Dear Friends of Soldiers Delight: Celebrating our mentors
One of Maryland’s most valuable resources is its people. Throughout my life, some truly awe-inspiring folks exposed to me the wonder of nature—taught me how to appreciate it, took me places to enjoy it and revealed to me how to find it on my own.
This past February, I had the honor of interviewing two such people: Jean Worthley and Les Graef, both now 91 years old, both protectors of our Maryland heritage and one of its most unique ecosystems nestled within Owings Mills.
Jean and Les first crossed paths in the 1950s—a time when Baltimore County was growing quickly and Soldiers Delight was in risk of being left off the map.
In an unexpected but welcome turn in my career, I was recently promoted to manage Soldiers Delight. Within my first week of moving in and organizing my new workspace, I came across a copy of The Complete Family’s Nature Guide by Jean Worthley.
The Maryland Park Service knows her as a champion for Soldiers Delight. I know her as Miss Jean from Maryland Public Television’s Hodgepodge Lodge in the 70s. It was one of my earliest inspirations to pursue a career as a park ranger.
As if fate was eager to make a connection, I shared with one of my oldest friends, Les Graef and his wife, Sally, the excitement of my new post, adding that I had found Miss Jean’s book and what she meant to me as a child. Les then told me he remembered Jean Worthley from the Citizens for Soldiers Delight project.
Les was in charge of planning major parts of Baltimore County. He was responsible, literally, for putting Soldiers Delight on the map as a protected open space. He recalled meeting Jean more than 50 years ago to voice her plea: this area must be preserved and protected.
I thought about this well into the evening. As I recalled an episode of Hodgepodge Lodge filmed at Soldiers Delight, the words of the man who essentially saved it echoed in my head. I’m now a ranger, given the gift of managing that same land. The world is a circle.
Where Jean left off when I was a boy, Les picked up. As a Boy Scout leader, he led Troop 742 for more than 30 years. He taught us Leave No Trace principals before they even existed. He taught us the value of serving the community, leading us to volunteer for such projects as the Jerusalem Mills restoration, Appalachian Trail workdays and Habitat for Humanity.
Jean’s public television series was instrumental in another way. It brought nature to children who didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to explore it. Miss Jean was Baltimore’s own naturalist Mister Rogers, with her quiet demeanor and sweet way.
I thought how great it would to get these two together, to record some conversation, some memories, some wisdom. I spent the next few days tracking down Miss Jean and asked them both if they would agree to an interview. They did.
Miss Jean graciously invited us to gather at her home.
Driving down her lane, the first thing I noticed was an old tilted mailbox, surrounded by last year’s tall brown grass. I could still clearly read the faded but proud words Hodgepodge Lodge.
As Les, Sally and I entered through a sliding glass door into the parlor, the warmth of the fire enveloped us, and two yellow labs welcomed us with kisses and wagging tails. Miss Jean’s 91st birthday had been two days prior, and several family members were there to join our circle.
I sat mesmerized, enjoying every word.
Jean explained Soldiers Delight’s importance in exquisite detail. Les spoke of his role and how Miss Jean and her cohorts helped him understand the value of the area.
I am so grateful, and especially appreciate their lives and accomplishments. I hope you enjoy an excerpt of their tales below!
Jamie: Miss Jean, great efforts were made by you and a few friends to preserve the area. Can you set the stage for us?
Jean: My children were young and we had a little nature club that met after school. One of the places we took them to explore was Soldiers Delight.
My friend Francis and I got a group together to visit the powers that be in Baltimore County to make it public property. We didn’t make much progress. We were good naturalists, but not very good lobbyists.
The Citizens’ Planning and Housing Authority found this wonderful woman, Florence Rogers. She was very good with the legislators, but she could make people cry. Her nickname was the Dragon Lady.
She had us standing in front of supermarkets on Saturday mornings, asking people for a dollar. We raised $25,000 ourselves, and [the county] gave $75,000 to the state to get the ball rolling.
