As one grand passion ends, another lies ahead Lobbyist: Sue Hess has spent the last two decades working for Maryland arts. The next two decades are for her.


Sue Hess has been heard to say that when she falls in love, she falls in love forever.

This explains much about her life, including her long love affair with the arts -- a romance she has shared with Maryland for two decades.

As president of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts (MCA), Hess has spent the years coaxing, cautioning, and convincing politicians that the arts should be an integral part of every life and should receive government support. By just about anyone's reckoning, her tenure has been a terrific success.

Under her leadership, state funding for the arts rose from $463,584 in 1977 to $8.5 million in 1999. And in 1994, MCA lobbied successfully for a law that requires the governor to propose at least the same amount of money for the arts as the previous year. Arts supporters now consider the Maryland law a national model.

"Sue is driven by her passion for the arts. It's a religious fervor: Her belief that it is so important to have arts throughout life, and her deep affection for people," says Mary Ann Mears, a trustee for MCA.

"Legislators and artists sense that those are the things that drive her, and they respect it enormously."

But even grand romances may end, and this month, Hess is retiring as the state's leading arts lobbyist. To mark the occasion, she will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor's Arts Awards at ArtSalute on Wednesday. The festivities will include a musical tribute to Hess sung by museum directors, symphony presidents, state legislators, a congressman and at least one former governor.

"My first 20 years of life I spent being a daughter. The next 40 years were for family, as wife and mother, and later, for Maryland Citizens. I was lucky: It was like having it all," Hess says.

"But the next 20 years are for me."

Event organizers have asked Hess to provide them with photographs and memorabilia from her life, and she is embracing the task with the same zeal with which she approaches everything else. Which explains why, on a recent, brilliantly sunny day, she is in her north Baltimore home sifting through heaps of awards, newspaper clippings and old letters.

It is a long process.

The house, like her life, is filled to the brim, but is not cluttered. Its front hall is lined with duck decoys from the Eastern Shore. The living room, with its white rug and white sofas, is dotted with paintings or signed prints by Grace Hartigan, Marc Chagall and Joan Miro. Bookcases hold wooden carvings from Japan, porcelains from China, a decorated egg by Mitzi Purdue. Nearby is a crystal bowl filled with beautiful rocks and an antique inlaid box from Bangkok that holds a collection of plastic view-finder key chains purchased in Ocean City and filled with tiny family photos.

There's a letter of thanks from former National Endowment for the Arts chairwoman Jane Alexander. And a photo of Hess standing arm and arm with Richard Thomas -- John Boy of "The Waltons."

Here, above the stair landing, are the enormous wooden masks that Hess secretly bought while traveling in Australia with her late husband, John, and hid from him, mailing them home in giant boxes. There, flung over the banister, are the camel bags the couple purchased in the Mideast.

Every photo, every antique, every curio, every hanging tapestry here -- from the beaded Masai chokers to the snapshot of the Hess family, kids and all, hurtling down the Snake River in a raft -- comes with a story.

Not a sedate story. A passionate story. A warm story. One that involves many, many people and includes guffaws, digressions, explanations, sighs and occasional bursts of song. And each story, of course, leads to another.

How about the time she broke her wrist while sightseeing in Turkey? Or that night she met at a party the man who would be her husband for 40 years. Or how she feels about Indian food. Or those summers when she invited politicians, including then Gov. Harry Hughes, to her house for crabs ... and a little lobbying. Or that time last year when she performed scenes from Macbeth for her granddaughter's class.

"Do you see these?" Hess asks, pointing at throw pillows scattered on the sofas. Each is needlepointed with scenes from musicals: "Hello Dolly," "Gypsy," "The Sound of Music."

"I used to needlepoint a pillow every time I was in a show."

Her love of theater was sparked in eighth grade. Blame Mrs. Harris, the English teacher at Baltimore school No. 49 who made her students recite Shakespeare. "We did 'Hamlet,' " Hess says. "I was hooked from that moment on."

Perhaps it was inevitable: After all, this was a child who took elocution lessons as a 4-year-old growing up on Park Avenue in Reservoir Hill. And piano lessons (which she hated) and ballet lessons (which she loved).

