Valerie K. “Val” Sunderland, a former University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University administrator who was an accomplished sailor, watercolorist and doyenne of Camp Wittman, died of leukemia Saturday at her home in Wittman on the Eastern Shore. The former resident of Mayfield in Northeast Baltimore was 76.
“No matter what kind of day you were having or how rough the seas, Miss Val could comfort you and make you feel good about yourself,” wrote Rafael Alvarez, former Baltimore Sun reporter, local author and neighbor, in an email. “Her voice was soft and her kitchen was warm. My circle has been losing a lot of good people lately. Valerie Sunderland was the best of them.”
Dana Eggert was a close friend and Wittman neighbor for two decades.
“Val was the most amazing, wonderful, kind, and generous person,” Ms. Eggert said. “Everything about Val was lovely. She was such a lovely person, wonderful mom and an incredible grandmother.”
Valerie Kontos, daughter of Lou Kontos, owner of Lou’s Bar & Liquors on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, and Marie Kontos, who worked alongside her husband, was born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four children, and later moved with her parents to Baltimore, where she was raised in Greektown and Highlandtown in Southeast Baltimore.
After graduating in 1964 from Patterson High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968 from the University of Maryland, College Park. The next year, she married her high school sweetheart, Truitt “Tru” Sunderland, who was a graduate of the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School, and worked as a marine engineer aboard steamships.
In 1970, she obtained a master’s degree from what is now Loyola University Maryland, and that same year she became pregnant with her first child, a daughter. She surprised her husband “with the good news on a visit to San Francisco, where Tru was working on a ship,” said her daughter, Margaret “Maggie” Sunderland Berman of Monkton.
In 1971, the couple moved into their first home on North Decker Avenue, near Patterson Park, which they renovated over the next few years. “They claimed they did the first exposed brick wall in East Baltimore,” Ms. Berman said.
In 1984, she and her family moved to a home on Kentucky Avenue in Mayfield. They lived there until 2000 when she and her husband moved to Wittman, in Talbot County, permanently. Theypurchased the 3.5-acre wooded lot in 1980, eventually building their home and establishing what became known as Camp Wittman to family and friends.
Here, Mrs. Sunderland created wondrous gardens, and happily passed her days “weeding, digging, planting and replanting flowers, shrubs and trees,” her daughter said. “Gardening was deeply meaningful to her. It was her meditation.”
From 1979 to 1986, Mrs. Sunderland worked in administration at the Johns Hopkins University at its Homewood campus. In 1989, she returned to work at the University of Maryland when she took a job in the office of the dean of academic affairs. She retired in 1999.
She and her husband’s love of sailing, which became a center point of their lives, began in 1978 when they purchased their first boat, a 3-foot sloop named Sea Trek.They sailed it on their maiden voyage to Key West, Florida, through the Intracoastal Waterway.
They then purchased another sloop, the Pot Pie, a 30-footer, which they sailed in 2005 and where they spent the winter. For the next 16 years, they spent winters in the Bahamas aboard the Margaret, a 38-foot sloop, which they loved sharing with family and friends on cruises to remote islands and uninhabited places.
“We’re a waterfront community and she taught her kids and grandkids how to sail,” Ms. Eggert said.
When they weren’t away sailing, Camp Wittman became the “family sanctuary,” her daughter said, where family, grandchildren and friends spent weekends sailing, swimming, kayaking and enjoying the tranquility of the Eastern Shore.
“When the grandkids came to Camp Wittman, Val would make blueberry pancakes for breakfast, and when she served dinner, she served dessert first,” Ms. Eggert said. “The Greeks call grandmother ‘Yaya,’ and she was the grandmother of everyone’s dreams.”
‘”Miss Val,’ as we called her, created an oasis at Camp Wittman. Once we were over the bridge and headed her way my blood pressure went down automatically,” wrote Phoebe Stein, former executive director of Maryland Humanities, who is now president of the Federation of State Humanities, in an email.
She and her husband, Mr. Alvarez, are old friends of Mrs. Sunderland and her family.
“She would greet us with crabs by the pool; we had quiet chats about the kids and grandkids and always shared book recommendations,” Ms. Stein wrote. “Her gardens were lush and bountiful, and the peace by the water a refuge and balm she shared gladly with us.”
The Morning Sun
Mrs. Sunderland, an accomplished watercolorist, especially enjoyed painting in the Bahamas where she made lasting friendships with members of the cruising community, her daughter said.
From 2005 to 2007, she was president of the St. Michaels Art League, and during her tenure, membership grew from 50 to 150 painters. She conducted workshops and classes and traveled throughout the country leading painting workshops. She also enjoyed giving away her framed paintings, family members said.
“She was an incredible watercolor artist,” Ms. Eggert said. “I have her hand-painted Christmas cards displayed all over my house.”
Mrs. Sunderland was an avid reader and a devoted NPR listener.
But, perhaps her “greatest joy in life,” her daughter said, were her five grandchildren. “She spent much of her time with them, teaching them to bake, sail, swim, ride a bike, drive a car, garden and how to be good humans. She loved to learn and imparted that love of learning new things onto her grandkids. She taught by example that your time and love is the greatest gift you have to share.”
Services are private.
In addition to her husband of 53 years and daughter, Mrs. Sunderland is survived by her son, Athan Truitt Sunderland of Monkton; a brother, Nick Kontos of Timonium; two sisters, Joanne Bushman of Salisbury and Kalia Urff of Port Orange, Florida; and five grandchildren.