Human hurricane hits with tons of kindness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Would you have the gall to beg total strangers to feed 1,500 other strangers? Or the persistence and charm to talk them into doing it, then have them thank you for the opportunity?

Linda Greenberg can pull this off.

In the past decade, she has overwhelmed Marylanders with her efforts to help the homeless. Huge Thanksgiving dinners. Christmas giveaways of food and clothing. Cancer walkathons. Summer camp for needy kids.

She's been called Anne Arundel County's most relentless doer of good deeds, a hurricane, a nuisance and a saint.

"She moves mountains," says Marieta Burkhart, a Calvert County resident who has volunteered with Mrs. Greenberg's causes for four years.

"She's changed my life. My love for people has increased. And she named one of her goats after me."

Not, mind you, just any goat, but one of the Tennessee fainting goats Mrs. Greenberg keeps at her house off General's Highway near the Eisenhower golf course. She keeps so many animals, the place looks a small petting zoo. There are the goats, which fall over in a heap when startled, baby llamas, an 800-pound pig that sleeps with a stuffed animal, ponies, parrots and chickens.

It's the sort of quirkiness you come to expect from a woman who built a Southwest-style, pink-stuccoed villa outside Annapolis. Her neighbors call the house and outbuildings (trimmed with purple and turquoise) the "Day-Glo place."

But the animals provide a constancy Mrs. Greenberg says she finds helpful. "Shoveling manure twice a day stabilizes my frantic life," she says.

VTC At 50, Mrs. Greenberg is as frenetic as a teen-ager. Three years ago she invited 250 people to Thanksgiving dinner. By last year, the number of homeless people feasting on a donated repast was up to 1,000 -- with carnations for everyone, musicians and take-home gifts.

This year, she's hoping for carnival rides.

Within the past decade, she's started a program to send children from homeless shelters to two weeks of sleep-away camp. Only the counselors know the youngsters are homeless.

Every Christmas, Mrs. Greenberg, her two sons and other volunteers head for the streets of Baltimore, where they give away food and clothing to people sleeping on grates. Last year, she collected and gave away the contents of four 25-foot trucks.

She does all this without an organization, a secretary or a job title.

"When I die," she's told her kids, "I won't leave you large sums of money. I want to leave you the desire to help other people and get beyond yourselves."

Mrs. Greenberg gives the credit for her success to philanthropic ancestors, especially her mother, Charlotte Adler Stern, who taught her "if you have more than you need, give it away."

"I know what it is to be alone and not have anybody to help you," she says. "I do this for the people who refuse to ask, who are too proud to ask."

Mrs. Greenberg was born to comfort -- thought not wealth, she protests -- in Pittsburgh. Her grandfather invented the hand-operated windshield wiper and was "a financier," she says. Her father was an executive with Warner Bros. Her mother gave parties for the governor. She was sent to riding camp in Arizona for a summer.

But her parents divorced when she was 16, and she was devastated.

"Divorce was taboo then," recalls her sister, Ellen Reiner. "Linda would go into a room and think people were talking about her, saying, 'Oh, she comes from a broken home.' "

Her mother moved to New York with both daughters and went to work for a funeral business, eventually coming to own several funeral chapels.

"I learned the struggle of putting food on the table," Mrs. Greenberg says.

She also learned about death. "My mother would make me see the corpses, made me go out with families of the deceased. I'd hear all that crying," she says. "I learned we're here for a short period of time. You have to accomplish something."

Mrs. Greenberg attended college in Mexico City. She traveled to Europe by herself and to Africa as a free-lance photographer.

One of the black and white photos she took on that trip -- of an elderly Nigerian woman holding a child, clearly poor but proud -- has come to symbolize her mission:

"This woman's face is why I do what I do," she says.

She married, had two sons, Cory and Marc, and moved to Anne Arundel County. After her mother died about 10 years ago, Mrs. Greenberg accelerated her crusade.

"I think it's her inner soul," says Marc, 18, who calls his mother a "perfect person."

"She always does too much," he says. "She does the most of any person I know. If she's not busy, she's not having fun."

If Mrs. Greenberg is obsessed with her causes, she is equally wrapped up in her love for the Southwest and her taste for the unusual.

Her house is an extravagance of space and light, packed with odd artifacts. There are the squashed fake fingers that protrude from an antique washing machine and three life-size figures, most notably a cowboy in full regalia wearing a button that proclaims "I want to jump your bones." There are bar stools made out of barrels covered with real saddles and finished off with horses' tails, and a waterfall that gushes into the master bath.

Mrs. Greenberg is extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that she's a rich girl helping the poor, insisting that she's middle-class and not materialistic.

But her husband, David, a Brooklyn Park jeweler, acknowledges that the couple's financial stability is an asset to philanthropy.

"We're small potatoes, but look at the Meyerhoffs in Baltimore -- people like that can be the biggest benefactors," he says. "We wouldn't be giving if we hadn't made money. And we work real hard. Linda could go out and work for a public relations firm and make more money than I do. But she chose to do volunteer work, and I think it's heroic. I can't believe the amount of energy she puts into these things. She wants to do it all herself."

Nobody questions that Mrs. Greenberg is a huge-hearted woman who gets things done, but her methods annoy some.

Every year, Mrs. Greenberg announces that she will feed an enormous number of people, then badgers volunteer organizations, businesses and the local news media until they agree to help.

Every year, she plans a bigger production, and regularly panics two weeks before the event, spending hours on the telephone frantically trying to come up with the goods.

Pat Butcher, director of Camp Mayo, which lends Mrs. Greenberg its facilities every year, says she's simply disorganized.

He praises her intentions and results, while acknowledging -- when pressed -- that she's better at coming up with an idea than working it out.

"She works tirelessly and selfishly and she's done a real nice job. But organization is not her forte. She tries real hard, but in working with her the past several years, I've found that she's conceptual, but not sure of the details," he says. "But it's thrilling to have someone who does this much in your community."

Whatever her failures, Mrs. Greenberg gets things done, and her efforts are not confined to public events.

Lilian Wotton, 91, is a Glen Burnie shut-in who praises the activist as a "very loyal, compassionate person."

Mrs. Greenberg met the elderly woman in a nursing home and has remained a constant friend, sending dinners and continuing to visit, Ms. Wotton says.

"She sends food. She brought me a bird feeder and bird seed so I could watch the birds from my balcony," Ms. Wotton says. "That's the kind of person she is."

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