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Harriet Bartholow Duncan, 95

Harriet Bartholow Duncan died March 14 in Cockeysville. She was 95.
Harriet Bartholow Duncan died March 14 in Cockeysville. She was 95.(Baltimore Sun)

Harriet Bartholow Duncan, a homemaker who helped found a Unitarian church in Rockville, died of dementia March 14 in Cockeysville. She was 95.

The daughter of Elias Webster Bartholow and Mildred Booz Bartholow, she grew up in Baltimore and graduated from the Bryn Mawr School and Goucher College.

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While she was in college, she met Leroy Edward Duncan Jr., then a medical student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The two were married in Baltimore on June 13, 1942 — but only after Dr. Duncan, known to most as "Dunc," received special permission from Hopkins to proceed with their nuptials.

Loved ones remember hearing stories of how Mrs. Duncan would walk at night along Broadway in East Baltimore with a pillow under her dress to feign pregnancy, and discourage would-be criminals, as she took Mr. Duncan dinners.

The couple moved South for a brief stint to Nashville, Tenn., where Dr. Duncan had become chief resident at the Vanderbilt University hospital. After returning to Maryland, they moved to Rockville in 1954 to be near Dr. Duncan's job as a medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

Mrs. Duncan was a founding member of what is now known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville. She ran the church's Sunday school for several years, "producing with more enthusiasm than skill piano accompaniments as she led the children's Sunday school hymns," her son, Dr. Bruce Bartholow Duncan, recalled.

Stirred by the actions of fellow Unitarians who traveled to Selma, Ala., to join the peaceful demonstrations led by the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. in 1965, Mrs. Duncan marched in front of the White House carrying a sign with the words, "Send federal troops to Alabama."

Mrs. Duncan was a dedicated homemaker, her sons said. She made sure they got to their sporting events, coordinated family gatherings and scheduled vacations to Nags Head, N.C., Edisto Island, S.C. and Squirrel Island, Maine.

The boys always called her "Harriet," instead of "Mom," Dr. Bruce Duncan said.

When Mrs. Duncan's second son, Scott Whitfield Duncan, was born in 1951, Bruce had been sent to stay with his grandparents to recover from the chickenpox. Bruce, just shy of his second birthday at the time, saw his mother holding his baby brother — a clear "substitute," he said — and refused to call his mother "Mommy."

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Once her sons left home for college, Mrs. Duncan took a job at Waldenbooks, where she worked for many years.

Dr. Bruce Duncan said his mother never sought the limelight, but modeled a life of "love, competence and community spirit" for her family and friends.

"Harriet was the one who, by her example, played the major role in making us who we are today," said Dr. Duncan, who lives in southern Brazil. "She just did what she thought was right and in so doing moved her family and her community forward. And she had fun with her life in the process."

Longtime friend Phyllis Morrow of Rockville said she still thinks about the talks she and Mrs. Duncan shared on the 2-mile walks they took most mornings before Mrs. Duncan moved to Cockeysville. They would chat about food — Mrs. Duncan was an "excellent cook," she said — and family.

"She was a marvelous friend to me," Mrs. Morrow, 90, said. "We'll miss her."

Sandie Deighton of Chevy Chase, another longtime friend, said Mrs. Duncan always had an air of elegance and composure that made those around her feel at ease. She was a great conversationalist who was so well read she could "talk about anything," Mrs. Deighton said.

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Mrs. Deighton, 73, remembered years ago when she'd get home from work, finding copies of the Washington Post that Mrs. Duncan had left with little notes about which articles were must reads and which she could skip.

"She was a really sincere, wonderful human being," Mrs. Deighton said.

The Duncans traveled extensively, including winter trips to the Caribbean, prior to Dr. Duncan's death in 1988.

After maintaining the family home for several years, Mrs. Duncan moved to the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville in the mid-1990s.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium at Broadmead, 13801 York Road, Cockeysville.

In addition to her sons, survivors include daughters-in-law Maria Ines Schmidt, of Brazil, and Pat Davey, of Andover, Mass., four grandchildren and a great-grandson. She was preceded in death by a brother, Bradford Bartholow.

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