Mary E. Thomsen, former headmistress of St. Paul’s School for Girls and a community activist, died of pancreatic cancer last Monday at her Roland Park Place home. The former longtime Homeland resident was 88.
“Mary Ellen was the heart of our school. She was enormously smart, smart academically and smart about people,” said Nancy R. Marbury, who taught history at the Brooklandville school until retiring in the early 2000s. “She was fun, serious and loving. She was not just my boss; she was my friend and was a very special person in my life.”
The former Mary Ellen Reinert, the daughter of Russell Reinert, a Houghton-Mifflin Publishing Co. traveling book salesman in educational sales, and May Reinert, a kindergarten educator, was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, and spent several years in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, before moving with her family in 1946 to Cranford, New Jersey.
As a junior at Cranford High School, she won the statewide debate competition known as Junior Town Meeting, which earned her a financial aid award for college. Her decision to attend Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was somewhat at peril when her father informed her that he’d be unable to pay the tuition.
“She would later learn that her high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Terragino, phoned Radcliffe’s admission office to convince the college to double their financial offer, which the college did,” wrote a son, Stewart Griffing Thomsen, of Newtonville, Massachusetts, in a biographical profile of his mother. “She would later say of her college, ‘I think Radcliffe gave me the confidence to try almost anything; it’s still a magical word for me.’’'
She was the first graduate of Cranford High School to attend Radcliffe, which has since merged with Harvard University, and graduated cum laude from Radcliffe with a bachelor’s degree in American history.
During her college years, Mrs. Thomsen enjoyed attending Harvard sporting events and sitting as close as possible to the Harvard Band. She had dated a trumpeter in the band and “used to love marching with the band to the stadium on game day,” her son wrote.
Mr. Thomsen said his mother was used to the “invigorating sound of heart-pounding music, as her mother used to start the day for her two young daughters by hammering the downstairs spinet with the Army Band’s ‘Reveille’ to rouse Mary Ellen and her sister, Nancy, from their slumbers.”
During college summers, Mrs. Thomsen worked as a copygirl for the New York Herald Tribune and, after graduating from Radcliffe, went to work as the alumni feature editor for the Harvard Alumni Bulletin. She was subsequently a stringer for the Herald Tribune.
Mrs. Thomsen was a supporter of young women making their way in a world run by men. She wrote about the topic in an article that was published in the Christian Science Monitor.
“Women tend to invest too heavily in the area of personal relationships, a dangerous practice since that is the area in which they have the least control,” she wrote. “We need to teach them quite early to develop natural abilities and interests.”
In 1955, she married George Edward Thomsen, a Harvard Law School student, who had recently returned from service during the Korean War. He graduated from Harvard College on an ROTC Air Force Scholarship in 1952. The two became acquainted with while living in Cambridge.
In 1957, the couple moved to Baltimore and eventually to a home on St. Albans Way, where they raised their three sons. Mrs. Tomsen was initially a homemaker and volunteer.
She immersed herself in community work and from 1969 to 1972, and had served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Welfare.
She also was an active member of the Baltimore Junior League, of which she had been president and first vice president, and was a member of the Test Area Council II in 1971 and 1973. There, she had served as chairwoman of the advisory planning and community research committees and as a member of the project research, education, placement and advisory planning committees.
In 1973, she began serving a two-year term as area director for Area II of the Association of Junior Leagues, which included 43 Junior Leagues in Maryland, Delaware, Washington, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and also chaired its national project on criminal justice.
She had been a member of the Governor’s Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, director of what is now Gilchrist Hospice Center, a member of the Maryland Commission on Aging and a trustee of the Fund for Education Excellence, focused on improving city public schools. She was also a Salvation Army volunteer.
In 1978, Mrs. Thomsen was named headmistress of St. Paul’s School for Girls, where she was able to instill in its students what she had written about in the Christian Science Monitor years earlier.
“Mary Ellen has been my best friend for 40 years, and I had the best time working with her,” said Nancy D. Bradford, who was hired by Mrs. Thomsen in 1979 to head its middle school. “We became best friends during my interview, and the changes she brought to St. Paul’s were the strength of her own personality and in creating an atmosphere of growth. She held everyone to very high standards, and St. Paul’s grew academically stronger during her time.”
Mrs. Bradford, who retired in 1989, added: “She brought her intelligence and a great sense of compassion. She was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and she could bring out the best in faculty and students, and that’s a great gift.”
She said that Mrs. Thomsen was a “well-liked” and popular figure on campus.
“They all loved her, and she was just a lovely woman. One of the biggest things about Mary Ellen was her kindness. I never heard her say anything unkind about anyone or put them down,” she said. “She was just a very, very good headmistress.”
Mrs. Thomsen was something of a blithe spirit.
“She was very funny,” recalled Mrs. Marbury. “She and another teacher would do the Charleston, and the girls thought that was the funniest thing they had ever seen.”
Mrs. Thomsen stepped down as headmistress in 1986 and was succeeded by Lila Boyce Lohr.
She was known for saying, “I am happiest working with others running things.”
The Morning Sun
Mrs. Thomsen was a former president of the boards of Union Memorial Hospital and Roland Park Country School and had been on the advisory board of Pastoral Counseling and Consultation Centers of Greater Baltimore. She also served as a trustee of the Community College of Baltimore and had been a Child Life program volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Mrs. Thomsen had been a member of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, where she had been an elder and a founding member and director of the Brown Memorial Weekday School.
After moving 20 years ago to a condominium at the Colonnade in the city’s Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, Mrs. Thomsen had lived at Roland Park Place for the past decade.
She had been a volunteer tutor for Roland Park Elementary School and the Greater Homewood Adult Literacy Center, where she recalled helping a 50-year old man send a birthday card to his mother, family members said. She taught creative writing for the Metropolitan Senior Citizen Center and was a docent at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Decisive as a leader, optimistic in looking forward and not dwelling on the past, she looked for the best in people and found it,” her son wrote. “She was a friend to many, and often a friend to the friendless.”
Mrs. Thomsen was a member of Roland Park Presbyterian Church, 4801 Roland Ave., where a celebration-of-life gathering will be held at 11 a.m. on June 11.
In addition to her husband, a retired tax and estate lawyer, and her son, Mrs. Thomsen is survived by two other sons, Roszel Cathcart Thomsen II of Roland Park and Laurence Woodward Thomsen of Sacramento, California; a sister, Nancy Horan of Washington; and seven grandchildren.