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Elinor H. Kerpelman, former deputy director of state human rights commission

Activist supported the work of her husband Leonard K. Kerpelman in social and preservation causes.

Elinor H. Kerpelman, a civil rights activist and former deputy director of the Maryland State Commission on Human Rights, died May 9 at a son's Catonsville home from congestive heart failure.

She was 88 and lived in Mount Washington.

"Elinor was a lovely, brilliant, caring woman," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides, a longtime friend. "She was an old-fashioned liberal with not a prejudiced bone in her body."

Sen. Lapides called Ms. Kerpelman a soft-spoken yet effective "giant in the cause of civil rights."

"Her exterior was conservative looking and she was an absolute lady," said Rhoda S. Zeligman, a retired Baltimore County educator who lives in Pikesville. "She was extremely broad-minded and accepting of differences. She was a very strong and brilliant woman."

The daughter of Hollen B. Hoffman Sr. , an attorney, and Cornelia D. E. Hoffman, a bookkeeper, the former Elinor May Hoffman was raised in Owings Mills and Irvington.

After graduating in 1946 from Western High School, she was awarded a Pepsi Cola Scholarship, which allowed her to attend Goucher College. There, she earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1950.

A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Mrs. Kerpelman was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to attend Oxford University — but gave it up in order to marry Leonard J. Kerpelman, a young Baltimore lawyer, in 1950.

Ms. Kerpelman attended the Johns Hopkins University and pursued a master's degree, which she did not complete, said a daughter, Antonia K. "Toni" Fowler of Reisterstown.

During the 1950s, she taught elementary school students in city public schools before leaving to raise her family.

In the 1960s, she became an investigator with the Baltimore City Human Relations Commission, and in the early 1970s was named deputy director of the Maryland State Commission on Human Rights, a position she held until retiring in 1988.

"In each of these positions, she fought against discrimination locally and statewide," said Ms. Fowler.

Ms. Kerpelman and her husband, who died in 2013, shared a penchant for supporting liberal causes.

It was her husband who took a landmark school prayer case — involving Baltimore atheist, former Communist and homemaker Madalyn Murray O'Hair — to the Supreme Court in 1963. The case ended official Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools.

"I think he took the case at mom's prompting," said Ms. Fowler.

Ms. Kerpelman was a prolific writer of letters to the editor of The Baltimore Sun as early as the mid-1950s, and in 1972 wrote a letter regarding the prayer case:

"To all those who persistently deplore the 'absence of prayer in our public schools,' let me say that the Supreme Court never said that children couldn't pray in school on a voluntary, individual basis. What the court said was that the teacher, as an agent of the state, could not force children to say prayers," she wrote.

She and her husband worked together on cases that fought for the preservation of historic buildings, wetlands and trees. Going back to the 1960s, she was concerned wetlands around Ocean City were by being filled in for development, her daughter said.

The couple fought unsuccessfully for the preservation of the old Hampden Reservoir, which was filled in when the Jones Falls Expressway was built in the late 1950s, and also fought the demolition of a Moorish bandstand in Druid Hill Park in 1961, the Cedar Avenue Bridge and the landmark brick ventilator shaft that stood over the Pennsylvania Railroad's Wilson Street Tunnel.

"She was the driving force behind my father," said Ms. Fowler. "They were a perfect couple."

"I have never seen a love affair like that between Elinor and Leonard. They were like kids and went everywhere together and did everything together," said Ms. Zeligman.

Regarding urban renewal, Ms. Kerpelman decried the fact that lending institutions were reluctant to finance renovations of old homes.

"Instead of regarding Tyson Street and Bolton Hill as charming anomalies, the urban renewal people should regard them as models of what the whole downtown city could be like," she once wrote.

"Those simple Victorian house-fronts based ultimately on the Italian townhouse of Renaissance times are exceedingly durable in their attractiveness, and perfectly compatible in appearance with a good modern building like the State Office Building when they are not pulled out of character."

In 1999, the couple established the Woodland Committee Land Trust that preserved a 4.5-acre parcel of wooded land off Northern Parkway in Mount Washington, sparing it from development.

"This feels like the country," Ms. Kerpelman told The Sun in an interview at the time, explaining how neighbors raised $90,000 to purchase the property from The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. "That's why we don't want to lose the woods. We wanted to keep it as an unspoiled bit of forest."

"This is an idea whose time has come," her husband told the newspaper. "A civilized patch in an urban territory."

Ms. Kerpelman was an avid reader. She took art courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and liked working in oils and painting landscapes and still-life pieces. She also made pencil sketches.

She was a world traveler. Portugal was a favorite destination for the couple, their daughter said.

Ms. Kerpelman was a member of Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation.

Funeral services were held May 12 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.

In addition to her daughter, survivors include two sons, Jason Kerpelman of Catonsville and Saul Kerpelman of Towson; another daughter, Alexandra Semonva of Amsterdam; a brother, Hollen "Bud" Hoffman of Catonsville; three sisters, Charlotte Lillard and Margaret Roberts, both of Baltimore, and Dorothea Rushworth of Brewerton, N.Y.; and eight grandchildren.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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