Local Life: Evelyn Ruth Ordman
Worker's 'Can-Do' Spirit Inspired Many
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2004; Page C10
Evelyn Ruth Ordman had a way of getting what she
a famous jazz musician into donating untold hours to teach
schoolchildren about music. She arranged for a papal intervention that
resulted in a donation of land for a school playground. She even
persuaded children to pass up trick-or-treat candy to campaign for her
election as precinct chairman.
"She was like a Mother Teresa. She wants
done, she doesn't yell, she just comes and talks to you and bam, it
gets done," said Keter Betts, the renown bassist, laughing at the
memory of how Ordman sweet-talked him into volunteering. "These type of
people are very, very rare. They come in and see the world and they see
where deficiencies are, and they plug the holes."
Ordman, who died Feb. 21 of complications from
at age 90, spent most of her life convinced of the importance of the
arts. In 1937, shortly after graduating with a degree in literary
interpretation from Emerson College, she took a job as a traveling
theatrical producer and director, the dramatic equivalent of Professor
Harold Hill of "The Music Man." She was sent to Maryland's Eastern
Shore and landed in Willards, halfway between Salisbury and Ocean City.
To drum up interest in a show, she decided to stage a parade. She had
animal costumes for the children but had no clown outfits for the
adults. Her son, Edward Ordman, recounted her tale on his Web site.
"Then one of the men spoke up. "Look, we get the
You want a big, fancy, parade, with lots of costumes, and you want
everyone in town to come watch the parade and have a good time, right?"
"OK, you leave it to us. We know what to do, you
don't worry, just come tomorrow, and we'll give you a real nice parade.
"The parade the next day was, by later reports,
biggest in that part of the Eastern Shore for a long time. It had all
the circus costumes except the clowns, quite a few children dressed as
midgets and animals, six fire engines constituting the entire fire
departments of four nearby towns, and, in place of the clowns, what
looked to Evelyn like 50 Ku Klux Klan members in full Klan regalia and
carrying a large cross."
The KKK joined a parade staged by a diminutive
Northern woman, who was Jewish.
Ordman married a few years later, and after
II, she and her husband, Arnold, settled in Montgomery County. She
became involved in the Montgomery County public schools, first as a
volunteer and later developing cultural enrichment programs for
children with federal money. She noticed that African American children
rarely saw successful black professionals at their schools. So in the
early 1960s, she invited Betts, who has a home in Montgomery and had
children in several local schools, to give a performance. He tried to
say no, but she kept solving the problems he raised.
"She kept after me for about two weeks, in that
Katharine Hepburn style," Betts said. When he finally appeared at
Washington Grove Elementary in Gaithersburg, the students' response
hooked him: "I went up to the school, and it was amazing. It just
It's unclear whether Ordman knew that she was
a world-famous arm, one that played with Dinah Washington, Ella
Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, among others. Nevertheless,
Betts did about 100 performances a year just for schoolchildren, and
with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts started a program
to bring preschool children in Head Start to special performances at
Wolf Trap in Vienna.
He was not the only one who launched a new
meeting Ordman. Gail Humphries Mardirosian, now the chair of the
Performing Arts Department at American University, was recruited to
help teach arts in the schools and credits her career to Ordman.
"She could see the value of the arts and
the arts in lives of children," Mardirosian said. "Anyone in her life
was part of her family. She remained a source of inspiration throughout
the years. She changed my life."
Other lives were changed, too. Ordman was
a piece of land for a properly equipped school playground for children
with disabilities. A developer had the perfect parcel nearby, but he
was reluctant to donate it. She learned that the developer, who was
Roman Catholic, had a daughter whose marriage had fallen apart.
The only hope to end the nuptials in the good
the church was an annulment from Rome. Ordman started with a call to
Georgetown Law School, and after a series of calls to ever-higher
church officials, the daughter got an annulment and the school got a
playground, according to her son.
And then there was the time in the late 1960s
when Ordman decided to run for Democratic precinct captain in Wheaton.
"She recruited my brother and his friends to go
campaigning for her on Halloween night, which fell just a few days
before the Nov. 4 election," her son said in an article for the
Christian Science Monitor report. "They were organized so that one of
them would knock on the door of each house in the precinct, and say,
'No, I don't want candy, the treat I want is for you to vote for Evelyn
Ordman for precinct chairman on Nov. 4.'
"Some voters told my mother later that they were
impressed when the kids actually politely declined to take any candy.
(Later that evening, of course, they had a Halloween party in our
basement, complete with all the candy they wanted.)"
Her interest in the world did not stop with
"She was very enthusiastic, extremely supportive and had a tremendously
can-do spirit," said Gary Ratner, who discussed his Bethesda
citizens-based school reform organization with her. "When she took an
interest in somebody, it was like having a one-person cheering section."
© 2004 The Washington Post
|| Evelyn Ruth Ordman with jazz
musician Keter Betts, who recalled how she
sweet-talked him into volunteering in schools. "She wants something
done . . . she just comes and talks to you and bam, it gets done," he