Sister Marie Charles Grauer, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught thousands of young women at the Institute of Notre Dame during her more than four-decade career at the East Baltimore parochial school, died Tuesday at Villa Assumpta, her order's motherhouse in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Baltimore County. She was 96.
"Her physician said she died of failure to thrive," said Sister Bernadette Mary Walsh, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who is responsible for the care of the sisters at their order's Maria Health Care Center at the motherhouse.
"She was a fantastic English teacher and the kids loved her, but she was very, very strict," said Sister Hilda Marie Sunderland, a member of the order and a lifelong friend who has been at the school for 67 years, overseeing the operation of its bookstore. "But outside of the classroom, butter would melt in her mouth."
The daughter of Charles Grauer and Mary Bauer Grauer, she was born Margaret Mary Grauer in Highlandtown and was raised in a rowhouse on South Macon Street.
After an uncle died and left her mother $50, she used the money to send her daughter to the Institute of Notre Dame on North Aisquith Street.
After graduating from IND in 1939, she worked for several years as an insurance clerk before entering the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1943. She professed her vows in 1946 and took Marie Charles as her religious name.
Sister Marie Charles began her teaching career at St. Leo Sacred Heart School in Irvington, N.J., and while teaching there, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1952 from what is now Seton Hall University. In 1969, she earned a master's degree in education from what is now Loyola University Maryland.
From 1954 to 1957, she taught at St. Ann's School at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street, and then taught at St. Mark's in Catonsville from 1957 to 1959, when she joined the IND faculty.
Michael Reeb, a former Baltimore Sun sports copy editor and columnist, was an eighth-grade student of Sister Marie Charles' when she taught at St. Mark's.
"She was one of a kind, and my life was changed by her. She opened up the world of reading, writing and language for me, which I came to love. She was my mentor and friend," said Mr. Reeb, who lives in Parkton and now teaches English at IND.
"There were many late nights on The Sun when we were putting the sports section together that I recalled her grammar lessons. She saved me many, many times," said Mr. Reeb.
Sister Marie Charles, who stood 4 feet, 10 inches tall, was a formidable presence who wanted only the best for her students, several former students said.
If Sister Marie Charles detected a student wandering afield during a class, she had a special tactic for getting them back on course.
"If someone was drifting off, she'd take a piece of chalk, which she placed between her forefinger and thumb, and let it whiz right by their ear. She had perfect aim," Mr. Reeb said with a laugh.
Students arriving at the start of the school day had to pass muster, as Sister Marie Charles stood in the entryway waiting for them, armed with a yardstick.
"She was standing there with a yardstick and measured your skirt to make sure it wasn't too short. You got a 2-inch waiver; otherwise you were sent to detention. 'Chopper' — we called her that — carried a notebook and she handed out those detention slips left and right," Mary S. Helfrich, who lives in Severna Park and works in fundraising and development, said with a laugh.
Sister Marie Charles required her junior English students to memorize the Gettysburg Address, which they then had to recite to her.
"Today, if there are more than two IND alum in a room together, with or without wine, they can take the dare and quickly recite it verbatim," said Ms. Helfrich, who graduated in 1980. "She had a whole list of colloquialisms that she used to teach grammar, such as 'turkeys are done and people are finished.'"
Every spring about a month before graduation, she'd visit the school's business office and ask the manager what seniors were in danger of not graduating because they had fallen behind in the payment of tuition.
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"Once she knew who they were, she would pay their past-due bills with the money she had saved over the year," said Ms. Helfrich.
Sister Marie Charles established a student employment program, and from the 1960s to the 1990s solicited local businesses, attorneys, actuaries and accountants and asked them to consider giving IND students after-school jobs, which in many cases turned into careers.
It was estimated that during her 43-year tenure at the school, Sister Marie Charles had taught more than 2,000 young women. She retired in 2002.
She enjoyed attending parties and the theater, going out to dinner, and gatherings with her former IND students. She was also an enthusiastic Orioles fan.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the chapel at Villa Assumpta, 6401 N. Charles St.
She is survived by a sister, Ann Sundergill of Westminster; and three nephews.