By Dan Murphy
One day after Mother’s Day, Elsie Herrmann and her daughter Jeannette were jointly presented the 20th annual Beacon Award at the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s annual meeting while remaining characteristically humble about their “significant and sustained” contributions to the community.
“Why me?” Elsie pondered four days earlier from the kitchen of the Pinckney Street home where she raised Jeannette. “Lots of people have done lots of things for this community, but it’s been a pleasure to do whatever I could.”
Elsie, who turns 95 on July 1, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and moved to Hamburg Germany, before settling in Braintree at age 9. She later attended the now-defunct Vesper George School of Art in Boston and, during World War II, began her career as a draftsman at the Pneumatic Scale Corporation. After the war, she worked as a buyer for Jordan Marsh.
In 1955, Elsie married George Herrmann and moved to Pinckney Street. The couple relocated five years later to a more spacious home a few doors away after welcoming two children. Elsie participated in parent-volunteer-work and actively promoted the Window Box Contest in its early days while her children attended Beacon Hill Nursery School and the Advent School.
As a parishioner at King’s Chapel, Elsie served on many church committees, including the vestry. She organized a monthly dinner for 500 guests of the Pine Street Inn, handling duties from shopping and cooking to food delivery and service. Elsie also served as president of the boards of Bethany Union and the Fragment Society, and she recently retired from a long-term position on the board of the Lend a Hand Society.
On Beacon Hill, however, Elsie is perhaps best known for her work with the Beacon Hill Garden Club, including leading the civic garden projects for many years, tending to the community’s gardens at Faneuil House, the Codman Island and Old North Church and the window boxes in front of the Charles Street post office. “It gives me satisfaction to make the neighborhood look nice, and to plan the plantings so they look attractive all year round,” she said.
Molly Sherden, a member of the Beacon Award nominating committee and a fellow longtime member of the Garden Club, recalls the frequent sight of Elsie hauling huge bags of fertilizer to the community gardens. (“Use or lose it” is how Elsie describes her hands-on approach.) She describes Elsie as “dedicated” and “humble,” adding that she often shies away from accolades despite receiving national recognition from the Garden Club of America for civic planting.
“I’m delighted that Elsie and Jeannette were both chosen,” Sherden said.
As for Jeannette, she said she followed the philanthropic example set not only by Elsie, but also by her father George, who co-chaired the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Traffic and Parking Committee for many years alongside Peter Thomson, took hotline calls and helped with drop-in counseling for Project Place, and campaigned for Presidential-hopeful Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
“My parents were always active in the community so it just seemed like the most reasonable thing to do,” Jeannette said.
As a teenager, Jeannette‘s civic-mindedness led her to make pancakes for Boston peace breakfasts at the Charles Street Meetinghouse and to serve on the board of directors for Hill House, where she helped to organize dances and other programming and to secure funding for teen activities.
After some away from Boston, Jeannette, an economist by profession who designed financial instruments for the Chicago Board of Trade, developed advanced approaches to risk management in international markets and analyzed clinical and financial issues in health care, returned with her husband and eldest child, Caroline, to Beacon Hill in 1994. Their second child, Geoffrey, was born here two years later.
Jeannette soon became involved with the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Traffic and Parking Committee, and was eventually elected as president and then chair of the organization’s board of directors. Among the issues at the forefront during Jeannette’s tenure as board chair were negotiations with Suffolk University and the renovation of the 74 Joy Street community center. Since finishing her term, Jeannette continues to be engaged with the Civic Association in traffic and urban-planning issues, including the redevelopment of the Government Center Garage and Parcels 7 and 9.
“The Civic Association has worked for over 95 years to make the neighborhood a place where we all want to live, raise our kids and remain afterwards,” Jeannette said. “It’s sometimes hard for people to reach a consensus and move forward in a constructive way, but the Civic Association does a great job in scaffolding that process and promoting thoughtful change.”
Suzanne Besser, president of the Civic Association’s board of directors and a member of the Beacon Award nominating committee, said Jeannette’s “experience, thoughtfulness, impartiality and judgment have helped guide many a decision-making process that has benefitted the neighborhood and city.”
Besser describes Jeannette as a “very hard worker [who] rolled up her sleeves and dug right in” during stints as the Civic Association’s president and chair and even volunteered as executive director at a time when the organization sought to fill that position.
In addition to her terms on the Civic Association board, Jeannette served on the boards of the Beacon Hill Nursery School and the Friends of the Public Garden. She continues to serve on the board of the Fragment Society.
“Beacon Hill is fortunate to have families like the Herrmanns who contribute so much of their time and energy to keeping our neighborhood as great as it is,” Besser added.
Meanwhile, Jeannette now hopes to pass along the commitment to her community that she inherited from her parents to her own children.
“My parents modeled good behavior on the civic-engagement front, and I hope I model good civic engagement for our kids,” Jeannette said. “I think it’s terribly important that people get involved in their communities, both for themselves and for the long-term health of those communities.”