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What's Up Magazine

Esther Carpenter

Mar 04, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous


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This advice provided the framework for a lifetime of community building and charitable giving. Though she downplays her accomplishments, Carpenter has made significant contributions to the Annapolis community, particularly in services for women. As former Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens puts it, “She’s made a lasting impact.”

At 93, Carpenter is still long and lean, and she winks playfully when she tells about her adventures as a young woman starting her career in social work in the 1930s. Her route from Cincinnati to Annapolis took her first to Manhattan for a graduate degree in social work at the New York School of Social Work (affiliated with NYU).

After graduation, she worked in New Jersey for a short time before heading for Honolulu. “I wanted to go as far as I could where they still spoke English,” she says of choosing to work in Hawaii. She and five other passengers boarded a freighter in New York that slowly wound its way through the Panama Canal and up to Los Angeles. From Los Angeles to Honolulu she took a cruise ship, which she found dull after her freighter experience, “It was like they tried to get you to forget you were at sea.”

Shortly after arriving in Hawaii, she met the man who would be her first husband, a graduate student in the English department at the University of Hawaii, Frederick Holahan. After working the 2-year minimum for her employer to reimburse her moving expenses, the young Carpenter joined her fiancé in Baltimore. The two married, and he attended a doctoral English program at Johns Hopkins while she worked.

With the start of World War II, she joined the Red Cross Home Service, working in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., and her husband joined the Navy, deploying to Europe. After the war, the couple settled in Annapolis. He took a professorship at the Naval Academy and she took a job with the Anne Arundel office of the state’s Department of Social Services, where she quickly became the director.

At Social Services, Carpenter established the Anne Arundel Council of Community Services. It is her proudest achievement. “With the council, each of the agencies—the health department, juvenile services, etc.—could come together to meet the needs of the community. Often agencies would have overlapping or related issues, and the council allowed them to work more efficiently and effectively.”

That comment is as close as she’ll come to tooting her own horn, though, and she speaks of her myriad contributions as a state employee and private citizen volunteer matter-of-factly: “It just made sense.”

Some of her other work for the state and county resulted in the birth of the Commission on Aging, which is now the county’s Department on Aging and Disabilities. On her own time, she’s volunteered and given generously to the YWCA, Planned Parenthood, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.

As a board member for the YWCA, she helped establish an endowment for the organization. Sarah Ann Parsons, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker and member of the YWCA board, recalls Carpenter’s persistence in starting the endowment. “We’d have people raising money with bake sales and small fundraisers, but Esther stepped up and said, ‘We need more than this. We need to get people to make substantial contributions.’ It was important to have her on the board because her professional experience made her knowledgeable about ways we could get financially stable.”

Even Carpenter will admit to the importance of the endowment fund to the YWCA’s mission. “An endowment gives you regular and constant income. It’s like a security blanket. Fund-raising is too erratic to be relied upon.” The stability of the endowment has allowed the YWCA to operate and maintain a shelter for abused women and children in addition to numerous programs affecting women and children.

Carpenter served as a board member and volunteer for another organization that supports women, Planned Parenthood. She minces no words regarding Planned Parenthood: “As a social worker, Planned Parenthood was my first priority. And you don’t have to be a social worker to see what happens when someone has more children than they want. Every child should be a wanted child.”

This steadfast belief in the organization’s mission helped the Planned Parenthood Annapolis health center establish roots. Keiren Havens, vice president of development for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, says Carpenter’s contributions of time, energy, and money were invaluable in establishing the Annapolis Planned Parenthood health center. “When the clinic first opened in the ’70s, we didn’t have a lot of staff members, and there were often protesters who would harass patients as they entered the building or do things like chain themselves to chairs in the waiting room. Esther organized volunteer patient escorts to help women enter the clinic safely.”

Carpenter still gets upset when she recalls the time when the health center was firebombed. “It’s a shame that we had to go to such lengths just to ensure that the clinic could operate at all. Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood has to spend money on security that otherwise could go to women’s health care.”

She’s been called “ahead of her time” by others who have worked with her, and that’s not just because of her steadfast devotion to women’s causes that weren’t always in the political mainstream. She also helped start a church from scratch. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (UUCA), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year, was just a fledgling group in the 1950s when Carpenter joined its ranks. Most of the group had been attending a Unitarian church in Baltimore but decided to start their own congregation in Annapolis. Since joining the church, Carpenter has served in almost every capacity—teaching Sunday school, raising money, doing social justice work, and serving on the board. In fact, she was the first woman president of the congregation’s board of trustees and held that position when the church hired its current minister, almost 25 years ago.

Carpenter is an avid gardener. She and her late second husband, Tom Carpenter, held azalea parties on their large wooded lot in St. Margaret’s. Even in her 90s, she maintains a garden for cut flowers. She planned much of the landscaping at the UUCA and likes to tell a story of the now magnificent magnolia tree growing behind the church. “We had gone to Washington to buy evergreens for a hedge on one side of the church, and we had about $3 left over. On the way back we stopped at a roadside stand where a man was selling a little magnolia sapling in a coffee can for $2.95. Now that tree is a focal point on the property.”

Carpenter continued her volunteer work long after retiring at the age of 66, and though she’s cut back her activities recently, she still stuffs envelopes for the YWCA with fellow residents at Ginger Cove and follows closely the happenings at her favorite organizations. And when she passes away, her estate will continue to benefit those organizations.

In 2000, Carpenter and three other female “pioneers” were honored for their service to the community, improving the lives of women and families in Anne Arundel County. In typical fashion, she said she didn’t know what the fuss was about and had to be persuaded to even attend the celebration at the Arundel Center.

She’d never say so herself, but she serves as a source of inspiration for generations of women behind her. Penny Cantwell, vice president at Commerce First Bank and president of the YWCA’s board, says of Carpenter, “She demonstrates that the way in which you live your life, you can make a difference in the community. Her commitment makes other people say, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’”

Her minister at UUCA, Fred Muir, says, “She is one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met.” The people of this community, especially its women and families, are the beneficiaries of her hope. As much as the tiny sapling bought on the side of the road has grown into a magnificent tree, her hope and hard work have grown a wealth of services that have made Annapolis and Anne Arundel County a better place to live.

Ms. Carpenter passed away in April 2008.