Doris Stepanovich dies at age 87

Doris Stepanovich, a retired bereavement counselor and secretary who was the subject of news articles after the remains of her Army pilot husband were discovered in the Himalayas nearly 50 years after his death during World War II, died of heart failure Sept. 12 at Best Care Assisted Living in Reisterstown. She was 87 and lived in West Hills.

In 1993, nearly 49 years after she had been told that her husband, Frank Ramos, was missing, a group of Tibetan hunters hiking in a spot that had once been covered by a glacier found the remains of a large airplane.

"The hunters reported their findings to local authorities, and soon Chinese officials were on the scene," wrote Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks in 1998. "They confirmed the wreckage as that of an American military plane. They took numerous photographs, recovered the remains of three bodies and transported them to Lhasa, Tibet."

Later that year, American officials brought the remains back to the United States, the first time since the Communists took power in 1949 that China had returned American war dead.

Lieutenant Ramos had been the co-pilot on transport missions from India on the 550-mile trip over the Himalayas to bring arms and supplies to the Chinese National Army of Chiang Kai-shek. He was one of the few of the estimated 78,500 World War II military lost in action to be found. The Army said it had no record of the recovery of any other plane lost in the Hump missions over the Himalayas.

News accounts said that a team from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii later traveled to Tibet and hiked four days to reach the site of the plane.

"The glacier that gave up the first three bodies had melted and shifted again," The Sun reported. "Additional remains were recovered, some of them in extraordinary condition."

Mrs. Stepanovich was present at Arlington National Cemetery in early 1998 when eight Army pallbearers, numerous mourners and an honor guard were part of Lieutenant. Ramos' funeral.

Mrs. Stepanovich was born Doris A. Sawyer in Austin, Texas. She met Lieutenant Ramos in 1940. He sold shoes at the Scarborough department store and she worked in the manager's office. He was in the National Guard when they married in late 1942. They had less than a year together before he was assigned overseas as an Army flier.

"I was scared," she told The Sun. "I didn't know where he was going, and I don't think he did, either. We'd had five months together."

The couple wrote to each other and Lieutenant Ramos learned that his wife had delivered a son, Michael, while he was overseas. Father and son never met.

"Take good care of yourself and Mike and when I get back we will be the happiest people in the world. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you," he wrote in one letter.

On Jan. 31, 1944, Lieutenant Ramos took off from Kunming in southwestern China. He never returned to his home base. The plane was listed as missing in action, The Sun reported.

"I knew by then in my gut Frank was never coming back," she said in The Sun's 1998 account. "People around me talked about him coming home after the war, and I listened and put on a good face, but I knew I would never see him again."

She had her husband's wool military overcoat cut down and tailored to fit her. "I wore it for many years," she said. "It used to make me feel like Frank still had his arms wrapped around me."

She took home economics classes at the University of Texas. In May 1946, the Army sent her a letter announcing that her husband was to receive a Purple Heart. A military chaplain also arrived at the house to explain death benefits. After that, she decided it was time to start going out again, The Sun's account said.

She met an economics teacher, George Stepanovich, who was also a World War II veteran who had flown in the Hump missions during the conflict. They married in 1948 and moved to Baltimore. He taught at the University of Baltimore and worked at the Social Security Administration.

"Going into my second marriage, I still thought of Frank," she told The Sun. "I was still grieving, and I was feeling disloyal. And I used to wonder: What happens if Frank comes home? What do I do then? And I used to dream of Frank. Sometimes I would wake up crying. Sometimes I'd have a dream that I saw Frank walking down the street and I would speak to him, but he wouldn't speak to me because he was angry with me. Other times, the dreams would be like a visit from Frank, and I'd wake up feeling just so wonderful, as if I had just had a pleasant visit from him."

Mrs. Stepanovich became a secretary and typist who transcribed court testimony. She worked closely with attorney Joseph Sherbow at his office in downtown Baltimore. She was also active at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Ten Hills, where she did office work and was a chaperone for a program for homeless people.

After the death of her second husband in 1983, Mrs. Stepanovich began helping others who had lost a family member.

"Since my husband died seven years ago, I have made a point of keeping busy," she said in a 1990 Evening Sun profile of her volunteer work. "I was so devastated … we were so close. Then I decided to take a course in bereavement at St. Agnes Hospital. That put me back together. Back in Texas, growing up, my mother and father always helped people in need, and I grew up thinking all people did that."

She remained active in the St. Agnes Hospice Program from 1985 to 2006. She visited terminal patients in their homes, talked to the bereaved and found time to help in the office.

"She was well-equipped to deal with this," said her son, Michael Ramos-Stepanovich of Reisterstown. "Even though two of her husbands had died, she told me, 'I've got a lot of living to do.' She became involved with others and gave it her best."

In 1999, she was inducted into the Maryland Senior Citizen Hall of Fame. In ceremonies at the time, she was praised for her work with the bereaved.

"She gave hope to those who were just starting out on their own personal journey of grief and loss," said Fred Schneider, bereavement services coordinator at Professional Health Care Hospice. "Doris had been through it and inspired others to say, 'I can do it, too.'"

Plans for a funeral are incomplete.

In addition to her son, survivors include a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

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