

"I was always taught that the appropriate days were Decoration Day and Labor Day. This important subject may require further research," suggested Stiller in his e-mail.

Stiller blames Congress, which took the "major step of renaming Decoration Day as Memorial Day," he wrote.

This act caused "chaos among sartorial purists by changing the date of celebration to the last Monday in May. This change provoked much debate as to whether the new beginning date to wear seersucker suits was the last Monday in May or whether May 30 would continue to be the proper time for this rite of passage," he wrote.

"Those who favored continuation of the May 30 date argued that when Congress changed both the name and date of the holiday, it said nothing about the seersucker suits," Stiller wrote. "If Congress wanted to alter the long-standing habit of proper attire, it could and should have said so."

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