James W. Stevens Jr., a financial planner in Baltimore known as "Big Jim" for his 6-foot-5 bearing, and who became the content old guard of the Homeland neighborhood, died Thursday of cancer.
Mr. Stevens lived nearly all of his 81 years among the winding lanes and stone cottages of Homeland. He left in 2002 and died at Mercy Ridge Retirement Community.
Handsome and dignified, with perfect posture and handwriting, he was descended from Maryland's 18th governor, Samuel Stevens Jr. And he displayed on his wall a painting he commissioned of the governor's Eastern Shore estate of Compton.
His childhood during the late 1940s and early 1950s was steeped in the old Baltimore society of cotillions and debutantes. Mr. Stevens later counted among his clients publishers of the Baltimore Society Visiting List, the Blue Book directory of Baltimore socialites.
His wife of 55 years, Barbara McCormick Stevens, grew up 10 houses away from him in Homeland. They raised three children on tree-lined Purlington Way, where they hosted neighbors and organized to raise money for Homeland's ornamental ponds. She wrote a history of the neighborhood. Some evenings, they sipped iced tea and ate oatmeal cookies on their shaded porch.
"Their house was always open," said H. Duff Smith, a friend and former neighbor. "The neighborhood was very important to them."
On Sundays, they celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Mr. Stevens served 40 years as an usher there. He couldn't be missed standing above the congregation ramrod straight and at 270 pounds.
"He was one impressive figure and known by many parishioners," Mr. Smith said.
Born to James Stevens Sr., a wholesale buyer and seller of produce, and Helen Paula Turner, a homemaker, James Wilmer Stevens Jr. graduated from Loyola Blakefield in 1953. Despite his size, chronic asthma kept him from playing sports. He studied one year at the University of Maryland then began working full time for the family wholesale company, Stevens Brothers. From a warehouse near present-day M&T Bank Stadium, they bought fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers and sold the produce to stores across Baltimore. Mr. Stevens would even travel with his father to avocado farms in New Mexico and tomato farms in California.
He took night classes in business at the Johns Hopkins University and graduated in 1963. By then, he had married Barbara McCormick. Theirs was the 100th wedding at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. They settled on Purlington Way where they would remain nearly four decades. Their house cost $22,000 back then, their son Scott Stevens said.
The Stevens Brothers' wholesale business closed after eight decades in 1966. Mr. Stevens went into banking with the Equitable Trust Co., where he managed the finances of nonprofits. The bank was sold in the 1980s and Mr. Stevens went to work with his wife. She had started her own financial planning company, Stevens Management. He kept some clients until his death last week.
"People relied on him and trusted him, and he drew a lot of satisfaction out of that," said Scott Stevens, who runs a construction company in South Baltimore.
Mr. Stevens also led efforts to establish a trust fund to preserve the cathedral. And for years he helped organize the annual March of Dimes walk in Baltimore.
Each summer, he took his family on vacation to Bethany Beach. He preferred to stay at the Sea Colony resort. He was the chef of the household, known for his paella and turkey tetrazzini. And he took his scotch neat with a splash of water, always Clan MacGregor.
In recent years, he could be brought to tears by speaking proudly of his five grandchildren, said Suzie Stevens, his daughter-in-law. He always wore his Class of 1953 hat when attending their volleyball games at Loyola.
"When papa got choked up about something, because he was proud or happy, everybody got choked up," Suzie Stevens said.
Among his family, Mr. Stevens' tales were infamous yet beloved for their tendency to be embellished. He would call the Eastern Shore estate of Compton their ancestral home. In fact, he would say, they were descended from Charlemagne (they were not).
"He loved to tell a story, and tell it again and again," Scott Stevens said, laughing. "The stories got bigger as he retold them."
Mr. Stevens was a devotee of the opera and served 20 years on the board of the Baltimore Opera. His favorite was "Carmen," and he told again and again of the time he met his favorite soprano, Beverly Sills. She performed in the city as part of a farewell tour then attended dinner at the Engineers Club of Baltimore. He still displayed her coffee table book years later.
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"He just admired her talent, probably had a little crush on her, too," Scott Stevens said.
The son shared another story of his father: a tale about Mr. Stevens' operatic debut as an extra during a scene portraying Ancient Egypt. Only it never happened. Mr. Stevens demurred once he learned he would have to appear bare-chested and behead someone on stage.
Scott Stevens learned the truth Sunday from his mother and laughed at his own tall tale.
"Oh, I just pulled a dad," he said.
A memorial Mass will be celebrated 2 p.m. May 20 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Stevens is survived by another son, Mark Stevens, of Charlotte, N.C.; daughter Paula Harmon, of Baltimore; and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by an older sister, Suzanne Tichenor.