Hess's father ran the old Levin Furniture company, formerly on North Avenue between the Rialto Theatre and Nate and Leon's deli. "My brother and I used to spend all Saturday afternoon watching movies, three in a row, and ordering "Le Sandwich No. 23," she says. "Mmm, I can still remember the taste. Corned beef, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese."

The only thing that prevented Hess from heading to New York after graduating from Goucher College was her mother, who suggested marriage instead.

Eventually, the then Sue Levin, who was working for Women's Wear Daily, met John Hess, whose family owned the Schleisner's clothing store at Howard and Saratoga streets. They married in 1955 and moved to Salisbury where John ran a branch of the family business.

The couple raised three children, and Hess Apparel gradually expanded into a number of women's clothing stores. Sue Hess -- who became known as the radio and TV voice of Hess Apparel -- performed in at least one theatrical production a year.

"My mother's advice was the best bad advice I've ever gotten," says Hess. "I got married, and I got to have everything that is most important to me: Family. I also got to play leads in about 13 or 14 shows."

Then she found Maryland Citizens for the Arts. Or vice versa.

It began as a flirtation. Hess joined Maryland Citizens as a representative for Wicomico County. In 1977, Judge Frank Murnahan, who founded the organization, stepped down as chairman -- and Hess was asked to take his place.

Soon it became clear that Hess had an instinct for knowing what to say and to whom. Her task was to convince legislators to fund the arts and to make sure that arts groups throughout the state received their fair share. Her secret, Hess says, is a combination of inspiration and knowledge.

"You've got to believe in what you're doing," she says. "Then you've got to do your homework.

"The goal is to give the legislators a secure feeling -- to let them know that [by funding the arts] they are doing what their constituents want them to do."

Her elocution lessons, dramatic flair and connections born of years of friendships throughout Maryland all came into play. "She is almost a genius with people. I've never seen anyone get in tune with what the other person is thinking in quite the same way. It's genuine," says Mary Toth, executive director who was appointed two years ago as the executive director of the MCA, when Hess began to plan her retirement.

"Invariably she seems to say the right thing. I'm kind of in awe of this. If you go to any of the fund-raising workshops, they all say it's person-to-person, but it's sort of formulaic. She has raised this to an art form."

But Hess also understands the power of numbers, Toth adds. "It is sometimes easier to make a phone call, but Sue knows it is more effective to make five phone calls and have those five people make five phone calls.

Indeed, in the last 20 years, the MCA has built a statewide network of arts supporters who could be rallied to lobby their legislators. "Sue could generate hundreds of letters and postcards and phone calls in a way that appeared to be instantaneous. And the calls would be targeted," says Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, one of the sponsors of the arts bill. "It was miraculous what she could achieve in activating her statewide network."

Hess believed in the cause, her colleagues say, but she also believed in fun. After all, she is the sort of person who:

Has an artist design and paint her garbage can because she was tired of looking at its dull gray-green sides.

Keeps her phone numbers in a little black book that she painted yellow because she kept losing it.

Listens to show tunes when she works out on the treadmill and leaps off to dance when the music gets really good.

Has been spotted doing high kicks on her balcony.

Inspires eloquence.

"In the summer when you have the pleasure of eating a true, vine-ripened tomato, and you bite into it, the taste is such that it makes all the other tomatoes that you have eaten the other 44 weeks of the year pale by comparison," says Peter Culman, managing director of Center Stage. "The truth is that when you are in the presence of Sue Hess, you are in the presence of a late July tomato.

Hess already has many plans in the works for her retirement. Visits to grandchildren. Learning to make pottery. A little acting. Hugging babies as a hospital volunteer. And possibly more lobbying: Her husband, who smoked, died in 1994 of cancer. "I may see if there's anything I can do to stop the tobacco companies."

Then again, "nothing is etched in stone," she says. "There's a lot out there I want to do. I believe life is a wonderful thing. I hate eating the same food. I like to dance, to visit new places, to meet new people. But things you love you love forever. I hope I'm going to love retirement."

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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