Elsie Herrmann was as comfortable on her knees planting tulips in community gardens or crafting clay critters with kids at Mass General as she was leading the board at Bethany Union’s residences for women or slathering mayo on ham and cheese sandwiches at the Pine Street Inn.
A vibrant, indomitable lady with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips, Herrmann passed away February 12 at the age of 99. A gardener, artist, community leader, wife and mother of two, she left no stone unturned.
A zealous gardener who didn’t mind a bit getting her fingers dirty, Herrmann was active in the Beacon Hill Garden Club for years. She was an inspiration and mentor to others, said BHGC member Sharon Malt. “I don’t think there is anyone who knew more about horticulture or how to wield a trowel than Elsie.”
A true force of nature, Elsie was always the first to arrive and last to leave when it came to civic gardening, said Jeanne Burlingame. For years she nurtured gardens at the Peter Faneuil School, Old North Church, Codman Island, West End Library and the flower boxes outside the Charles Street post office. BHGC president Molly Sherden remembers first meeting her at the library. “She was a least thirty years older than I was and there she was, digging with a large, heavy shovel in cement-like ground, flinging dirt behind her,” she said. “I offered to take over for her, but she insisted that she had it covered.”
‘Hands on’ she was, always giving her energy and time to help others, according to Rev. Joy Fallon of King’s Chapel where she devoted much of her time and talent. “My mom adored arranging the flowers at King’s Chapel,” said her daughter Jeannette Herrmann. “Gathering materials at the wholesale flower market on Albany Street made her heart sing.”
A graduate of Boston’s Vesper George art school, Herrmann was a dynamic artist, painting landscapes with watercolors and abstracts with acrylics. “She loved design and I think that’s what led her to study with Mrs. Marjorie Drake Ross who taught decorative arts weekly classes in her Pinckney Street home,” said her daughter.
She also took classes at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Atheneum where in the late ‘70s she met Rita Pope with whom she traveled extensively. “Whether it was to the Cape or Europe, we always had a sketch book in hand,” said Pope, who greatly admired Herrmann’s sense of design.
Reaching far beyond her art and gardening, Herrmann was a hardworking community volunteer who frequently found herself in leadership positions. Early on she served as president of Bethany Union, a residence that provided housing in three adjoining Newbury Street homes for young women in school or at work. She organized monthly dinners for up to 500 guests of the Pine Street Inn. She acquired furniture to launch Rosie’s Place, the country’s first women’s shelter. She reviewed campership applications for the Lend-A-Hand Society which provides financial assistance to low-income families.
Dear to her heart was her involvement in the Fragment Society, a charitable organization founded in 1812 whose members make and buy clothing to be given to those in need. The society is one of the United States oldest continually operating sewing circles. She also served as its president.
Her daughter remembers her mother driving to Chelsea to fetch crates of eggs and oranges for Pine Street Inn or stopping at Macy’s to purchase bundles of clothing for the Fragment Society to give to needy kids. And, as recently as last fall, Herrmann was still knitting blankets to include in layettes they give to keep babies warm.
Elsie Herrmann’s achievements did not go unrecognized. She received several awards from the BHGC and was awarded a medal of merit in 2010 from the Garden Club of America. In 2017 she and Jeannette received the 20th annual Beacon Award for their significant contributions to the community during the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s 95th annual meeting.
Her many friends say Herrmann was always pleasant to work with. Making sandwiches for Pine Street Inn was almost as good for the volunteers as it was for the recipients, said Karen Cord Taylor. “Elsie made it a happy place. Her organization made the work fun, effortless and easy to do. We chatted with each other. It was as kind a gesture to the volunteers as it was to the people we served.” “When you know people like Elsie Herrmann, it adds something to your life,” said Taylor.