(Left to right) Truman Semans, Gwendolyn Alice Marie Johnson, and Jean Flah Silber.

Is 90 the new 70? When it comes to nine Baltimoreans over 90, it seems so. The nine people interviewed for this article contribute daily to a better Baltimore. Because each had so many commitments, it took months to schedule the interviews.

Ageism? These nonagenarians never consider it. They ignore assumptions about seniors. Most use smart phones and laptops. Half drive cars. They attend and run meetings in person and by Zoom. Some go to work each morning and travel for work. Their networks are huge. Their phones ring constantly. This stalwart group includes an architect, a jewelry designer, art and horticulture enthusiasts, philanthropists, educators as well as community, business, religious and nonprofit leaders. 

Their wisdom is deep, their attitudes humble, no matter their lifetime awards and achievements. All work hard to stay healthy and fully engaged, and Baltimore is better because of it. 

Below are the first three stories of the series. Be sure to come back Tuesday and Wednesday for Part Two and Part Three.

Truman Semans

D.O.B. October 27, 1926; Baltimore, MD

Education: Princeton, A.B. 

Washington College, Doctor of Public Service

Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1944 – 1946

Career, Present and Past:

Strong Deeds, Gentle Words, a biography of Truman Semans, describes him as the Yoda of Brown Advisory. The reference to the wise “Star Wars” character reflects the veneration of his colleagues and the many he has mentored in business and nonprofits, his two ongoing passions.

Today Semans serves as a senior advisor and sits on the sustainable investment advisory board. At age 96, he travels for the firm and works in its downtown office three times a week. He has been key to the expansion of this Baltimore company, which now has offices throughout the U.S. and the world. 

After a year at law school, Semans began his career in investment banking in 1951, starting as a registered representative at Robert Garrett & Sons. He rose to become its president and chairman before moving as a partner in 1974 to Alex. Brown & Sons. He became a managing director in 1979 and vice chairman in 1987. As mergers and acquisitions were happening throughout the industry, he helped envision and create the independently owned Brown Advisory.

Concurrent with his leadership in investment banking has been his leadership in environmental, educational, medical and historic nonprofits. From a childhood spent at his family’s farm in St. Mary’s County, Semans developed a passion for the outdoors, the water, land preservation and the environment.

In 2022 he donated to the Nature Conservancy in Virginia Hobby Horse Farm, the 600-acre, historic property in Bath County that he and his late wife, Nellie Merrick Semans, had owned since the 1960s. He continues to spend time with his two sons and their families there, a place he describes as “heaven on earth.” He is working to raise an endowment for the farm, which will create a hub for implementing climate-resilient conservation; for hosting scientists, students, legislators and environmental leaders, and to serve as a center to train fire crews. 

As one of the founders and earliest trustees of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Semans remains an honorary trustee. He’s trustee emeritus at Duke University, having chaired the investment committee, served on the executive committee and the board of the School of the Environment. He has also been a trustee at The Lawrenceville School, from which he graduated and where the squash courts bear his name. On the Eastern Shore is the new Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall at Washington College, which bestowed on him a 2019 doctor of pubic service degree for his work in environmental conservation. Other environmental boards on which Semans has served include The Conservation Fund, the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy in Virginia.

Active in the Catholic church, he has served on the boards of the Archdiocese of BaltimoreSt. Mary’s Seminary and Mercy Medical Center, where he was the first layperson to serve as chairman of its board and on whose investment committee he still sits. 

My father always said, “Live up to your ancestors, not off of them,” a motto that governs Semans’s deep community involvement. As a descendant of the old Maryland families of Carroll, Thomas and Ritchie, he has been involved in many commemorative events and organizations. In Yorkshire, England, his involvement is at Kiplin Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Baltimore and the Carroll family. He serves as a trustee of the Maryland Foundation for Kiplin Hall.

Key to longevity of engagement: “Good luck… I eat two eggs every morning.” Accompanied, rumor has it, by the occasional bacon and sausage. Semans also reads voraciously — fiction, biographies, history and every day The Financial TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post and The New York Times. He enjoys golf. “But my tennis and squash days are over…I have trouble with my knees.”  

Current challenge: Age! … My father said [when I was in the Navy]: “It’s wonderful that you made seaman first class, and I hope you are a first-class Seman.”

Gwendolyn Alice Marie Johnson

D.O.B.: January 9, 1924; Baltimore, Maryland

Education: Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School 

Career, Present and Past:

“I have a long history of community activism,” says this 98-year-old resident of FutureCare Sandtown in West Baltimore, who uses a wheelchair and still participates by phone at board meetings of Maryland Legal Aid. She has served 50 years on that board and only recently stepped down from a long tenure as its vice chair. “I have been able to help many low-income residents by telling them about Maryland Legal Aid,” she says.

