HONORING FRANCES FROELICHER She has worked to preserve the country, improve the city


When Frances Morton Froelicher began fighting slum landlords, unscrupulous developers and environmental polluters 50 years ago, she never dreamed her activities would take her one day to the White House.

Tomorrow morning Ms. Froelicher, who lives in Bolton Hill and is president of the Strawberry Hill Foundation, will be among 120 Americans receiving Take Pride in America awards at a presentation at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Presented by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the awards are intended to "increase awareness of the need for wise use of the nation's natural and cultural resources." Then at 4 p.m. she will join the honorees at a Rose Garden ceremony with President Bush.

Slated for the national recognition is Ms. Froelicher's Strawberry Hill Nature Center and Preserve -- 519 acres of stream valley, comprised of forest, wetlands and meadows and watered by two streams and a pond -- in Fairfield, Pa., just over the Maryland line and 65 miles northwest of Baltimore. The center's showpiece is a log cabin, part of the original farmstead and restored by her late husband, the civic activist and educator Hans Froelicher Jr.

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Adams County, the center was established by the pair as a model environmental education center and preserve, available to the public in perpetuity. "It's one of the most gorgeous places in the world," says the 79-year-old, silver-haired Ms. Froelicher, brown eyes twinkling, as she surveys the expanse of earth, water and sky about her. "We have such marvelous paths here."

She and her husband discovered the area on their honeymoon almost 30 years ago and immediately fell in love with the hilly countryside.

Last year, the non-profit center drew some 1,400 visitors for nature walks, lectures and other organized events. It has more than 700 members who help support the educational effort with their dues.

"There's nothing like it in the county," says Chester Byers, director of Historic Gettysburg-Adams County, a group dedicated to preserving local historical sites.

As with the Baltimore Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a civic improvement organization which the Baltimore native founded in 1941 and served for 28 years as executive director, this project emphasizes people power -- enlisting volunteers and mobilizing citizens to battle for worthwhile public causes.

"This area is not this way naturally, but because we've fought tkeep it this way," she says. "We've been able to get the cooperation of our neighbors. People power can be very effective, as we proved with theCPHA."

Under Ms. Froelicher's direction, the CPHA is credited with helping change the face of Baltimore through a variety of efforts, including the development of the nation's first municipal housing code and the first housing court.

Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, CPHA education director in the '60s under Ms. Froelicher and still active with the association, is impressed by her former associate's deep convictions and iron determination.

"Frances has great tenacity," she says. "She never lets go. She doesn't always make herself popular, but she does what she feels has to be done.

"When she started, the city had 26,000 outdoor toilets. She woke Baltimore to the tremendous need for decent, safe and sanitary housing. She mobilized volunteers who carried out her ideas and brought pressure to bear on a succession of mayors. By building a strong organization, she was able to have legislation passed instituting new programs. She's had a major impact on the cleanup and rehabilitation of Baltimore."

The Take Pride in America Award is only the latest of a string of honors that Ms. Froelicher and her efforts have garnered over the decades. This year she was named Woman of the Year by the Gettysburg Soroptimist Club. In 1989 she was awarded a doctor of public service degree by UMBC, following by 33 years an earlier honorary degree from her alma mater, Smith College. Also in 1989, the nature center took first place in the Take Pride in Pennsylvania competition for the best use of private land in preserving the state's natural and historical resources. The list goes on.

After retiring from the CPHA in 1969, Ms. Froelicher turned her attention to environmental matters, using her city-bred skills to defend the environment at Strawberry Hill. In recent years she has taken on a soapstone mine that was polluting a stream and a homebuilder planning a large house with inadequate sanitation, to list just a few of the battles.

"Until recently this has been a beautiful rural area and people haven't had to worry about growth," she says. "But now it's changing and they're starting to have terrific problems. If they want to protect the land and keep it in good shape they're going to have to look ahead and act. What we're trying to do here is become a beacon of light for environmentalists."

Ms. Froelicher married her husband in 1962. He was 71, a retired headmaster of Park School and a widower, and as CPHA president, had been her boss for 12 years.

Early on the newlyweds bought a decrepit store on a quarter-acre lot bordering Middle Creek just outside of Fairfield for $2,700 and set about creating a weekend home. He wanted a place to fish and she wanted a place to swim, so they purchased a small, rundown farm next door, and built a one-acre pond fed by Swamp Creek.

They soon found the creek was being polluted by a family living upstream, using an outdoor privy and dumping rubbish into the water. To eliminate the nuisance, they bought the house along with 383 acres of land. But there were other violators. To further protect their holding, they acquired over the years three more houses -- in all, 35 tracts of land spread out over 519 acres. Inspired by the abundance of wild berries, Ms. Froelicher named the estate Strawberry Hill.

The couple, sensing the ecological importance of their large nature preserve in a region facing development, resolved to dedicate it as an educational center and conservation area serving the public. Before his death in 1976, Hans Froelicher laid out a network of trails, making the grounds accessible to visitors.

In 1986 Ms. Froelicher set up the Strawberry Hill Foundation teventually take over the entire preserve and continue the mission of environmental education. She is currently president of both the foundation and the board of directors, which operates the nature center. She concedes some people believe she should retire from the scene, and allow the foundation full control. Nonetheless, she feels financial and community support must become more certain before she withdraws,and is hoping to boost membership to at least a thousand.

"My horror is to think this project may not have enough community support to keep it going," she says. "Money means support. If you put money into something like this, then you feel it's yours and you work for it. That's why I'm trying to get more people involved."

Ms. Froelicher's own life has been one of continuous social involvement scarely diminished by age. It began with a religion course at Smith College, which exposed her to the dismal living conditions nearby in Springfield, Mass. A history major, she had previously lived a sheltered existence in Baltimore. The new experience opened her eyes.

"It aroused my conscience that I had more advantages than other people," she recalls. "I felt I should carry out the Christian philosophy of love thy neighbor. That's what I've been involved in ever since."

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