Elspeth Anne Banker Wheeler, a retired Baltimore City elementary school teacher, gardener and environmental advocate, died of lung cancer July 21 at her Roland Park home. She was 84.
Born Elspeth Anne Banker in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Paul J. Banker, a Sun and Evening Sun editor, and Alfretta Wilcox Banker, a music teacher and singer who had studied with tenor Enrico Caruso.
She was a 1947 Eastern High School graduate and earned a bachelor's degree at Goucher College. She remained an active alumna and was awarded the school's Dorothy Lamberton Clapp Award for "her exemplary level of leadership and dedication to the success of the alumnae and alumni fund" in 2001.
After raising her family, Mrs. Wheeler became a Baltimore City public school teacher, teaching for many years at the Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School in East Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"She loved teaching and she liked contributing to her students," said her son, Peter O. Wheeler of Alexandria, Va., a retired naval officer. "She left a positive mark on a lot of her students. They continued to seek her out after leaving the school. They would return to her classroom or she would see them on the street. They loved her."
After teaching for 22 years, she retired but returned to the classroom as a substitute teacher at Hampden Elementary School. She left the classroom again when she was 72.
She took a lively interest in Roland Park and its history. Friends said she fought to keep mansions along Roland Avenue residential in character when a developer proposed to turn a prominent mansion into an assisted-living complex.
"She clearly loved Roland Park," said David Tufaro, a friend and neighbor. "She had a personal strength and was a good community fighter."
Her son described his mother as an enthusiastic gardener.
"She had a modest backyard but it was always in bloom," he said. "She truly had a green thumb, more green than most people. She always advised, 'Talk to your plants.' And she did."
He said that while she lived in a Keswick Road row home, she managed to build a compost pile between garages in an alley.
"It was one of her prized possessions," said her daughter, Amy W. Wheeler of Barnet, Vt. "She invited people to look at her worms."
She joined in a community movement to clean up the Jones Falls watershed in Baltimore and became its chief stream steward and volunteer coordinator.
She climbed into the stream and on cleanup days helped retrieve discarded air conditioners and sofa beds with her neighbors.
"When I first started, I felt unsure of my footing. Now I hold on to saplings," she told a Baltimore Sun reporter in 1998.
Family members said she was fascinated by the night herons she observed in the Jones Falls Valley.
She also served on the Baltimore City Forestry Board, a group associated with the state's Department of Natural Resources.
"She had an interest in anything to help the city," said the forestry board's local chair, Sarah Lord. "And while she had an appreciation for trees and the greening of Baltimore, she wanted the children of Baltimore to learn about trees and why they are so important. Her years of teaching informed her that there are children in the city who know little about trees."
Mrs. Wheeler also belonged to Compassion and Choices and Women in Black, a peace advocacy group, and was a Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care volunteer.
Mrs. Wheeler played the piano — on her mother's baby grand Steinway — and was a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra subscriber. She performed alongside a friend who played the violin and accompanied her grandchildren in recitals. She also hosted an annual Dec. 23 Christmas party and played numerous carols as her family and guests sang. She was a member of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer's handbell choir.
No public funeral service is planned.
In addition to her son and daughter, survivors include another son, Michael S. Wheeler, and another daughter, Julia G. Wheeler, both of Baltimore; and five grandchildren.