Ten years or so went by and some land was there but no Visitors Center. So she started again and got the Visitors Center. We would joke about how she expected us to put up a statue at the main overlook when she died.
We also asked the [Baltimore] Sun for some publicity. They sent their famous photographer, Aubrey Bodine. In those days they had the brown sheet on Sunday, which wasn’t very colorful, just different from black and white.
He said, “Where are these rare wildflowers?” I showed him one that was in full bloom, gorgeous, with a beautiful pink flower. He was crestfallen because he couldn’t do it justice in brown and white. But it was a nice spread. It had pictures of the children climbing around. It looked as if they were out west somewhere, miles away from civilization, having a wonderful time.
Jamie: Les, what are some of your memories of the 50s, when you were mapping?
Les: We were at a time when there was no indication of what might be in parts of Baltimore County. We invited the community to be involved with what we call sector plans. I remember doing the northwest plan, and in it was the first rough outline of what could be at Soldiers Delight.
I remember Florence Rogers, who—I’d call her a birddog—pressured us to make sure it showed appropriately.
It’s nice to hear this wonderful background on Jean and her group. I, frankly, am so pleased to be part of an effort that started with Jean, where now one of my very best friends, Eagle Scout Jamie Petrucci, is the ranger. It’s just incredible. It’s serendipity at its best.
Jean: May I say a little about how I got introduced to Soldiers Delight?
Jean: My Aunt Helen had been a student at Goucher [College] in 1918. When it closed for the flu epidemic, she had a month or so to ride horseback and explore.
On Sunday mornings in the 1930s, my mother would break a dozen eggs into a jar, stick it in her saddlebag, and we would all ride four miles to Soldiers Delight. We had a delicious breakfast of fresh herring roe, biscuits cooked over the fire and water from the stream to make coffee.
In graduate school in 1946, I met my husband, Elmer. When I took him home to Soldiers Delight, he fell in love with the trees and the light and the little tiny things in nature. As soon as we had children, they had a lot of fun there. So it was natural we would try to help save it.
Jamie: Les, you also played a large role in connecting children with nature. Can you tell us about that?
Les: Well mostly, I was with the Boy Scouts. I was in charge of arranging trips all through the region. I cannot believe how many hours we spent in the woods. But it was second nature to love the outdoors and to make sure that young people have an appreciation for it.
Jamie: Miss Jean, tell me a little about your show. How did it come about?
Jean: Well, I had two careers. First I ran two preschools: one in Reisterstown and one in Garrison Forest.
I had studied human development and child studies. One day our minister said to my mother, “We’re thinking of starting a pre-school at All Saints. Will you teach?” She said, “No, I can’t stand other people’s children. But Jean! Jean will be glad to.”
It was like baptism by fire, but it worked out. The next thing I knew, I got a call from the people at St. Thomas asking me to be the director.
I was there for 10 years, and I was getting a bit tired of wiping noses. All of a sudden, I found out there was going to be a public television station built nearby. I thought maybe there was something I could do there.
The programming director, Warren Park said, “Think up something you could do for the next age after Sesame Street.”
I suggested a nature show and he said, “Ok, you can be this old maid who lives in a log cabin and every day a little boy and girl will come by to see what you have.”
Jamie: What is your advice to this generation?
Les: For me, the issue in life is curiosity. Without curiosity, there are no questions to be asked and therefore no answers to be gained. So I think that young people should learn how to ask questions and not be shy of doing so.
Jean: I would say to use all their senses. And get away from those cell phones—get outside!
Jamie: Is there anything you would like to add that I might not have asked today?
Les: I’d like to say this is a pleasure to be so close at this point in life with a lady who was so involved in what to me was just lines on a map for many years, subsequently to be implemented as a very special park. To be able to live long enough to know there are beautiful people in the world like Jean to instigate efforts like this is just awesome, and I’m so pleased to have this moment to hear her talk so intimately and wonderfully of the place she loves so much.
Jamie: I want to thank both of you. You have meant a lot to me my whole life and I appreciate this afternoon to talk to you both.
Article by Ranger Jamie Petrucci—Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area park manager.
Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.