Mrs. K.'s Homecoming


For two decades after World War II, Myrtle Kennerly ran what was undoubtedly the loudest, noisiest, most cacophonous and best-loved boardinghouse in Baltimore.

Mrs. Kennerly rented 42 rooms to music students from the Peabody Conservatory, who played trumpets, trombones, pianos, clarinets and sang arias and operettas all at once 12 hours a day every day of the week. Her boarders remember her as the stern but motherly proprietor of 707 St. Paul St., a handsome, brick Mount Vernon townhouse that became the most-favored domicile for Peabody students from 1945 until 1969.

Mrs. Kennerly is 93 now and a bit more frail than she was when she ran 707 with a cast-iron hand and a butter-soft heart. But she has hardly forgotten one of her Peabody boarders and few have forgotten her.

She came north from her home in Port Charlotte, Fla., for a reunion at the Ramada Inn in Towson yesterday with about 50 of her "boys" and "girls, many of whom have lots of gray hair and grandchildren of their own. No one, of course, can top Mrs. Kennerly, who has two children, nine grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

She signed copies of a memoir she's written with one of her "boys," Lionel Petrelli, a tenor who now lives in California. Their collaboration has produced a charming, chatty book that sounds like conversation you might have heard at the dining room table in Mrs. Kennerly's boardinghouse.

"I used to lay in bed at night and think about what I'd put in my book," she says. "And I finally did it. And I did it my way."

Don Doughty, now 56, stayed at with Mrs. Kennerly from 1956 to 1960. He came to Peabody from a military school and was flabbergasted when Mrs. Kennerly gave him his own key and said he could come and go as he pleased -- within her strict limits.

You couldn't practice your music after 10 o'clock at night, let alone kiss anyone on the doorstep.

"She had her rules and she was just as tough as a drill sergeant," says Mr. Doughty, who taught music for 30 years in Montgomery County and at Hood College in Frederick, where he lives. "But on the other hand, she was just as lovely and caring as anybody could imagine. If you ran short of money, you could always go to her for a couple of bucks to see you through. But you better pay her back on time."

Her boarders called her Mrs. Kennerly, Mrs. K. or Ma Kennerly, depending on whether they'd just been caught with a girl or boy, wanted a bigger breakfast, or needed a loan.

She thinks perhaps her most famous boarder was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, a professor of theory and composition at the University of Minnesota. In a telephone conversation, he remembers her as very firm, but not tyrannical.

"You didn't get away with much," says Mr. Argento, the composer of "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf," which won the Pulitzer in 1975. "She wasn't a tyrant but she had an eagle eye."

He lived at 707 for about three years after he entered the conservatory in 1947, part of that remarkable wave of students ++ who went to college on the GI Bill.

"We were really a bunch of rowdies," says Mr. Argento, who is widely regarded as one of America's lead

ing composters of opera. "She really couldn't give anyone of us an inch."

He remembers Mrs. Kennerly's standing on her famous polished cherry staircase, her arms folded on her ample bosom, confronting potential transgressors.

"She stood up there like a general addressing a bunch of privates," he says. "I don't remember a sentimental word."

Mrs. Kennerly comes by her toughness naturally. She says her father, William Horn, met her mother on a wagon train rolling into the Oklahoma Territory.

"Both of them were Gypsies," Mrs. Kennerly says. She was born in the Territory in 1902. In 1907, Bill Horn took his family to the Panama Canal Zone, where he worked on the construction of the canal.

During her years there, Mrs. Kennerly met President Teddy Roosevelt and told him jokes, stumbled over boa constrictors on the way to school, and sailed aboard the first official ship through the canal.

She and her mother came to Baltimore after her father died in 1919. She met handsome, blond Ben Kennerly at the Tunnel of Love in Carlin's amusement park in Northwest Baltimore . They did a little bootlegging during Prohibition, running alcohol to Washington with their son, Charles, asleep in the back seat for ballast.

"I was a bootlegger by proxy," Charles Kennerly says.

Mrs. Kennerly was relieved when her husband became a butter-and-egg man. In 1939, they bought 707 St. Paul and went into the boardinghouse business. A few Peabody students stayed with them during World War II, but mostly they housed war workers.

In 1945, with enrollment swelling, Peabody sought Mrs. Kennerly's help in housing returning veterans. After that, 707 was virtually a Peabody dormitory until the school built its own in 1969. That year, Mrs. Kennerly sold her beloved boardinghouse and moved to Florida. She was, after all, 67. (The old boardinghouse now serves as a halfway house.)

"It was my life, and I loved it," she says. At first she had only "boys" at 707, but in 1947, she put six "girls" on the first floor. But this was no open dorm.

"I dared 'em to have boys in their rooms," Mrs. Kennerly says. "I was very strict in that regard."

From the start, her boys were trying to sneak their girls into their rooms.

"That was my biggest problem," she says.

The World War II veterans were especially difficult to control, says Neil Bishop, who boarded with Mrs. K. from 1945 to 1950. He became a clarinet major at Peabody after serving six years in the South Pacific with the Marines.

"She had all those wild musicians home from the war," says Mr. Bishop, who now lives on Kent Island. "She had to watch them. We used to tease her a lot. But she withstood the onslaught."

He used to room on the third floor with Robert Perko, a trumpet player.

"He was a big, feisty guy with a mustache. He looked kind of fierce. He'd yell down those stairs to Mrs. Kennerly: 'If we don't get a bigger breakfast tomorrow, the horn blows at midnight.' "

Tommy Newsom, who played in Doc Severinson's band on "The Tonight Show," was also at Peabody then. He boarded at Mrs. Kennerly during most of his time in Baltimore.

"It was wonderful," says Mr. Newsom, an alto saxophone player who contributed about 500 arrangements to the "Tonight Show" band and fronted it when Mr. Severinson took the night off. "You walked in there and all you heard was piano music, and singers, trumpets and trombones, all going on at once."

He roomed on the third floor with a trumpet player and a trombonist. They practiced all the time.

"I'd take a nap through all this," says Mr. Newsom, who couldn't make it to the reunion. "You became used to it, like a guy running an air hammer."

Mrs. Kennerly banished him for a while after a fairly splashy beer party. But she relented and allowed him back.

"We were a rambunctious bunch," he said. "She put up with a lot. I'm sure we aged her. But she was a strong personality. She's still thriving."

Women didn't live at 707 until his last year at Peabody.

"One night a kind of big guy, a piano major there, came in the front door and climbed the stairs with these kind of heavy steps," Mr. Newsom says.

Mrs. Kennerly popped her head out of her door to take a look.

"There he was, carrying a girl piggyback to his room. She blew the whistle."

Mary Walker, who was a secretary at Peabody from 1942 to 1967, remembers the time a young man tried to smuggle a girl up the stairs in his laundry bag.

"He didn't get very far," says Ms. Walker, now 84. "Mrs. Kennerly could handle herself pretty well. She was a good housemother. She didn't allow any friskiness."

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