Mary Jo Pons, thoroughbred racing farm co-owner, dies

Mary Jo Pons was a revered figure in Maryland thoroughbred racing who co-owned Country Life Farm.

Mary Jo Pons, a revered figure in Maryland thoroughbred racing who co-owned Country Life Farm, died of respiratory failure Monday at Brightview Assisted Living in Bel Air.

She was 87 and lived on the family horse-breeding compound near Bel Air.

Born Mary Jo Ryan in Baltimore and raised on Preston Street, she was the daughter of Charles A. Ryan, a Merchant Marine captain, and Honore Ginty.

She was a 1947 graduate of Mount Saint Agnes High School in Mount Washington and attended the Johns Hopkins University.

"My mother was articulate and precise in speech," said a son, Joseph P. "Josh" Pons Jr. "She was attracted to radio. She began her career by hosting broadcasts of fashion shows for Hutzler's."

She met her future husband, Joseph P. Pons Sr., at a Harford County cocktail party. She correctly answered a question about pro football and the 1948 Colts quarterback, Y.A. Tittle.

"'Bet you don't know what his initials stand for," her future husband challenged her.

"Bet I do," she answered. "Yelberton Abraham."

They married in 1950. She moved to her husband's family residence, Country Life Farm, a thoroughbred horse-breeding farm established in 1933 by her father-in-law, French-born Adolphe A. Pons, who was turf adviser to New York capitalist and subway builder August Belmont.

"At her home on the farm, my mother cared for her ailing in-laws, raised five children and became famous for her gracious Preakness parties, held on the Thursday before the big race at Pimlico each year," said her son.

Friends recalled how the ebullient Mrs. Pons greeted guests at the annual May party. She typically wore a silver chain that carried an 1873 engraved medallion awarded to the Pons family for wine production near Montpelier in southern France.

"I remember the warmth and the hospitality of Country Life Farm," said a friend, Lucy Howard, also a horse owner. "You could feel the spirit and the ghosts of the past there. You could feel the horses, the trainers and the owners.

"Mary Jo was the center," Ms. Howard said. "She had a sharp eye and was marvelously well read. She loved literature and was a good critic of it. She could also tell a great story."

She recalled that Mrs. Pons supervised a supper of Maryland crab, roast beef, deviled eggs, macaroons and strawberries with powered sugar.

Her son said the party originated in 1961. She addressed the invitations in flowing handwriting in blue fountain pen ink.

He recalled one year: "A horse named Carry Back, sired by Country Life stallion Saggy, won the Kentucky Derby, and arrived in Baltimore to prepare for the Preakness Stakes," Mr. Pons said. "On the trail of a potential Triple Crown winner, sportswriters flocked to Pimlico that year. My mother — who admired working writers — invited them to Country Life."

He recalled that the guest list included Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Red Smith, New York Times racing columnist Joe Nichols, CBS radio announcers Win Elliot and Jack Whitaker, and other turf writers.

The tradition of hosting the party continued until 2013, when Mrs. Pons suffered a stroke the day after Orb won the Kentucky Derby.

"As was the case for Carry Back, Orb's sire was a Country Life stallion: Malibu Moon," said her son.

"Over the last 60 or so years, Mary Jo was clearly the matriarch of Country Life Farm," said Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. "Running a thoroughbred racing and breeding operation has its highs and lows. Through the whole roller coaster ride that goes along with it, Mary Jo is the glue that held it together."

Mr. Peddicord said Country Life is Maryland's oldest family-owned thoroughbred breeding farm in continuous operation.

"Her greatest legacy is her children. … She instilled in all of her children a love of the land, of horses, of the outdoors and a sense of social justice, fair play and honesty," Mr. Peddicord said.

Mrs. Pons never relinquished her love of radio. In the 1970s, she volunteered for WBAL Radio's Call for Action program.

"She had a good voice and she loved music," her son said. In the 1980s she hosted a Harford Community College classical music broadcast. She was also a board member of Baltimore's Signal 13 Foundation and raised funds for Police Department personnel who encountered financial hardship.

"She was most proud, however, of her two-decade role as executive director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland," her son said.

Through that organization, Mrs. Pons raised funds for the reading service for the sight-impaired. For years, she sat before its microphone daily and read the city's three daily newspapers, as well as The New York Times and The Washington Post. The service remains active and is carried on the Internet and linked to special-frequency radios.

Mrs. Pons was an avid reader. She often gave copies of the newspaper writer Don Marquis' 1927 classic, "archy and mehitabel," as gifts.

"She herself was a beautiful writer and editor. She wrote into the night. You could hear her pecking away at her typewriter. You were mesmerized at how beautiful her prose was," said her son.

A memorial celebration will be held at noon April 9 at Country Life Farm on Old Joppa Road near Bel Air.

Survivors, in addition to her son, include two other sons, Andrew M. Pons of Chestertown and Michael Pons of Bel Air; two daughters, Alice Pons and Honore "Norah" Pons, both of Bel Air; and six grandchildren. Her husband of 55 years died in 2005.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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