by Jean Hemphill

There is a trail in Fairmount Park off Chestnut Hill Avenue that runs along a creek.  It has three huge old trees that fell almost at the same time a few years ago.  Their wide trunks have cut outs wide enough for the trail. I refer to it as the trail of the giants.  Those trees are irreplaceable (at least for the next century).

As I read the obituaries in the Chestnut Hill Local the last two weeks of Quita Horan, Ella Torrey, Jane Becker, Karl Spaeth and Howard Lesnick, I thought of that trail and those trees.  These folks were giants in our community and notwithstanding their busy professional lives and families, they all had time to devote to our community, and we are their beneficiaries.

With the exception of Ella Torrey, none died from Covid-19 causes; each led a long and full life, leaving a long list of professional, civic and family accomplishments and dying in their late 80s or 90s.  Reading their obituaries in the Chestnut Hill Local inspired me, in this time of self-isolation, to write this letter.  I had the privilege of getting to know them (all of my parents’ generation) because I belonged, and became active in, Chestnut Hill community efforts.

Quita Horan was our landlady and neighbor for 18 years and a fellow activist in the Chestnut Hill Community Association.  We lived right off Pastorius Park and soon after moving in, we found ourselves involved in the Community Association’s Pastorius Park concerts and at organizational meetings of a group that became known as Friends of Pastorius Park. Quita had a lovely, meek manner but resolutely supported the Community Association, the Friends of the Park, the Conservancy and numerous other civic groups formed to make our community strong and special. She had a gentle laugh and an abiding commitment to Chestnut Hill.  She was a true community treasure.

I first met Ella Torrey when she was retired and she and her husband lived on Highland Avenue. She was actively involved in CHCA initiatives.  Working by her side as co-volunteers in evening envelope-stuffing or other administrative activities, I slowly but surely heard her amazing stories of her professional endeavors (including working for Eleanor Roosevelt and the U.N.) and her volunteer work with the International Visitors Council and Friends of the Wissahickon. Ella was a spirited and independent woman who made almost any activity fun and interesting.

Jane Becker, with her husband Dick, were dedicated volunteers in Chestnut Hill, and particularly devoted to Teenagers, Inc., working with Marianne Dwyer to keep it going through thick and thin. 

Karl Spaeth and my father shared a love for the Wissahickon Skating Club and soccer, so I met him as a kid.  He too managed to give enormous time to Chestnut Hill Academy and many other nonprofit boards, notwithstanding his business career as a lawyer and his many other interests.  

Howard Lesnick, another prominent lawyer, devoted his talents to making justice more accessible and inspiring young lawyers to engage in public service. He also found time to be engaged in Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting and other Chestnut Hill activities.,.

Belonging to the Community Association, supporting the Chestnut Hill Local, and becoming engaged in our community’s activities is how I got to know these wonderful folks. We are the richer for their time and treasure.

These days, after my final Microsoft Teams meeting of the day, I take a long afternoon walk.  The Hill is exquisite this month. The spring greens, tulips and bursting bushes are energizing.  I appreciate more than ever the beauty of our community. I am also keenly aware, as I think about these great souls that have passed on, that it is a wonderful community, not only because of its beautiful houses (large and small) and their carefully tended gardens but because the people now hiding behind the walls of those homes and gardens are also incredibly special.  We have some big shoes to fill to keep it all going. 

Jean Hemphill is a lifelong Chestnut Hill resident, a Philadelphia lawyer, former president of the Chestnut Hill Community Fund board of trustees and a former director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association.

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