Champion of social causes for 8 decades

The Baltimore Sun

Peggy Ewing Waxter, who broke with class conventions to agitate for civil rights, women's issues and a better life for children and the elderly, died Tuesday of complications from old age at her Roland Park home. She was 103.

"In 1940s and 1950s Baltimore, her views were not always received well," said her son, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr. "She continued on her course, and eventually things turned her way. Eventually, Baltimore changes its mind."

The wife of Judge Thomas J.S. Waxter Sr., the city's and state's director of public welfare beginning in the 1930s, she worked for the creation of the city's Waxter Center for Senior Citizens, which carries his name, and for progressive causes over the past eight decades.

She was also involved with the founding of the University of Maryland Center for Infant Study, the Children's Guild of Baltimore, the Maryland Committee for Children and the Baltimore Metropolitan Association for Mental Health.

After the death of her husband in 1962, Mrs. Waxter took a more visible role in championing her causes.

"After he died, she became a stronger personality," her son said. "It fired her up."

A 1970 sketch in the News American said Mrs. Waxter "channeled her grief into community action." She became chairwoman of the Volunteers Advisory Committee at what is now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and head of the Northeast Symphony Society, a group with headquarters at Morgan State University.

In 1978, Baltimore magazine named her one of Baltimore's most powerful 11 women because she "had been at the forefront of social welfare movements for years and uses her social status and home to attract energy and money for service organizations and political candidates."

Born Peggy Haggen Ewing in Brooklandville, she later told people that she never graduated from any school she attended, including Calvert School, Blue Bird School, Garrison Forest School and Miss Hall's School in Massachusetts.

"She was not a good student, although she was quite an intelligent person," her son said. "Her mother moved her around quite a bit."

Mrs. Waxter quipped that the institutions she attended later pointed to her good works to such an extent that she "was the most honored person who never graduated from a school."

She made her debut in 1922 -- a society ball was given in her honor at Newport, R.I. -- and she recalled taking trains from Riderwood daily to appear in dramas staged by the Vagabond Players. She performed at the old Auditorium Theater on Howard Street.

"She was very good in front of people. She was an actor," her son said. As recently as last year, he said, his mother appeared before a Maryland General Assembly committee, telling her audience, "You fine people, on a beautiful day like this, I bet you'd rather be outside."

The Waxters married in 1930 and made one of their first breaks with convention by moving to a 19th-century townhouse on East Hamburg Street, overlooking the harbor in Federal Hill, then a working-class neighborhood. They tried to get their friends to join them but found that others in their social set were not willing to leave North Baltimore.

Ever the nonconformists, she and her husband then bought the Stoney Run Club headquarters in Roland Park, where she had lived since the mid-1930s.

"My husband said it had five tennis courts, three bowling alleys and a urinal in the men's dressing room, none of which I wanted," she said in a 1994 interview in the Baltimore Messenger.

The Waxters hired architect Francis Jencks to raise the clubhouse roof and create bedrooms, but she never got rid of the bowling lanes. The clubhouse's large assembly area became the setting for social gatherings and meetings that Mrs. Waxter staged over a period of 70 years to support social causes.

"I roll back the furniture and let people meet," Mrs. Waxter said in 1994.

"My mother had a wonderful theory about parties," said Margaret Peggy Waxter Maher of Baltimore. "She worked very hard getting everything ready, everything perfect, then she would take a bath and purposefully be late. She thought it would be good for us to learn how to meet people and take care of a room full of guests."

She became involved with civil rights issues -- in her own way.

Her son recalled that she bristled at department stores that would not allow African-Americans to try on clothes and hats.

"She took a wonderful African-American woman who worked for us to Hutzler's department store," her son recalled. "They didn't get arrested, but they did wind up in Mr. Hutzler's office."

Known for her peppery personality and a habit of speaking her mind, she told a Sun reporter last year, "People are scared at becoming old. But they shouldn't. It's the most irresponsible time in your life. You can do anything you want and get away with it."

In one of her last public appearances, Mrs. Waxter traveled to the Waxter Center last year to rally support for its renovation.

"You arrive in a wheelchair and you'll do much better" gaining sympathy for your cause, she said in her remarks.

When she was handed a bouquet of red roses and toasted in a song, she said, "I think it's terrible to get so much attention."

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 20 at her Roland Park home.

In addition to her son and daughter, survivors include six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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