Irene Dodson, receptionist 77 years for orthopedic association


Irene E. Dodson, a receptionist for the Four East Madison Orthopedic Association for nearly 78 years, died Feb. 3 at Union Memorial Hospital after a heart attack. The Baltimore resident was 95.

In the summer of 1914, the orthopedic association, one of the country's oldest physicians' groups, hired her for what was to be a two-week stint.

She stayed for more than three-quarters of a century.

Her sister, Pearl Johnson, now 98, worked as a physician's assistant for the orthopedic association until 1992, when both sisters retired.

The orthopedic practice was started at the turn of the century by Dr. William Stevenson Baer, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Dr. Frederick Baetjer, the state's first radiologist.

It was Dr. Baer who hired Mrs. Dodson, then a student at Douglass High School. At that time, his office was in his home.

Mrs. Dodson had developed a case of nerves because of a math teacher who yelled at the students and the job in Dr. Baer's office had brought a measure of calm to her life, so much so that her physician persuaded her mother into letting her work full-time for Dr. Baer.

"She was hired because of that algebra teacher," recalled Dr. Edmond J. McDonnell, a retired orthopedic surgeon who joined the practice in 1948 and lives in Phoenix, Baltimore County.

"She answered the phone, made appointments and kept the books," the doctor said.

"She and her sister opened the office in the morning and were the last ones to leave at night.

"I remember one time when a man from the telephone company came to talk to us about putting in a switchboard and, while he waited to talk to me, watched Irene at work handling the phone and making appointments," Dr. McDonnell recalled. "He said, 'You don't need a switchboard as long as you have her' and left.

"And drug salesmen knew they couldn't crack her as long as she sat by the door."

The practice had an international clientele that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Billie Burke (Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld), Katharine Hepburn and Evalyn Walsh MacLean, owner of the Hope Diamond.

"She removed the Hope Diamond from her neck and put it in our hands," Mrs. Johnson recalled. "But we never had any of the bad luck that went with it. She even told us that she kept it hidden in a flower pot at night.

"Oh, we found Mrs. Roosevelt so charming . . . and when [movie actor] Wallace Beery came to the office, he said 'Good morning, ladies' and doffed his hat.

"You know we set store by good manners."

The sisters, who were inseparable, were reared in Northwest Baltimore. Their father was a builder who taught them a valuable lesson about prejudice.

"Of course, there was prejudice in those days," said Miss Johnson, "but our father used to say, 'Don't let it upset you. Mostly people are doing the best that they know. Unfortunately, often that isn't much.'"

They both were active in the Interracial Fellowship Group, which forced stores to serve blacks and theaters to offer seating other than in the balcony.

The sisters "loved making hats and clothes and used to parade in the Easter Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue and later on in New York," said Mrs. Dodson's godchild, Shirley Griffin of Crownsville.

"She really enjoyed life to the fullest and loved to travel. She visited Europe five times and loved traveling by ship."

Miss Johnson said her sister "played in Frederick Huber's city band in the late 1920s. She played the trumpet and was the only lady in the all-male, 60-member band and in the 1940s played in the A. Jack Thomas Band."

Mrs. Dodson was a member of the Vagabond Players and the Johns Hopkins Players, local theater groups, and both sisters had roles in "Children of Circumstance," a 1937 movie produced in Baltimore by a Hollywood studio.

In 1989, the sisters' lives were the subject of a Maryland Public Television documentary, "Pearl and Irene," which has been shown nationally.

Mrs. Dobson was married in 1927 to Nimrod Dodson, a mail carrier. He died in 1961.

The sisters lived together for years in a house at Franklin and Stricker streets in West Baltimore. The house was demolished in 1964 for construction of Interstate 170.

After briefly making their home on Madison Street downtown, they moved to Cold Spring Lane in Northeast Baltimore.

In 1984, 700 people gathered at the Belvedere Hotel to honor the sisters at a party organized by the eight physicians for whom they worked.

Mrs. Dodson was a member for many years of Payne Memorial AME Church, 1717 Madison Ave., Baltimore.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. tomorrow at the church.

In addition to the sister, survivors include several godchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to Payne Memorial Church Building Fund, or the Children's Hospital, 3825 Greenspring Ave., Baltimore 21211.

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