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Jennifer Burdick, civil rights advocate and former executive director of Maryland Commission on Human Relations, dies

Jennifer Burdick served on the Baltimore City Ethics Board.
Jennifer Burdick served on the Baltimore City Ethics Board.

Jennifer Burdick, former executive director of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and an activist for racial equity and the arts, died of complications from ALS at her Fort Collins, Colorado, home. The longtime former Charles Village resident was 76.

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, she was the daughter of Quentin N. Burdick, who served briefly in the House of Representatives and then from 1960 to 1992 in the U.S. Senate, and his wife, Marietta Janecky, who worked on campaigns with him. She was a graduate of Fargo Central High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Beloit College, where she also swam on the school team. She belonged to the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

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Her mother died when she was 14 and Ms. Burdick stepped in to co-manage her father’s political campaigns.

“She did canvassing, coordinated people and went door-to-door trying to get the word out,” said her daughter, Kate Stephens of Fort Collins.

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Ms. Burdick rode in the 1967 Washington Cherry Blossom Parade in 1967 as Cherry Blossom princess.

Left to right, Susan Chan, vice president Jennifer Burdick and Pat Rock work at the annual fundraiser for the Young Audiences of Maryland in November 1997 at the Peabody Library. (Tiffany H. House/staff photo)
Left to right, Susan Chan, vice president Jennifer Burdick and Pat Rock work at the annual fundraiser for the Young Audiences of Maryland in November 1997 at the Peabody Library. (Tiffany H. House/staff photo) (TIFFANY H. HOUSE / XX)

A lifelong Democrat, she participated in the 1963 “I Have a Dream” March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Long a civil rights advocate, she also marched for John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. She also participated in the 2018 Women’s March.

One of her favorite quotes, from Jimi Hendrix, was, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

While in college, she spent two summers working at the American Embassy in Rome. While there she developed a love of opera. She told her family she was hooked after seeing an outdoor performance of “Aida” at the Baths of Caracalla.

As a young college graduate, she was a manager at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for the Study of Man. After moving to Baltimore more than 40 years ago, she was an investigator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at its local office.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer named Ms. Burdick to be executive director for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. In June 2010, she was confirmed by the Baltimore City Council to serve on the City Ethics Board.

Jennifer Burdick, left, and Aimee Adashek are pictured at the Young Audiences of Maryland fundraiser at the Peabody Library in November 1998. (Tiffany H. House/staff photo)
Jennifer Burdick, left, and Aimee Adashek are pictured at the Young Audiences of Maryland fundraiser at the Peabody Library in November 1998. (Tiffany H. House/staff photo) (TIFFANY H. HOUSE / XX)

She also owned a children’s art education business, Abracadoodle, before she founded CMK Associates, a human resources consulting and training company.

She coached workers in stress management reduction, work-life balance and supervisory skill-building, and represented Aetna, Blue Cross and Vision Service Providers at health fairs.

Ms. Burdick had immense enthusiasm and a wide range of passions—– from opera to casinos.

Friends said she had a knack for bringing people together and invigorating their company.

“Jennifer was one of my favorite theatergoing companions and one of the most intrepid. Nothing was too new, too different or too off-the-beaten track," said J. Wynn Rousuck, WYPR theater critic. “She kept perpetually busy — taking classes; working with cultural, civic and educational organizations. ... She could always carve out time to see a play, whether it was in Baltimore, Washington or even Shepherdstown, West Virginia.”

Ms. Burdick was named one of “Maryland’s Top 100 Women” for 1997, 1999 and 2001. She was inducted into the Circle of Excellence of Maryland Women.

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“She was one of those great citizens of Baltimore,” said Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival. “She saw something start here as a volunteer and threw herself into it. She worked the festival when it was founded and worked until she couldn’t do it anymore. You can’t build an arts organization without people like her.

“There is a spirit in Baltimore she exemplified — no-nonsense and get the job done. She had strong ideas but filled in in the best ways and just started helping."

She was a past board member of Young Audiences Arts for Learning, the Charles Village Civic Association and its Community Benefits District, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and the Baltimore Concert Opera.

A member of the Engineers Club, she gave Garrett Jacobs Mansion tours and was a Baltimore Museum of Art volunteer. She was a longtime volunteer at the House of Ruth.

Ms. Burdick was a skilled swimmer and participated in the 2018 Fluid Movement’s 2018 tribute to Alfred Hitchcock at the Patterson and Druid Hill parks pools. She was a founding member of a group that called itself the Druid Hill Park Country Club.

Ms. Burdick traveled widely — she began visiting Yellowstone and Pikes Peak as a young adult and spent time in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she began snorkeling. She became a scuba diver and made annual trips to the Caribbean and South Pacific. She also visited Mexico and Ireland.

Pam Kelly, left, and Jennifer Burdick wave at cars and hold signs at 33rd and St. Paul streets in support of mayoral candidate Carl Stokes in September 1999. Algerina Perna/staff photo
Pam Kelly, left, and Jennifer Burdick wave at cars and hold signs at 33rd and St. Paul streets in support of mayoral candidate Carl Stokes in September 1999. Algerina Perna/staff photo (Algerina Perna / XX)

“She was fearless and would take a freighter to get to a dive site,” said her niece, Kara Hill of Minneapolis. "Jennifer was a free spirit. Though from North Dakota, she settled in Baltimore and became a Baltimore girl. She loved the city.”

She lived on Calvert Street and later St. Paul Street for many years, and opened her home to Johns Hopkins students.

“She had a beautiful, glowing house she filled with her treasures,” her niece said.

She attended Cinema Sundays at The Charles Theatre and was a volunteer at Center Stage, Everyman and Chesapeake Shakespeare theaters.

She was an Elvis Presley fan and was present in 1977 at his last Baltimore appearance at the then-Civic Center. She also hosted Elvis-themed parties to celebrate his birthday.

“Her ALS had taken ahold of her,” said her daughter, Kate. "She was waiting for this year’s election ballot to arrive. When it did, she filled it out and made the choice to no longer sustain her life with food and water."

In addition to her daughter and niece, survivors include two sons, Chuck Stephens of Los Angeles and Matt Stephens of Arvada, Colorado; two sisters, Jan Mary Hill of Deer River, Minnesota, and Jessica Burdick of Anchorage, Alaska; four nephews; and four grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial gathering are pending.

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