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Gladys Ketterman wrote her first check to Kernan Hospital in the 1970s. Then very soon after that, she wrote another.

Her family knew she needed the money herself, but they didn't object, not even when she sent yet another.

For more than 20 years, 82-year-old Gladys sent checks for whatever amount she had: $6.50, $15, $45, $78.50, $115, $167.50, $200, $225.25, $359.50.

She won't say exactly how much she has given. Neither will the University of Maryland Medical System Foundation, which honored Gladys earlier this year for all her gifts.

As Gladys sees it, the hospital staff did something for her 61 years ago. And no matter how much she gives, she can never repay them.

So whenever there's money, Gladys sends a check.

Such as in spring, when she empties the greenhouse of everything except the moonflowers and mint growing up through pebbles. She digs up perennials from the garden beside the neighbor's corn, and the only thing she won't sell is her snow-on-the-mountain plant, because she worries it won't come back.

Another time is summer, when neighbor ladies gather in her herb garden. They walk through the clematis arbor, sit among Mexican sunflowers, share the pretty dishes they bring, and after they leave, Gladys addresses an envelope to Kernan.

She carries the envelope to her mailbox at the edge of the road. She lives alone on the Eastern Shore in a town called Willards. Some days she lingers at the mailbox to admire a crape myrtle reflected in a puddle.

When she speaks at a garden club, she sends a check.

If she does a plant demonstration, a check follows.

Off the money goes, whenever someone buys her grape jelly with rosemary, her opal basil herb vinegar, her rose petal potpourri. Every jar leaves with a tag on which she has written: "Thanks for caring for Kernan."

The first time she went there, Gladys was 22. Her Howard was 17 months. That was July 20, 1939, the first time she had to leave him.

Gladys worked in a shirt factory, her husband, Paul, hauled trees from the forest. They were too poor to afford the ferry ride across the Chesapeake Bay and too poor to stay at the hospital in Baltimore. They were so poor that Gladys prayed her baby's bowed legs would heal on their own, but by 17 months, they hadn't, and he couldn't walk without falling over.

The James Lawrence Kernan Hospital and Industrial School of Maryland for Crippled Children Inc. sponsored a free clinic twice a year on the Eastern Shore, and that's where Dr. Albertus P. Cotton gave Gladys the hope she could not afford.

Gladys didn't see her son for four months. She ran to the mailbox every day, eager for news.

They fractured Howard's legs and set them straight. He awoke from the ether wearing casts from thigh to toe.

He came home walking.

He was 4 when he walked into the kitchen, tears streaming down his face. He said: "Mommy, who paid to get my legs straight? I want to know because when I go to work it's the first thing I'm going to do - to pay for it."

Howard grew up. He married, had children, became a Methodist minister and never had another problem with his legs.

Doctors had diagnosed his diabetes, and Gladys always worried that would take him.

Meanwhile, what he had said stayed on her mind.

Gladys was in a friend's garden many years later, in the 1970s, when she stopped to read a sign: This garden is dedicated to the teach- ers of retarded children.

Then an idea struck her.

She could never repay Kernan, but she could help someone else.

She could plant herbs. She could donate whatever amount of money she made.

Gladys doesn't remember exactly when she planted the garden, held the first plant sale, or hosted the first luncheon. Nothing has stopped her, not even her son's death.

In the end, a malignant brain tumor took Howard on Oct. 14, 1990. He was 52, her only child.

Friends and neighbors wanted to do something, of course. Though they had helped over the years - they gave sugar to make jelly, gathered rose petals for potpourri, repaired her lawn mower, bought her perennials, attended her luncheons, even saved table scraps for her compost pile - this was different.

They knew that two things mattered to Gladys - Howard and the hospital that fixed him. And now she had only one.

A few friends wrote a check to Kernan.

Then very soon after that, so did Gladys.

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