Mar 11, 2011 03:00AM ● Published by Anonymous
Nearing her 90th birthday, Huckenpoehler looks great, feels great—and still moves with a dancer’s grace. This mother of four and grandmother of eight spent her early years as an only child in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Always artistic, she started dancing at the age of five and displayed a talent for drawing that placed her at the top of a Twin Cities competition and earned her a fine arts scholarship at a prestigious secondary school.
Her mother (“a typical stage mom”) took her to California when she was 17, where MGM cast her in an Abbott and Costello movie called Lost in a Harem. As part of a dance troupe called the Taynton Ballet Company, she toured the West Coast from Los Angeles and San Diego to Seattle, performing at theaters and nightclubs. The dancers were driven in a cavalcade that included two Pierce Arrow limos and a trailer filled with props and costumes.
During a career that eventually led to Broadway, Huckenpoehler was performing in a show in Minneapolis where a young navy lieutenant named Bill Huckenpoehler was bowled over by “the pretty brunette on the left” and asked the master of ceremonies for an introduction. Their meeting ultimately led to a wedding in 1955. Shortly thereafter, Lt. Huckenpoehler was posted to South America, where the couple spent a storybook two years before returning to Maryland for him to teach at the Naval Academy, in 1957.
It was then that Huckenpoehler’s involvement with the local community began—a love affair that has continued for the past 50 years. The Anne Arundel County Department of Parks and Recreation hired her to teach dancing to residents throughout the county. In 1960, Huckenpoehler began an association with the Naval Academy that continues today. Over the years she has been responsible for introducing plebes to the art and amenities of ballroom dancing as well as the social protocols required for future naval officers. Not long ago, while at an official Navy function, she was approached by Admiral Rodney P. Rempt. “You taught me to dance years ago,” he said to a startled “Mrs. H,” as she is known to her students.
This year she is preparing the mids for the annual International Ball, held each spring in honor of foreign officers on the Academy faculty as well as midshipmen from other countries. The formal but festive affair, held in Alumni Hall, involves weeks of rehearsals with members of the Academy’s Dance Club. “Mrs. H. is like a grandma figure to us. She always tells us stories about her dancing days. Everyone here loves her,” says Midshipman Clifford Ryan, head of the waltz and tango sections of the club.
At about the same time that she began teaching at the Naval Academy, Huckenpoehler assumed ownership of the Annapolis Cotillion for youngsters ages 10 to 15. Three generations of Annapolitans have learned their social graces under her gentle but firm tutelage. Among her earliest pupils was Susan Steele, now the wife of noted orthopedic surgeon Marshall K. Steele III, who several years ago performed Huckenpoehler’s hip and knee replacements.
Other Cotillion alums include the seven children of former restaurateur George Phillips, whose daughter Corey met Huckenpoehler as a seven-year-old pupil. Nearly a half-century later, the former pupil’s daughter Hope Stewart, 31, acts as Huckenpoehler’s assistant—most recently at the 49th Cotillion, held at Annapolis High School. In its heyday, the Cotillion had an enrollment of more than 300. This past year, 70 boys and girls attended the event, having prepared by learning the waltz, fox-trot, and swing dancing as well as the niceties of a formal receiving line. “Mrs. Huckenpoehler is an Annapolis institution,” says Stewart.
Yet another layer of Huckenpoehler’s contributions to the community involves her longtime volunteer work with the local Elks (BPOE Annapolis Elks Lodge 622). She was the first woman accepted by the organization and eventually a two-time winner of its Elk of the Year award. She orchestrated a number of vaudeville shows that featured members of the organization and their wives in dance routines that she choreographed—and for which she made most of the costumes. In the ’80s, they were much in demand as performers at veterans’ hospitals and other Elks Club lodges. Huckenpoehler is an active volunteer at the club—these days, as a cashier who greets most members by name.
Other local organizations that have benefited from Huckenpoehler’s artistic talents and leadership abilities are the Arundelair Chorus of Sweet Adelines, Colonial Players, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, and the Naval Academy’s Masqueraders theatrical group. Always an innovator, she was the choreographer (and set builder) for the musical Brigadoon, the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s first performance. Actor-director Debbie Barber-Eaton knows the scope of Huckenpoehler’s involvement with the local arts scene. “A wonderful woman. My parents were in the Follies she used to do for the Elks. Those were good times for a lot of people.”
Although she is best known as a dancer, teacher, volunteer, and community organizer, Huckenpoehler has yet another talent—creating her version of Fabergé eggs. Her home is enhanced with glass cabinets displaying nearly 100 of these miniature masterpieces, as well as a display case of miniature holiday scenes, including a tiny wagon, a rocking chair, miniature doll, and other toys clustered under an eight-inch Christmas tree—all homemade.
Huckenpoehler raised four children—Christian, Inga, Betty, and John—during these busy years, while her husband continued his career as a member of the Naval Academy’s Engineering Department. He became her polished dance partner, still active until he died suddenly of cancer in 1995. Their offspring were often pressed into service, and they had to adjust to the peccadilloes of “show biz.” One of them recalls “coming home from school to find Mom in the kitchen painting a face on some strange man’s belly for an Elks Club performance and often having a backyard full of people rehearsing a play.”
John, a 1980 graduate of the Naval Academy, says, “With all the dancing and theater work that Mom was involved in, we accepted some pretty atypical things as being normal.” He remembers being his mother’s dance partner when she taught ballroom dancing to his fellow plebes. “She taught us a lot. I’m the only guy my age I know who can do a cartwheel. Back then, we didn’t realize what hard work it was to raise a family, let alone do all the other things she did. She was, and still is, pretty amazing.”
Asked to name what she considers her highest achievement in a long and colorful career, Huckenpoehler doesn’t hesitate a moment. “My children,” she says, with a smile bright enough to light up a room. “Mrs. H” is still dancing as fast as she can, though without her beloved Bill.