While working at the Maryland Department of Health, she discovered Legal Aid. Johnson’s career in state government included visiting assisted living facilities and nursing homes as part of her work for the Department of Aging. “I reluctantly ‘retired’ at age 90 due to health reasons.”

Outside of work, Johnson served on the PTA of Southern High School and became its president. She took children from the community to baseball games at Memorial Stadium. By working with members of the Baltimore City Council, as well as former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, she became a valued community resource for helping young people find summer jobs.

“I also arranged bus transportation for low-income seniors to play bingo,” she says. “When William Donald Schaefer was Mayor of Baltimore, he asked me to start a program called Eating Together at the Cherry Hill Senior Center. It became a very successful program adopted by other senior centers.” Johnson ran this as a volunteer. She also volunteered at the Walter P. Carter Center in the 1960s and represented Cherry Hill on the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee for 20 years. 

Johnson’s activism can be traced to her foster family. After her biological mother moved to New York and could no longer care for her, Johnson became a foster child. “I had a great foster mother with two foster sisters and one brother,” she says. She and her siblings were taught to help people, especially those who had less. 

In her personal life, Johnson has emulated her foster mother. While she grew up on Chase Street in East Baltimore, she moved to Cherry Hill after high school to care for a foster sister who had become ill. And while she had one son, she adopted a friend’s four children after the friend died unexpectedly. Johnson now has five granddaughters and a great-grandson. “I am so proud of my family, and I feel that my activism made a positive difference in the lives of residents of Cherry Hill.” 

Now, instead of arranging transportation for seniors to play bingo, she enjoys playing herself whenever it’s offered, right where she lives.

Key to Longevity of Engagement: The drive to help others is part of who I am. I really am driven by the desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

Current Challenge: My biggest challenge is my impaired mobility, but I will continue to be involved on the board of Maryland Legal Aid and let others know about the services that Legal Aid can provide. 

Jean Flah Silber

DOB: March 29, 1932; Syracuse, NY

Education: Goucher College, B.A.

Career present and past:

“I have four square plots,” says Jean Silber of her garden at Roland Park Place. She has downsized from the renowned 10-acre Green Spring Valley garden, which she and her late husband Sidney created over 50 years. It became one of the finest in the Mid-Atlantic and a must-see for every garden tour, horticulture class and organization. “Do I miss it? Yes,” she says. “But I don’t miss the work,” says the hands-on gardener who dug, divided, planted and weeded beside her husband and their garden helpers every day, ten months a year.

After Sidney died in 2013, the property was divided and sold. Jean sold thousands of the plantings for the benefit of the Horticultural Society of Maryland. She gave thousands more to the gardens of Goucher CollegeCylburn ArboretumParks & People, and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), where she has been deeply involved since the 1950s.

During a brief career in the retail-training program at Hutzler’s, she married. While expecting the first of their three children, she took a course at the BMA. “That course to become a docent at the museum changed my life forever. I had never studied art history [she was a history major] and I never realized what I had been missing!” She continued as a docent for decades. “That’s when we collected our art library,” she says. She went on to become a trustee and today serves as an honorary trustee. 

Over time, the couple amassed a fine collection of American art, some of which is now in the collections of the BMA and Goucher College, where the Silber Art Gallery bears their name. Many pieces surround Silber daily in her spacious apartment. “I still study art,” she says. Much of the extensive art library is with her. “And I focus primarily on what I collect, American Cubism recently.” She also continues to expand her knowledge through the many programs offered by the Art Seminar Group.

And Baltimore City, where her husband grew up, remains a passion. She moved from the county to Roland Park to be close to organizations she enjoys. She serves as a founding member of the Jean and Sidney Silber donor-advised fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Baltimore City nonprofits benefit from her philanthropy, and she takes pleasure in visiting them annually.

Key to Longevity of Engagement: This lifelong learner says: “I can’t imagine how I lived without studying art. Now I can’t live without it. I also hope I live long enough to do all that I want to do. I try to do a little bit of traveling to see grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Current Challenge: Mobility. But I have a world-class driver, Joan Samuda, who has been helping me for ten years and is a great friend. We’re inseparable. We fly to and from Florida every year. We stay there together, cook, have fun and take classes.

3 replies on “9 Over 90: Part One”

  1. Please don’t miss Nona Porter who taught 1st grade ad Grace and Saint Peter’s for 50 years and is still active in the parish and the community. She remains independent and has recently joined a group who shoot pool weekly. Just a thought thanks, don’t want to publicly disclose her age of course but you and Greg know where to find me (or her). Steve Kaiser

  2. Jim Grieves
    Do you remember a late night rendezvous with the Watson sisters: Peggy and Betty in Central Park trying to elude my mom on my first night in
    NYC to study at Tobe Coburn???

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